Feature

Riley shows quality content grows audiences

The Chrysalis Radio chief executive tells Alasdair Reid why programme development is the cornerstone of brand-building.

Chrysalis Radio's chief executive, Phil Riley, admits he felt contented and at peace with the world for about ten minutes after the most recent Rajar results came out. The figures showed continued growth for the Galaxy and Heart networks and the icing on the cake was, of course, the fact that Heart 106.2 has taken the top slot in London ahead of 95.8 Capital FM in overall listening.

In the much talked-about (and, in recent times, dramatically volatile) battle of the breakfast shows, Heart's Jamie Theakston may be behind Capital's Johnny Vaughan in these results - but the gap is now only 10,000 listeners.

All in all, a very creditable performance. With Riley at the helm, Chrysalis continues to punch well above its weight - though Riley says that you can't allow yourself to wallow in a sense of satisfaction for too long.

There's always the next challenge to look forward to.

And in terms of total UK audiences and overall clout, Chrysalis is, in theory, number three in the commercial business, behind GCap and Emap.

Yet the fall-out from the less-than-deftly-handled creation of GCap (through the merger of Capital and GWR earlier this year) continues to dominate the headlines. Now the company appears to be in play, with at least one venture capital company bid imminent.

Emap has seized this opportunity to act like the market leader - but it is the performance of Chrysalis that's capturing the imagination. Some argue that this is down to the sort of coherent approach you get when your chief executive actually has experience as a radio presenter - and, indeed, Riley was a daytime presenter on BRMB in the mid-80s.

This might be a factor, he admits: "What they (on-air presenters) do today bears little relation to what I did back then - the skill has evolved considerably - but it does give me something of an insight on the programming side.

"This is a yin and yang business. The commercial and the programming sides must go hand in hand. Mess up on one side and you'll mess up on the other."

But, tellingly, it's another form of big-picture integrated coherence that agencies tend to rave about where Chrysalis is concerned - the fact that it has structured the company to present its stations as focused brands, both to the consumer and to the advertising industry.

As Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, puts it: "The music policy and general programme development links well with its skills at building brands that are both consumer-facing and advertiser-facing.

"Not all advertisers and agencies are making the most of what Chrysalis has to offer but I'm sure that will change in 2006."

Riley says he's pleased if the market is responding to this programming development - because it continues to be a management priority. He says: "I genuinely believe that much of our success is down to the fact we have been more consistent over a longer period than our competitors.

"I think we are clearer about who we want to appeal to and what we need to do if we are to succeed. I think we have a head-start in terms of marketing - and at Chrysalis, they (the marketers) are as important as the programming people."

In London, Riley argues that although some stations have suffered the odd setback over the past couple of years, there isn't a weak London breakfast show out there.

He adds: "And for us, evolving the breakfast show has been flipping painful. The situation with Jono (Coleman, the Heart breakfast show presenter before Theakston took over) was difficult because he had done well for us.

"But it's like a football team - you have to evolve it, you have to bring on new talent. We are now reaping the benefit of that."

Riley is a Mancunian (if we were following the convention of most Riley interviews, we would also describe him at this point as "no-nonsense"), and he's a Manchester United supporter. What goes around comes around, is his response to the jibes of rival supporters now that United are no longer the top English team - and unlike some of his younger fellow enthusiasts, he has already witnessed both triumph and adversity over the years at Old Trafford.

But much more to the point (and with half an eye still on the football analogy), for how much longer will Riley be truly satisfied leading the market's number-three brand?

It's difficult to envisage Chry-salis leap-frogging Emap or GCap via acquisitions. There are pos-sible targets out there - but not, probably, at the right price.

In any case, Riley says, the next phase of consolidation in the radio market will probably involve the top three networks swapping assets in order to assemble tidier portfolios of stations.

So can Riley - a self-confessed obsessive goal-setter - achieve all of his wildest dreams and ambitions at Chrysalis?

"I'd like to think so," he responds. "There will always be a new challenge. I'm not the sort of person who can ever rest on his laurels. We had a poor first half of the year, with profits down, don't let's forget. But for next year, everything now seems to be pulling in the right direction. When you're number three, it's a challenge in itself ensuring you don't get squeezed all the time."

THE LOWDOWN Age: 46 Lives: Kensington/Warwickshire Family: Wife Jean, three children (Alex, 12; Jessica, ten; Matthew, eight) Most treasured possession: Condor Squadra road bike Interests outside work: Riding the Squadra! Favourite radio show: Too many to mention, but outside of all the great Chrysalis shows - Dead Ringers on Radio 4 Describe yourself in three words: Focused What's the best thing about your job? The people Motto: Play fair - but play to win