Global warning: time to wage war on BBC’s ‘Politburo’ radio

Richard Park, the mastermind of Britain’s biggest commercial radio group, tells Ian Burrell why he is furious with the BBC and why he is taking the Heart and Galaxy networks national to fight the corporation
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The Independent Online

From my seat on a nearby sofa, I can see those normally jovial breakfast show hosts Jamie Theakston and Harriet Scott emerging from Richard Park’s office, which is the commercial radio equivalent of the headmaster’s study. They look a little sheepish.

Park is the man leading the battle against the BBC’s domination of Britain’s airwaves, and he is a notoriously canny and hard-headed strategist. As director of programmes for Global Radio, he oversees the output of the national station Classic FM, and the near-national networks of Heart and Galaxy, not to mention such powerful radio brands as Capital, Xfm, Choice and Gold. This means he presides over more than 40 per cent of commercial radio content.

“There’s a recovery taking place in commercial radio,” he asserts in his soft Scots burr, acknowledging that the total UK radio audience has reached a record high, and that Global itself attracts more than 19 million listeners.

Yet he is far from a picture of unbridled joy. No, he says, commercial radio cannot now put aside its long-running complaint that the BBC has it over a barrel. “It isn’t a level playing field. We are running our entire 77 stations on a fraction of what it takes to run any of their national networks.” He accuses the BBC of the “sort of Politburo broadcasting we do not want”.

It is less than two years since Park and Global’s chief executive, Ashley Tabor, began commercial radio’s fightback against the BBC, and it is starting to take effect.

Park can be ruthless. Denise van Outen, who formerly presented Capital’s breakfast show with her old friend Johnny Vaughan, simply had to go. “I didn’t think they had a chemistry,” he says of the one-time broadcasting golden couple. “It was almost like reviving a boy band, only this one wasn’t like Take That, you know? My opinion was that she didn’t have the appetite for it, and figures suggest that the audience, for reasons best known to them, didn’t warm to it.”

Similarly Alex Zane, the madcap breakfast host at the London indie radio station Xfm, had reached his sell-by date, being replaced by the rock specialist Ian Camfield. “We eased back on the alternative comedy,” notes Park, somewhat disparagingly. “The moment had just passed. What Alex was doing you can’t keep doing forever.”

He likes to keep everything under constant review; hence the meeting with Theakston and Scott, whose show is to be relaunched today. He was not giving them a rollicking, he says, but rather some gentle encouragement. “It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with their performance, but I do feel that every show needs to be refreshed from time to time,” he says. “In my view we need to take it to the listeners more, we need more interaction with the audience. Social networking sites are where we are at now, so we want less setpieces and more invention.”

Such attention to detail was a feature of Park’s stewardship of Capital Radio during its heyday of the Eighties and Nineties, when Chris Tarrant was the king of London. Having moved to Emap he masterminded the computer-generated playlist that has allowed Magic to seize that mantle. “I set Magic up to be a tidal wave of music, that was entirely familiar,” he says. “No, it’s not unbeatable. Capital will be past it very shortly. I always invent winners. This is the winner’s circle. You can’t do modesty here. If you can’t give the Johnny Vaughans and Jamie Theakstons confidence, they’ll think you’re not up to it.”

Theakston is especially important, because Heart is central to Global’s attempt to take on the BBC. The brand has been rolled out across the country to 33 stations (Northants 96, for example, is now known as Heart 96.6FM Northants) and commands a combined audience of 7.48 million, giving it a national scale not previously available to advertisers.

Although Park is frustrated that Ofcom rules prevent Theakston and Scott’s London-based breakfast show being aired right across the Heart portfolio, it is still important in defining the brand as a “feelgood, fun station”. At other times in the schedule, national Heart presenters – such as the pop stars Jason Donovan and Emma Bunton – are able to operate. The Heart roll-out appears to have resonated with listeners, and audiences are up 11 per cent year-on-year.

The more fast-paced Galaxy brand, already strong in the Midlands and north of England, has been extended to new stations in Hampshire and Scotland, giving Global a further national proposition.

Cheekily, Park suggests that if big name BBC presenters began to regard the expanded network as a potential employer, he would not be interested. “We are unlikely to want them because Global prefers to grow its own. We are developing our own organic training systems here,” he says, referring to the new Global Academy, which is giving opportunities to 500 would-be radio stars.

Park likes his presenters to be “bright, intelligent, articulate” but also to have a sense of professionalism, which he says was “an unpopular word in radio for a while”. There was a fashionable philosophy that “the more you sounded like you’d come off the street and hadn’t done it before, the better it would probably be,” he recalls, adding pointedly: “That’s not a view that I share.”

Also pivotal in Global’s national strategy is The Big Top 40 Show, a direct challenge to the BBC Radio 1 Chart Show but with a radically different format that allows listeners to influence chart positions by downloading music from iTunes during the first two hours of the programme. Apart from making lots of money for Apple, the show is uniting the commercial sector, being also broadcast by stations owned by Bauer and Guardian Media Group.

Park points out that the downloading patterns can be dramatic, sending the La Roux track “In for the Kill” to number two from a position outside the top 40. Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” secured top position in this commercial chart, but “will never go down as an Official Charts Company/BBC number 1”.

Though he refuses to be defeatist about the strength of the BBC (“You can’t let that daunt you”), he is clearly angered by it. BBC presenter salaries are “outrageous”, he says. “There’s no question that they ate our lunch. Chris Tarrant was doing the Capital Breakfast Show and was massive, and [the BBC] wanted to get someone on that level – they didn’t want to carry on with a [former Radio 1 breakfast host] Mark Goodier”.

In particular, Park is irked that the Global group has been priced out of the sporting arena, especially when he had previously made Capital Gold a home of live football commentary. “Radio Five was partly born out of the success of Capital Gold’s sport in London,” he says. “[Commentator] Jonathan Pearce was the man and, I hate to say this word, but the BBC … they fucked us!”

Global’s London stations, he says, will be excluded by the BBC’s deal from broadcasting from the Olympic stadiums in 2012. “It feels horrendous to realise that we aren’t going to be able to commentate on the big races. So when Jessica Ennis hopefully wins the heptathlon we will have to catch up with her at a later date because the stadium aren’t prepared to give London stations a seat.”

But Richard Park is not the type to take this sort of thing lying down. “We need to fight back,” he says.