Media Headliner: Is radio's iron man tough enough to lead Global?

A challenging task awaits Phil Riley, the Chrysalis chief executive, following its takeover by Global Radio.

From an ad industry perspective, there are a number of pleasing aspects to Global Radio's proposed £170 million takeover of Chrysalis Radio. For a start, it involves private equity. There's a growing consensus that plc ownership - and all the short-term revenue generating demands this implies - has not been at all good for the medium during the continuing radio ad market downturn.

Global's backers include John Magnier, the owner of Coolmore Stud in Tipperary, plus his business associates JP McManus and Dermot Desmond. A fourth Irishman, Denis Brosnan, the chairman of the Swiss-based private equity group Lydian Capital Partners, is also an investor.

And, yes, the Coolmore set are gamblers - but (if such a thing exists) they are the right sort of gamblers. They're inspired, ambitious, hate losing and have deep pockets.

Then there's the Charles Allen angle. The former ITV chief executive is fronting the bid, a fact that, many observers say, speaks volumes about Global's ambitions. And Allen knows a thing or two about meeting (or trying his best to meet) the demands of the advertising market.

But perhaps most pleasing of all, in some agency quarters, is the fact that Global's bid, should it be approved by Chrysalis investors, will actually represent continuity in management terms - because it locks in the current management team, headed by the chief executive, Phil Riley. He deserves a break, they say, given the near-miracles he has worked to keep the group's main on-air brands - Heart, Galaxy and LBC Radio - punching above their weight against all odds.

What can he achieve when he is actually given some backing? Unfortunately, Riley can't go into this at length, having been debarred from detailed speculation until the deal is officially ratified by Chrysalis shareholders. But he will say this: "As far as the brands are concerned, it's great news because we are being backed by owners who support the idea of a brand-led radio group."

Riley's ability (and cheerful willingness) to graft has won him many admirers in the business, and he's given extra credibility points for the fact that he used to be a presenter on BMRB in the mid-80s. But his forte as a manager was rapidly rewarded when he became a producer, then the programme controller at the Midlands station. He was then offered the opportunity to become the managing director of Radio Aire in 1990. It wasn't much of an offer, as it happens, because the station was close to bankruptcy. By 1994, when he moved on, it had been utterly turned around.

Riley joined Chrysalis to mastermind its expansion, particularly the Heart brand, leading the launch teams in both the West Midlands and London. In 1999, he got his reward, becoming the chief executive of Chrysalis Radio.

Riley's problem has been that Chrysalis was never really committed to becoming a lead player in the radio sector. For years it lagged behind its major rivals in investment terms, and its lukewarm radio strategy was thrown into stark perspective in 2005 when a ferocious round of consolidation saw GWR and Capital merge to form GCap and Emap acquire Scottish Radio Holdings. In contrast, Chrysalis made a half-hearted bid for the radio assets of Guardian Media Group - a bid that was comfortably rebuffed.

Now, however, there's all sorts of wild talk about Global becoming the commercial sector's leading player. Against a general backdrop of the medium's advertising slump, there are continuing structural problems at GCap, while Emap is continuing to review its priorities in consumer media - so just about anyone could be a legitimate acquisition target for Global. There are even rumours that it is about to make more signings on the personnel front - former senior managers at both GCap and Emap Radio are said to be in the frame.

But in the immediate future, it will be largely up to Riley to make the running. Is he up to the task? He's genial, many observers say, and has the reserves of charisma you'd expect from someone who used to entertain people for a living. But they also point out that he's a hard man, too - he's a rock climber, competes in triathlons and undertakes epic cycling expeditions for charity. He's from Manchester - and in a previous profile, we described him, somewhat predictably, as a no-nonsense Northerner.

There are those, however, who believe this may be a challenge too far for him. As one source puts it: "This will be a tough environment for the executives who come over from Chrysalis, not least Phil Riley. Chrysalis has basically evolved at its own pace over the years. Charles Allen is putting his reputation on the line and will be acutely aware that he'll be judged on this. He'll want to shake things up and he'll be in a hurry to drive it forward.

"The compulsive athlete side of Phil that has emerged in recent years shows how determined he can be, but there's also a laid-back side to him. And though he has a very sharp brain, he can be unnecessarily stubborn. So it will be interesting to see how he gets along with Allen. I think Riley could find it tough."

That's the no-nonsense Northerner for you - his strengths can turn out to be weaknesses, too. Allen, of course, comes from much farther north - the county formerly known as Lanarkshire; but no-one ever accuses him of being a no-nonsense Northerner. He's far too cute (in the political sense, you understand) for that.

So, are they destined to misunderstand each other? Actually no, some sources predict. The truth is they complement each other perfectly: Riley's instincts are first and foremost about content, though he understands the numbers, while Allen is the other away around. And their relationship will be made all the easier because (whisper it) radio's revenues are about to revive significantly.

As Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, puts it: "This venture capital team is impressive and I think they'll do what it takes to give the Heart and Galaxy brands the boost they need. It has to be seen as a great opportunity for Riley, because radio's fortunes are turning around. This is going to be an interesting place to be again."

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