Radio: Viva Las Virgin

Breakfast is champion as DJs Pete and Geoff head to Nevada to celebrate Virgin riding high, says Mira Katbamna
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The Independent Online

Dressed in cassocks and standing behind the lectern at the Forever Grand Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, the Virgin Radio breakfast hosts, Pete and Geoff, are about to marry two Virgin listeners with the aid of powers vested in them by the State of Nevada. Broadcasting live from the chapel and the lobby at the MGM Grand hotel, Pete and Geoff are in Vegas to support the launch of bmi's new routes to the US - and to celebrate overcoming an unholy trinity of Chris Evans, crippling listening figures in 2003 and rumours that owners SMG (who also own Scottish TV, Grampian, Pearl & Dean and Primesight) want to put the station up for sale.

Richard Branson launched the UK's first national commercial pop station in 1993 on FM in London and AM nationwide. Designed to appeal to discerning thirty-somethings, the station initially enjoyed moderate popularity with its playlist of rock classics and a smattering of new music. That all changed with the arrival of Chris Evans and Ginger Media. Declaring that he loved the station so much he had to own it, Evans bought Virgin from Branson in 1997, took over the breakfast show, played whatever took his fancy and sat back as audience figures went though the roof.

Unfortunately it didn't last. In 2001 Evans sold his majority holding to the media conglomerate SMG and promptly took arguably the most public sickie in broadcasting history, when he spent a week in the pub instead of turning up for his show. He then proceeded to drag SMG and its chief executive John Pearson through the courts. The case was finally settled in SMG's favour last year with the judge declaring Evans "petulant and given to sulking".

Virgin Radio's communications director Simon Horne is frank about the impact Evans's departure had on the station. "Chris can command front pages in a way no one else can," he says. "That was great for us, but when your breakfast presenter is bigger than your station, you're going to wake up with a hangover."

The man landed with that hangover was programme director Paul Jackson. As well as fighting a court case, he also had to find a replacement for one of the biggest names in radio - having only taken up his position at Virgin a few days before Evans's strike. "It was a really hard decision because any name you bring in to replace Chris Evans is never going to be as big as him," says Jackson. The station parachuted in Steve Penk from Capital, but soon replaced him with Daryl Denham (who was also soon replaced). "Ultimately Penk didn't suit us and we didn't suit him," says Jackson The truth of it was that he plays records for housewives, which just isn't us."

Virgin might espouse the virtues of a rock'n'roll lifestyle, but the key to its recovery has been stability and a rejuvenated breakfast show. Lee Roberts, the first sales executive Branson recruited and now Virgin's sales director, sees the Evans period as a blip in an otherwise consistent offering. "I think there was always a bit of a Faustian pact with Chris - when he was good he was very, very good and when he was bad it was awful. Chris's presence here as an owner did cause some corrosion - we needed predictability."

Under Jackson's command, the station has recruited new talent like Kelly and Ben Jones, and hired old but trusty presenters like Neil Francis. But at the heart of Jackson's back-to-basics Virgin is the music, and the Pete and Geoff Breakfast Show. "I don't know a radio station with sensational audience figures that doesn't have a good breakfast show," says Jackson. "It's particularly important at Virgin - we can't just give away £100,000 to listeners who 'guess the sound' like Capital can - our punters don't respond to that kind of thing."

At first glance, Pete Mitchell and Geoff Lloyd are not obvious candidates for the top slot. Mitchell, the show's straight man, started on Manchester's Piccadilly Radio in the 1980s, while Lloyd has written for TFI Friday, Comic Relief and the sell-out Cakes and Ale show at the Edinburgh Fringe. With regular doses of political satire (anti-Bush games were a routine part of their banter before the US election) mixed with pub humour, the pair are like a cross between Rory Bremner and Chris Moyles - and therefore unusual in what is mostly a cheerfully anodyne slot for commercial radio. Roberts describes them as "a little bit trendy lefty", but despite his concern at this says that he thinks it works. "They draw you in - they are very funny and they actually require a bit of an IQ, unlike other stations."

The second part of Jackson's strategy has been to enforce a strict policy of "credible music" - rock classics like The Rolling Stones and David Bowie interspersed with guitar-led bands like Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol. Listeners are no longer subjected to manufactured pop, and as Roberts observes: "The musical pendulum has shifted back to rock music, and that is what Virgin has always been about." The decline of dance music and rise of the band has meant that Virgin finds itself newly fashionable, able to appeal to teenagers and twenty-somethings as well as the crucial heavy-listening, advertiser-friendly 30- to 45-year-olds.

Although Jackson's strategy seems to be working, Virgin is still facing some large hurdles, not least that the station broadcasts on an AM frequency that Simon Horne admits is "crackly and a pain in the arse" and Jackson says is like "watching football in black and white". Jackson sees the internet and digital radio as the way out, and the figures back him up. According to Arbitron (the US counterpart to RAJAR) Virgin is the internet's most listened-to radio station, and has held the top spot for over five years. Nationwide, Virgin's share of digital listeners is six per cent, compared to a three per cent share of the analogue audience - impressive in a crowded marketplace.

In fact, despite disappointing RAJAR results for Q3 of 2004, Jackson believes it is success that has fuelled speculation about Virgin's future. As well as categorically denying that SMG want to sell Virgin (and groaning "Bonkers! Bonkers!" at the suggestion Evans's agent is putting together a conglomerate to buy the station back), Jackson says that the next year will be spent trying to increase awareness of what Virgin is all about. "I think there's a big disparity between what we are and what people think we are. Our music is different from everyone elses, and now we have consolidated that, we can say: 'Listen - you might like it. It's better than you think'."

Back in Vegas, Pete and Geoff, still in cassocks, are spreading the Virgin word to a crowd of bemused gamblers, and a by-now drunken wedding party. Broadcasting a live breakfast show to London means being on air from 10pm to 2am local time, but despite the hour, Geoff is enjoying it. "I think the most important thing about radio is atmosphere. It's something that experts and focus groups can't tell you, but it's still the thing that people latch on to. Being in Vegas is great because despite the madness and the fact that it is so over the top, there's also nowhere else like it on earth. You can't fake that."