Chris Evans Leaves Radio 2 for Virgin Radio

Chris Evans announced he was leaving Europe’s biggest breakfast show at 8.15am, and by 10am NewsCorp’s the Wireless Group had announced that he was taking over the Virgin Radio breakfast show.

To say this is a coup for Virgin Radio would be a massive understatement. There is absolutely no reason for Evans to take a job on a digital-only station that’s currently only reaching around 400k listeners when his current show reaches nearly 10million. He’s already a rich man and scoops over £1m a year for the Radio 2 breakfast show. Talking to people at Radio 2 it seemed there was a worry that he was getting a bit bored (a recurring Evans trope) but there was no desire for him to leave.

On deciding to move, he would have had the pick of any radio station in the country. Especially as we approach a point where the big groups can network breakfast, there would have been no one to turn him down.

Chris, though, has always been a master of reinvention, grasping the media narrative and doing the unexpected. And surely there’s nothing more front page worthy than a seeking ‘return’ to Virgin Radio.

For younger readers, the 90s and early 00s saw a tsunami of stories as Chris abandoned the Radio 1 Breakfast show for not giving him Fridays off, decamped to Virgin Radio for a ten week contract, stuck around by buying the radio station, parlayed that into a £225m sale to SMG, fell out with SMG, quit the show and was sued by them and pretty much lost all the money. Rehabilitated by Radio 2 he eventually took on the breakfast show, grew Wogan’s audience and helped the station get its highest ever ratings.

So returning to Virgin has a very much unfinished business feeling about it. The station itself was rebranded to Absolute Radio ten years ago, but the brand was re-licenced by the Wireless Group three years ago when they won the 2nd national multiplex.

It’s ownership by NewsCorp is probably central to Evans’s return. Chris’s tabloid heyday meant that I’m sure he’s always had a relationship with Rebecca and co. Additionally NewsCorp’s ambitions in radio are aggressive. Currently trailing behind Global and Bauer in a far off third place and with very few stations of scale left to buy, a strategy to grow the national digital stations is the right one, and who best to achieve that than the biggest presenter in the country.

For Chris though, what a gamble, a challenge that is very Evans-esque. Can you take a, to many, unheard of radio station and push it to the top of the charts? In some ways there’s already been a dry-run of this with Chris Moyles helming the launch of Radio X. It’s been a success for Global, though a slower one than many at Leicester Square hoped and also one that only happened three years after he left Radio 1.

I’m sure Chris’s appearance on Virgin won’t be be taking that long.

New BBC Local Radio Evening Shows

Radio Today is starting to list the new shows that local BBC radio stations are launching at 7pm to replace their previously networked programmes.

It stems from a speech last year from BBC Director General Tony Hall where he said:

“Local Radio should be for everybody. It’s there to serve the Facebook generation every bit as much as the rest of us. My ambition for BBC Local Radio is for it to have more creative freedom, to celebrate local life, to be the place where we report local news but also the place we reflect local identity, nurture local talent and engage local audiences through digital platforms. I want to see a renaissance in Local Radio.”

It’s a great sentiment but it, and the announced shows, demonstrate the inherent conflict between building successful radio stations and delivering public purposes.

Let’s look at BBC WM’s new shows

BBC WM 95.6 has a different show each night on offer.

Samantha Meah, back on-air at the station after 20 years will host a Monday Night Party, and chatting about how it feels to be 50 in Birmingham and the Black Country.

DJ Vital, the grime, rap, and dancehall specialist from Wolverhampton, is launching his Tuesday evening show tonight (28th August), with arts and entertainment features.

Wednesday and Thursday evenings now play to the sound of Sasha Simone, The Voice finalist and former Brummie and bricky. WM says Sasha will tackle the issues that young people are facing and brings her own selection of music to the station.

The new schedule also sees BBC WM producer Lisa Smith debut her new Friday night music show, Lady Lisa’s Kitchen Disco, featuring the biggest songs from the seventies, eighties and nineties ‘to make a quiet night in feel like a big night out’.

At the moment 66% of WM’s audience at 7pm is over 55. I’m sure they’ll enjoy the new show on the Monday. I think Tuesday will perhaps be tough going. Rap and Dancehall fans will probably not entirely be on board with a speech show around young issues on Weds and Thurs, and those teenagers are unlikely to be into club classics on a Friday.

