Same name, new game

LBC is back on the air, or so London News Radio insists. But the reception is already less than perfect. By Meg Carter
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"London gets its voice back," say the ads, heralding the triumphant return of the commercial radio station LBC. Well, almost. In fact LBC's successor, London News Radio, re-launched yesterday, resurrecting its predecessor's famous brand name and much of its old on-air talent. But as cabbies across the capital heave a collective sigh of relief, there is the faint sound of distant thunder.

For LNR's move is a controversial one, challenged on all sides. "Unfair" cry shareholders of the old LBC, who are demanding an inquiry. "Unlawful" says Liberty, Harrods owner Mohamed al Fayed's media venture, which claims it now owns the LBC trademark. And as for the advertising industry, many question whether this "new" (or rather old) format will actually win any new listeners at all.

"Just what makes them believe the old LBC will work again?" scoffs one senior media-buying source. Ask LNR and the answer is simple: research. According to Steve Orchard, group programming director of the radio group GWR, one of LNR's backers, Londoners are still loyal to and instantly recognise the LBC name, even two years after the station's demise.

Branding is all the rage in the UK commercial radio market. Virgin Radio makes a virtue of it - consistent, of course, with everything Richard Branson does. But Chrysalis is also pushing its own brand, Heart, in a bid to win listeners in the cut-throat London market. Elsewhere in the country, there are a handful of "brands in the making," not least the Kiss format, owned by the media giant Emap and leased to local operators, most recently in Yorkshire.

"Bringing back LBC will bring immediate brand awareness, generate goodwill and encourage sampling," Orchard says. And boy, does LNR need it.

LNR is in fact two stations: London News 97.3 on the stereo FM frequency and London Newstalk 1152 on medium wave. Since its launch back in 1994, the broadcaster has been unable to establish a solid audience for either. In fact, it attracts fewer listeners than the old LBC. During the first quarter of this year, London Newstalk reached an average 469,000 adults a week. According to the radio listening survey Rajar, London News reached 417,000. In its heyday, LBC reached 2.4 million.

"It's fairly obvious they've got real problems - the AM and FM stations have been haemorrhaging audiences," a former LBC staffer observes. "Their listeners are a pretty solid core - the blue-rinse brigade who've been out there listening to LBC since its launch in October 1973." Hardly an encouraging diagnosis for a station that needs to attract listeners and advertisers in a radio market as competitive as London, where more than 28 stations vie for position.

Life was never easy for the old LBC, either. London Broadcasting Company was the first commercial radio service in the UK, and after a bumpy start achieved major success in the early Eighties. But by the early Nineties it was in dire straits, losing money and audiences hand over fist. Programme cuts and redundancies failed to halt the decline, resulting in some of radio's worst industrial relations. Wags quipped that LBC stood for "Losing Bundles of Cash".

In January 1993, LBC went into receivership. And despite the efforts of a most unlikely white knight - Dame Shirley Porter - LBC failed to renew its licence. Instead, the Radio Authority awarded it to a new outfit, London News Radio, backed by Guinness Mahon and headed by John Tusa, former head of the World Service.

LNR replaced LBC in 1994 after buying what was left of it from the receivers. The new broadcaster pledged to appeal to more upmarket listeners, predicting weekly audiences of 1.75 million. But it quickly attracted controversy when Guinness Mahon sold out to Reuters for pounds 10m just a few months before launch. Unsuccessful bidders (including those involved in the old LBC) attacked the Radio Authority for allowing the deal. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Reuters launched LNR in October 1994, but from day one response was unenthusiastic. "LNR failed initially because its production quality was so terrible - it just didn't deliver, at any level," says David Fletcher, director at the media-buying specialist CIA.

It was a further indication that Reuters' much-vaunted move into broadcasting - radio and TV - was poorly planned and even more poorly executed. Even Reuters insiders admit that the financial information giant didn't seem to understand the world of broadcasting.

Programmes were tweaked and managers reshuffled, but even the arrival of Simon Bates from Radio 1 was to no avail.

Rumours circulated that Reuters - whose track record outside its core newsgathering business is patchy, to say the least - was getting cold feet. It entered talks with other backers and eventually diluted its stake in February, with GWR acquiring a 31 per cent interest, ITN 29 per cent and The Daily Mail & General Trust 20 per cent. GWR took over day-to-day running of the talk and chat AM station; ITN took over the rolling news service on FM. At last, the station had some owners with real radio experience - not least in the form of GWR, one of the more successful of the regional operators.

