An Absolute fiasco? No, Christian marches on

Christian O’Connell, the breakfast show host at the station formerly known as Virgin, tells Ian Burrell why a change of plan will see people tuning in again
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The biggest rebrand in the recent history of British commercial radio has not, insists star presenter Christian O'Connell, been an Absolute disaster. The network formerly known as Virgin Radio has lost half a million listeners, one-fifth of its audience, since it changed its name in September.

The switch to Absolute, which followed the station's sale to the Times of India media group in a £53.2m deal, has also prompted a writ from the vodka company of (give or take a letter) the same name, an action which is ongoing. O'Connell is relaxed about it all. "Yes, it's going well, I've got a big bonus and a £750,000 pension for life," he banters. "To be fair, [management] predicted this from day one. They actually predicted it would go down by more, so there was no feeling of 'oh my gosh'."

The breakfast-show presenter was even taken along by his bosses to meetings with advertising agencies, aimed at convincing the station's commercial supporters that the venture was not in meltdown. "It's being honest," he says. "They bought into the story that we are 14 weeks old and starting out from scratch; it's not just a rebrand – it's almost like a relaunch."

For O'Connell, it's almost like a rebirth, in spite of the fact that he still broadcasts from the same building in London's Golden Square that has been his workplace since he left Xfm for Virgin more than three years ago.

Clearly he had become deeply unhappy under the old regime. "Things did get pretty bad," he says. "There wasn't a lot of morale in the building in the last year or so of Virgin Radio. I was getting very frustrated, not getting any support and I was, to be really honest, looking to leave. I was having conversations with other commercial stations and the BBC."

He is scathing about the network's previous management teams. "I think it hadn't been very well looked after by various owners. Scottish Media Group didn't really invest in it, didn't really know what they had on their hands. There were a lot of dull grey suits and corporate kiss-arses."

O'Connell didn't care for the music policy, either. "This time last year, we weren't even allowed to play Kings of Leon at breakfast, and they're a massive band – my dad bloody likes Kings of Leon. Terry Wogan would play Kings of Leon; it's embarrassing – I was being outrocked by Wogan."

Absolute, particularly chief operating officer Clive Dickens, has encouraged O'Connell to get his "mojo" back and rediscover the formula that has won him five Sony Gold Awards. "We can do a lot more, and they're letting us take as many risks as at Xfm, which is pretty rare when you are on a big and mainstream station," says the presenter.

O'Connell, who is still buzzing at having had Bono and The Edge on his show, cites as an example of his liberated role the chance that he recently had to make a radio documentary piece based on a flight to Munich on Coldplay's private aircraft in the company of the band and a couple of Absolute competition winners. "We saw the gig, got on the plane with the band right after the gig, had full access. Rather than just doing a package for breakfast, I took a little Dictaphone everywhere and we made an hour-long documentary. It's only the BBC that normally does that."

As for the music policy, he has brought on board his mother, a nurse in a geriatric ward at a Winchester hospital. "My mum is heavily into new music. She rang me up once about MGMT, she'd seen them on Jools Holland. Now they're a big band but my mum was there before anybody else. We have an open meeting every week, and mum is coming in next time to join the playlist meeting."

He is in the midst of discussing Absolute's television rebranding campaign (it featured a hard-rocking dwarf, which was not O'Connell's idea – though "it sounds like one of mine"), when a fire alarm goes off and he is forced out into the street, shouting "Save yourselves!" Scare over, the staff head back into reception, where the Absolute logo is less obvious than a row of electric guitars signed by selected bands including Kaiser Chiefs, The Fratellis and The Feeling.

A lot may have changed at Golden Square but O'Connell has retained some of the most popular features of his Virgin show, including the celebrity phone-in competition Who's Calling Christian? (which won him his last Sony) and One Last Dream, where school rock bands are reunited in middle age. A space outside the studio, known as The Zoo, remains a fixture, being recently converted by O'Connell into a racetrack for unusually active toddlers. He brought in horse-racing pundit John McCririck to oversee proceedings. "It was great, because he's a racing commentator but he made all the kids cry because he's a huge, shouty man with whiskers and a deerstalker hat."

O'Connell, 35, now has young children of his own (his four-year-old daughter recently reprimanded him for falsely claiming to listeners that he sewed the name tags into her school clothes) and is grateful that Absolute has defined his target audience at males of 35 and over. Virgin Radio, which he says became obsessed with the success of Magic, with its tight music policy and female-skewed audience, was far less masculine. "We are going to target men. For a long time, that had been a word no one had said, because most commercial stations target women. Some of our best callers are women; I wouldn't want to exclude them, because I'm not that kind of ultra-lad presenter, but it is nice having a rough idea of who we are heading for."

He admits, though, that targeting listeners and getting them to tune in is not the same thing. "The opportunity for Absolute Radio is that there are an awful lot of people who don't know what Absolute Radio is," he says. "There were a lot of people that drifted off from Virgin Radio because they got fed up with the monotonous, repetitive music from quite a bland music station. We're trying to get them back – and that's the challenge."