Across the whole station, 76% of WM’s audience is over 45 (and 59% is over 55). Over time their programming and brand values has led to local listeners understanding what it does. The closest thing they have to a youth programme – BBC Introducing on Saturday nights at 8pm to 10pm – already has no listeners under 45. Young people do not see BBC WM as a home for their ears.

Indeed, younger audiences on the whole, are not the appointment to listen generation. Their media consumption is driven by easy to understand branded environments – using channel choice as a tap to deliver something specific or a la carte on-demand consumption through services like Netflix, podcasts and Spotify.

It’s a similar story for ethnic groups and specialist music fans. A single show a week on a station that’s built no brand association with a topic has an almost zero chance of any ratings success. And when I talk about ratings, in this context I’m talking about something that demonstrates a target audience is consuming the programmes made for them.

The only thing that give these programmes any chance of success is through above the line marketing. Advertising the shows to existing listeners isn’t particularly helpful because as we know (for WM)  it’s predominantly 45+ (and 84% white). Promos after the local TV opt-outs is also not particularly helpful as TV and local news has an older average audience. So to tell people that these exist they’ll need to be investment in outdoor, direct mail, digital etc.

Now do I believe that the BBC should be creating local programmes for diverse audiences and should they be catering for a broad selection of local licence fee payers – including those under 45? Yes, absolutely – the problem is that the existing local radio station is not an effective delivery mechanism for this. Indeed it’s probably counter-productive as existing listeners will find their station is less relevant for them and it will promote the sampling of other stations.

It’s also not as if the BBC hasn’t realised ghettoising programmes on networks doesn’t work. Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra ran children’s programmes on those channels. What was the result? No children listened and it interrupted the flow for the regular listeners. They knew there was public value in kids shows, but hoping this audience would magically find and turn up for them was naive. The shows were axed and they now provide an online channel in the form of Cbeebies Radio.

So in a modern media environment what should the BBC do to launch programmes for broader demographics?

Firstly they need to establish a local brand and products that they can use to communicate to different audiences. They also need to integrate this into the BBC’s existing output.

Firstly I would re-imagine bbc.co.uk/derby or similar as a true local aggregation of content and information for broad audiences. At the moment it’s very local news-driven, instead it should be a bit more love of local life. It should be picking up a local band who’s performing on the BBC Introducing stage at Reading, referencing that a local stately home is hosting the Antiques Roadshow and featuring interviews with big names from the local area. It should be a digital product that can then highlight local content across all of the BBC’s output.

I also wouldn’t limit this to BBC platforms. A Derby YouTube page, Twitter and Facebook should exist, reaching the audiences where they are, and not being limited to local news and instead tuned to the demographics of each of those platforms. The BBC is perfectly placed to launch a local podcast for each area, again reaching out to people who have an interest in their area.

Secondly, new shows can’t just be one three-hour programme on the radio. If you’re trying to launch output that reaches particular communities, randomly choosing a single platform – the radio – to reach them is basically a gamble. Once again these shows should be mini-brands in all of the relevant places. The content should be platform agnostic. If your response to that is that we haven’t got the resources to do it – THEN YOU SHOULDN’T BE LAUNCHING THEM ANYWAY!

Thirdly, these shows should be able to be promoted programmatically throughout the rest of the BBC’s digital output. It would clearly be a non-starter to promote a local show nationally after Eastenders, but promoting the WM Asian show as a pre-roll to logged in Asian audiences in the West Midlands before catching up on Eastenders in iPlayer? A much better option.

Similarly all of the BBC’s digital output should be designed so local content can be traffic’d to reach the right audiences.

Fourthly, if you want local radio to reach new audiences, don’t mess up your existing channel, launch a new one. Spin offs, be it Absolute80s or 1Xtra have demonstrable success. With DAB, local Freeview and online there would be decent enough distribution to reach local audiences. Modern production techniques, voice tracking, re-using material and introducing new voices, all made by existing local radio production staff is entirely deliverable today.

A new channel would also be easier to promote to new people without complicating the existing, successful brands.

Launching a wave of one-off shows on local radio as a way of trying to grow reach and deliver to new audiences is based on outdated thinking about how modern audiences consume media. More crucially its a waste of the time and effort that all the teams will be putting into their content. If the BBC truly wants to reach new, local audiences, it’s got to think about platforms, marketing and the right content not just shoving 60-odd new shows on the radio, one day a week, at 7pm.