Why women found Viva such a turn-off

The London radio station run by and for women faces an uphill struggle to survive, argues Mary Braid
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The Independent Online
Six months after its launch as Britain's first radio station made by women for women, Viva 963AM is in crisis. The station's owner, Golden Rose Communications Ltd, has confirmed that Viva's operating budget had been cut, reportedly from pounds 350,000 to pounds 150,000, and that three presenters have been made redundant. The show presented by the flamboyant publicist Lynne Franks, Viva's chairperson and one of its founders, is among those axed.

It is just the latest bad news for the London station, launched amid much razzmatazz by Ms Franks and the broadcaster Katy Turner, with the backing of a formidable group of media women including Glenda Bailey, outgoing editor of Marie Claire magazine, Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, and Barbara Follett, prominent Labour Party luvvie and wife of the millionaire author Ken. In October it was revealed that Viva had managed to attract just 125,000 listeners, dislodging Greater London Radio from its position at the bottom of the capital's league of listeners. This weekend, industry insiders were suggesting that Viva must undergo an overhaul or die.

So why has the station, billed as the Marie Claire of the airwaves, come unstuck so badly so soon? Viva blames signalling problems in east and central London for most of its current difficulties. Insiders talk of poor management and listeners of weak programming. But Viva's troubles may rest in something far more fundamental: the rather doubtful premise that a women's station is at all in tune with where women are today or in keeping with the general cultural climate of the Nineties.

The original concept of the music-and-chat station would appear to have been a magazine format aimed at women aged 30 to 50. It was to be relatively up-market, pitching for the same audience as the highly successful and envied Marie Claire. In Britain, women's magazines sell millions. So why should the concept not be transferred to radio?

The most obvious difference is that unlike Marie Claire, Viva faces the near-impossible task of coming up with fresh angles on "women's stories" every day. In sheer volume terms, Marie Claire's content is a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed to keep Viva on the air. And women's magazines stand more chance than a daily radio programme would of successfully repeating (or repackaging) items without detection.

After a relatively promising first week, it was not long before Viva was degenerating into the boring and banal. Some cringe-making moments have already gone down in media folklore - such as presenter Tara Newley opening her first programme by interviewing Joan Collins, her own mother.

Women, it could be argued, are attracted to women's magazines because other publications fail to cater for their interests. It is certainly true that national newspapers - still editorially dominated by men, particularly at senior level - have a largely male feel. The alienation of women is acknowledged in the continued provision of pages specifically for them - despite these being criticised as ghettos, mere tokenism and outdated Seventies ideology.

London is the most competitive radio market in the country and its 18 local stations rely on niche ethnic and musical markets. The question is whether women feel strongly enough that other radio stations discriminate against them, or ignore them, to prompt them into switching to a "women's" station. And, more importantly, whether women form a sufficiently significant homogeneous group to make stations such as Viva a viable proposition. The bad news for Viva may be that radio generally - and certainly the BBC - has taken "feminisation" on board through recruitment and promotions policies and sheer self-awareness.

Viva's uncertain identity was evident at the start in the difference of opinion among its founding females and male executives about just how male listeners should be considered in the station's programming. The executives' belief that pleasing men was crucial was supported by pre-launch research showing that women tended to turn off the radio if male partners did not like what was on. In this post-feminist age, strident separatists were thin on the ground. Programmes that smacked too much of feminism or were perceived as anti-men were also seen by most women as a turn-off.

If the attitude of Joan Smith, feminist and writer, is shared by many, the station faces an uphill struggle to survive with any semblance of vision intact: "I have never listened to Viva or tried to find it and yet I am a woman who listens to radio all the time and is sympathetic to the notion of women getting a good deal. But despite all the advertising, I just can't get the concept. I don't understand what Viva is offering that I cannot already get on Radio 4. Anyway, I believe it is best to work within existing power structures. You have more chance of challenging things."

There are those like Julia Calo, sales director of Independent Radio Sales, which sells radio advertising, who believe that Viva was doomed from the start and that its problems are insoluble: "I and my sales team feel that a women's station is not an appropriate or intelligent concept. It is much too narrow and limiting. There are so many different types of women." Women, in short, form no meaningful single entity and cannot be reached or targeted.

If Viva pitched its appeal too crudely, then its salvation will lie in a much more subtle approach: making "people" the target audience but with women kept in the front of the mind, so that the overall tone appeals to females while not alienating males. But it is a fine line to tread.