Since then, ITN has successfully worked to improve London News 97.3. "It's sharper and more professional, although some of the tonal shifts between light and heavy stories jar," Fletcher observes.

Meanwhile, the AM services have stumbled on. "London Newstalk 1152 is a failed brand," Orchard readily admits. "The rump of the audience left after two years of steep decline, leaving the die-hards. Now we must build on this, attracting new and younger listeners."

So, LNR has now overhauled Newstalk's output, bringing to the fore many old names familiar from LBC days: Pete Murray, Robbie Vincent, Douglas Cameron, Fred Housego ... It has also restructured the schedule to give a Nineties spin on the tried-and-tested LBC formula - such as the introduction of a weekday evening agony slot with Donna Dawson and moving the pugnacious ex-Daily Mirror editor David Banks into the breakfast slot with Caroline Righton.

"We've already implemented changes to FM, making it sharper. Now it's time for AM to appeal to a broader and younger audience," says LNR non- executive chairman Ralph Bernard. "Our intention is to recapture the loyalty enjoyed by the old LBC by offering its best points plus something fresh."

Old hands such as the presenters Robbie Vincent and Pete Murray are confident it will work. "Reuters were very high-powered, but understood nothing about talk radio," Murray says. "They were ruthless and suffered the consequences - by taking out all the humanity they waved goodbye to the audience. This is an attempt to put that humanity back." Adds Vincent: "LBC was such a good brand it's a real shame it was ever changed - like turning Kelloggs into something else - it just didn't work."

But isn't the name change just a con? Talk Radio UK director of programmes, Jason Bryant, says there is little in the programming that's any different: "They've given LBC an unimaginative Nineties spin and I'm disappointed they've ended up with almost exactly what was on air last Friday." Another station source adds: "Add up the ages of Pete Murray and Benny Green and they come to 150, at least: hardly a recipe for younger listeners."

FIetcher is more optimistic. "The LBC brand name is still colossally strong and carries a lot of positive values, and the new format won't disappoint LBC fans." It is essential for LNR to define clearly its two stations as different brands, he adds. "One of the reasons LBC lost its licence was that too much of the programming on each station was the same."

Even so, the company has not yet ruled out using the LBC name for both its services, even if it intends to differentiate them clearly.

LNR cannot expect an easy ride. Its right to use the LBC name is already disputed by al Fayed, who unsuccessfuly attempted to buy LNR from Reuters last year. His media company, Liberty, has applied to register LBC as a trademark. A Liberty spokeswoman confirms: "We intend to pursue this application and then seek retrospective damages from LNR."

Just how Liberty plans to use the name remains unclear. However, sources suggest it could be to repackage the women's radio station Viva!, which it bought in April. "It's essential for LNR to establish LBC before al Fayed relaunches Viva!, one rival station chief observes. "Because being al Fayed, he'll spend enough money to get it right." Liberty would doubtless be a significant competitor. Al Fayed has made it abundantly clear that he intends to be a player in the media sector, whatever it takes.


October 1973 LBC launches as the UK's first commercial radio station, days ahead of Capital Radio

February 1975 A bumpy start ensues: union trouble takes LBC off air five times in three months

June 1978 LBC is relaunched and unions once more go on strike - management plays music

1982 Finally, LBC was on a roll, with climbing audiences and critical acclaim

1986 Rapid growth attracts New Zealander David Hayes who, along with LBC chairman Sir Christopher Chataway, takes the station public through a merger with Crown TV Productions

1989 New legislation enables radio stations to broadcast different services on AM and FM for the first time. LBC unsuccessfully relaunched as LBC Newstalk 97.3 FM and LBC Talkback on AM.

1990 Rising costs, falling revenue and slipping audiences prompt drastic measures: stringent budget cuts and redundancies. Both services are "slimmed down".

January 1993 Recievers called in. A consortium led by Dame Shirley Porter's son comes to the rescue. Lady Porter becomes chairman.

September 1993 LBC loses the licence to LNR, which is due to take over in October 1994

March 1993 LBC goes into receivership but carries on broadcasting with listeners unaware: "We didn't think we needed to bother them", an executive observes

April 1994 LNR buys LBC

May 1994 Reuters buys LNR

October 1994 LNR launches on air

August 1995 Rumours Reuters eager to pull out

February 1996 GWR, ITN and The Daily Mail & General Trust buy the majority of Reuters' stake in the company

1 July 1996

LNR relaunches London News Talk as LBC 1152