Media: Virgin flies the flag on the airwaves: Richard Branson's new station looks set to stir things up in radio, says Martin Wroe

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The Independent Online
RICHARD SKINNER is convinced his former employers are running scared of his new ones. So much so that the ex-BBC Radio 1 disc jockey and GLR presenter, now working towards the launch of Virgin 1215 at the end of this month, says he would not be surprised to hear 10-minute tracks by Genesis on daytime Radio 1 after 30 April.

It sounds an unlikely departure for a radio station that tends to stick to three-minute musical sound-bites, but Mr Skinner is convinced Radio 1 might try such tactics to compete with a station that is promising the kind of adult album rock that Britain's thirty and fortysomethings have only dreamt of until now.

Virgin 1215 will be the second of three proposed national commercial radio stations, licensed by the Radio Authority, to go on air. The first, Classic FM, has built up a loyal audience since its launch last year.

Mr Skinner, joint programme director with John Revell at the Soho headquarters of Richard Branson's new station, happily confesses to being out of touch with the current singles charts. It is an admission likely to find favour with the 24 to 44-year- olds that Virgin 1215 is targeting - listeners seen as too old for the pop of Radio 1 and ILR's FM stations and too young for BBC Radio 2.

But Mr Revell would hate people to think they have to fall within certain age limits to enjoy Virgin 1215 and has words of comfort for the fiftysomethings who appreciated Hendrix in the late Sixties: 'If you liked Jimi Hendrix then, you'll like him now and you may also find that you like Nirvana,' he says. 'And if you're a 20-year-old Pearl Jam fan you might just discover Neil Young isn't bad either.'

But if Virgin 1215 reaches only its target audience, it will have struck it rich. Advertisers badly want such listeners and a successful national rock station would provide them on tap and en masse without the need to buy into stations around the country.

John Pearson, the sales director, is promising advertisers four million listeners a week - and confidence appears to be high among agencies. Advertisers such as Perrier and Hewlett- Packard have been tempted on to radio for the first time; Carling Black Label is returning on Virgin 1215 after years away.

As well as the incalculable benefits that the Virgin name will bring, the station has taken on the omnipresent Chris Evans, who made his name with Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, which he presents. Mr Evans will be taking with him his successful Saturday morning 'zoo-radio' format from GLR (Greater London Radio).

He is just one evacuee from GLR, a station that has been haemorrhaging talent to Virgin 1215 in the wake of the Birtian edict aimed at increasing speech-output and reducing music coverage. Mr Skinner came from GLR, as did weekday presenter Tommy Vance, weekend night show host Kevin Greening and two senior producers. Mr Revell helped to launch GLR.

Mr Skinner and Mr Revell have selected the 2,000 songs that form the basis of Virgin 1215's playlist, and are unlikely to approve the sample charts on this page. Mr Skinner says: 'You can't define a radio station in 10 songs.' But it helps a little, especially when the station is offering the first national head-to-head competition to Radio 1, which attracts more than twice the number of listeners as BBC Radio 4.

Radio 1, says Mr Skinner, has become more rock-orientated since Virgin announced its programming plans. The trouble is, he argues, it remains neither one thing nor another: 'If you listen to Radio 1 on a Sunday evening you get about five different stations on one frequency, from chart music to dance music and student music. Virgin will be much more concise and consistent with a stronger identity.'

Radio 1 refutes the charge that it lacks identity and cites its breadth of coverage as a virtue rather than a weakness. Next week it will launch a range of speech-based evening shows covering arts, comedy and religion.

'We've had competition ever since ILR began 18 years ago,' says Johnny Beerling, the station controller. 'People like their pop music without the commercial breaks and they like the big name presenters that we have.'

He accepts that Virgin 1215 will take some of his older listeners, but has no doubt that Radio 1 will retain the vast majority of listeners.

'The risk with narrow-casting (targeting a particular audience within a certain age range) is that you do not challenge the audience, you play safe . . . Our listeners don't want blandness, they want to be stimulated.'

Other voices at Radio 1 are sceptical that anyone - least of all CD-buying 'adult' rock music connoisseurs - wants to listen to music on unfashionable old medium-wave with its mono sound, when most listeners are now tuning in to stereophonic

FM.

Nonsense, responds Jane O'Hara, radio specialist at the Association of Media Independents, who says that the Irish commercial rock station Atlantic 252 - which attracts four million UK listeners - has proved such fears groundless. 'A lot of people like me said that Atlantic stood little chance because it is on long-wave and people don't tune to long-wave. But we were proved wrong.'

She predicts that the station's name will get it off to a flying start. Some are so confident it cannot fail that they are predicting that radio will finally start to improve on its dismal 2 per cent share of all British advertising revenue.

'It will be a struggle,' admits Ken New, vice-chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers, whose client Labatts is spending pounds 750,000 to sponsor Virgin 1215's album chart show. 'It will be difficult because other media are increasingly competitive but it must be the case that Virgin 1215 could finally make it happen.'

The nightmare scenario for independent radio would be for Virgin to take advertising away from the ILR stations, robbing the local Peter to pay the national Paul. But the new advertisers on Virgin bode well and Mr New makes a final prescient observation.

'Virgin 1215 is arguably the single biggest commercial for Virgin itself as far more people will come into contact with the Virgin culture through the radio station than, say, on the airlines. Richard Branson cannot and will not allow it to fail. The risk to the reputation of Virgin would be very damaging.'

What you will hear

on Virgin 1215

Dire Straits

Queen

REM

Nirvana

U2

David Bowie

The Kinks

Eric Clapton

Bob Marley

Rolling Stones

What you will not hear

on Virgin 1215

Jason Donovan

Kylie Minogue

Take That

Ice T

Demis Roussos

Anthrax

Skrewdriver

NWA

Rolf Harris

New Kids on the Block

(Photograph omitted)

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