Dee Ford: A local radio star with an eye on the global market

The Business Interview: Bauer may have a regional focus, but its head is thinking big

Ian Burrell
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:24

Don't tell the combative Dee Ford that her Bauer Radio group is living in the shadow of the industry giant Global Radio. Within half an hour she will have you feeling sorry for Global chief executive Ashley Tabor and his vast commercial conglomerate, which includes the national network Classic FM, the national alliances of Heart and Capital stations and key radio brands such as Choice, Xfm and LBC.

With its 75 radio licences, Global's portfolio is infinitely thicker than any other in the sector, and yet Ms Ford – who presides over such stations as Magic and Kiss and influential city broadcasters Radio City in Liverpool and Radio Clyde in Glasgow – will claim that her organisation represents the sounder business model.

According to her analysis, more than half of Global's licences – 39 out of 75 – are in what she terms "tiddler" markets. It means Global has to sacrifice distinctiveness by broadcasting shared content. "When you have more than half of your radio assets in very small undemanded and high fixed-cost based areas you have got to do something to stem the losses they are making," she says. "Or they are draining all the profit away from your major and medium markets."

Bauer, she argues, has concentrated its forces in larger urban centres. It has 21 stations in "major" markets (the same as Global, by her arithmetic), and 13 of its other stations are in "medium" localities. These audiences, she says, demand premium and tailored content. "We would be very wrong to think about a strategy of sharing and cost-cutting."

This is the half of Ms Ford's strategy branded Bauer Place, the portion of the portfolio that stakes its reputation on the intimate relationships between stations and the cities in which they are based. Regional accents are a big plus. "Pete Price is Mr Liverpool!" says Ms Ford of one of the stars of the Radio City schedule. "People ring his show to break the story, he's a local hero. Pete Price has got a Scouse accent, he has lived his life in Liverpool, they love their own and he does a brilliant job for us."

Mr Price might be an effective broadcaster but it would be a mistake, says Ms Ford, to introduce his Scouse vowels to listeners in other parts of Britain. "It would be wholly wrong for us to think about implanting Pete into Newcastle or Leeds because he wouldn't resonate there. In Stockton [Teesside], Wayne Tunnicliffe at breakfast is more loved in that market than [BBC Radio 2 presenter] Chris Evans is or Terry Wogan was."

The other half of the stations is listed under Bauer Passion, because their calling card is deemed to be less about location and more about music or, like Heat radio, a passion for a celebrity and fashion-obsessed way of life. Other stations in the category include the urban music specialist Kiss and the heavy metal network Kerrang!

Ms Ford believes there is greater potential for extending some of Bauer Media's magazine brands into the audio space, such as developing the chatty women's title More! into a Friday and Saturday programme for the female-friendly radio network The Hits. Another women's title, Closer, has the potential to become a radio product, although an earlier attempt to bring this to reality was thwarted. "When ad revenues come back into growth and we can see there is a market to be had then Closer might be a really interesting format to make play again," she says. "We'd have to make sure it's distributed nationally because it is a national brand." Ms Ford has Ric Blaxill, former head of programmes of BBC 6 Music, looking at ways of further extending Bauer brands.

Some might consider it strange that Magic 105.4, known for its carefully planned and pre-programmed music mix, is listed in Bauer Place rather than Bauer Passion. But Ms Ford, who is based in Manchester, is adamant that it is a station deeply rooted in London and is horrified at the suggestion that Global has the upper hand in that city. Yes, Capital may have come out top in the last set of industry Rajar listening figures but it is Bauer, with its combination of housewife friendly Magic and youth-orientated Kiss that offers media agencies the best options for their advertising spend. "It's the market we want to be strongest in," she says. "London is really important because 65 per cent of our revenues are generated out of London advertising agencies."

Bauer relies on research from Harris Interactive to claim that listeners to its stations have a deeper relationship with its networks than those of rivals and find the advertising less intrusive and better targeted. Ms Ford says that she uses the findings from Harris Interactive's frequent questioning of 1,500 radio listeners to tweak the output of Bauer stations, refining the tone of presenters, the amount of commercial content and the music output.

Listeners in Liverpool, apparently, are hostile to Cheryl Cole and her music and less enamoured of indie bands than audiences up the road in Manchester. "When you are listening to a radio station you have to feel really comfortable with the mood of the room," she says. "Glasgow is quite a gritty market and the style of presentation on that station is very different from Edinburgh, a more cosmopolitan and softer city where the style of presentation and type of presenters are very different. They are 40 miles apart but 4 million miles apart in terms of cultural differences."

Two years ago Ms Ford was rebuffed in her attempts to acquire the key Birmingham commercial stations (later sold by Global to Orion Media) but she still covets them, recognising that the West Midlands is a sizeable missing piece in the Bauer Place jigsaw. No doubt Global would have a different analysis of the commercial radio market from Ms Ford, who was in London last week to explain her strategy to 180 advertising professionals.

Mike Williamson, head of radio at Carat, says: "Bauer have a very good offering in the key cities, especially in the North of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland – that's their main focus and they do it very well. What they have not got is a national proposition which is as strong as Global's and they are lacking in the South and in the Midlands." Global's Capital had shown how a national brand could attract big-name content and enjoy advantages that outweighed the appeal of sounding local.

Mr Williamson praises Bauer's commitment to digital radio and highlights the potential of multi-platform assets such as Heat but said other commercial operators such as TalkSport and Absolute had benefited from concentrating their efforts on a single brand. "When you have got dozens of stations there's sometimes a lack of focus," he said.

Such talk will not deter Dee Ford. She can't resist pointing out that her Bauer stations now have a combined audience of 13.4 million and, with that statistic, she punches the air.

Dee Ford

Bauer Media Group's managing director of radio grew up in Cheshire. She now oversees a portfolio of 42 radio networks.

Ms Ford began her career in media sales and joined Emap in 1994 as managing director of Preston's Rock FM. She later became Emap's radio MD and then group MD of Emap Performance. The business was acquired by the Bauer Media Group in 2008.

During her career she has undertaken a secondment to Polydor Music and attended Wharton Business School, Philadelphia, and Stanford University, California. She has a son and grandson and lives in Leeds, and is a passionate cook and gardener.

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