Absolute Radio has easily the most colourful ownership provenance in UK radio. Launched as one of only three national commercial radio stations in 1993, Absolute (or Virgin Radio, as it was then known; it rebranded in 2008) has changed hands four times in the past 16 years.
Its founding owner, Sir Richard Branson, sold it to Chris Evans (for £85 million in December 1997), Evans sold it to STV (for a whopping £225 million in January 2000) and STV sold it to The Times Group, the owner of The Times of India, for £53 million in June 2008.
Now, Bauer Media is its latest owner, having agreed to pay around £20 million for an asset that began losing money during the downturn and which The Times Group has been keen to offload for at least two years. Ironically, the company put it up for auction back in 2011, but withdrew it when bids became stuck at the then unacceptable level of… £20 million.
It’s not exactly a game of pass the parcel – but, if you were so minded, you could put a rather cruel spin on this story. Arguably, even those who understand Absolute (not just the station these days but also its portfolio of sub-brands) have never felt able to lavish on it the love that it’s due.
'Those close to the sale, however, maintain that Bauer is savvy enough to know it has acquired a lot more than raw numbers'
There are those who maintain that this latest chapter may prove similarly uninspiring. They reason that Bauer, second-best in scale to Global Radio in the commercial radio market, has long realised that it needs to play catch-up – and it has now decided, in a recovering market, that it’s safe to go out and buy market share.
Based on Rajar results for the second quarter, Bauer’s share of the commercial radio audience will now rise from 25 per cent to 31.5 per cent, compared with Global’s 37.5 per cent.
Those close to the sale, however, maintain that this is only half the story – Bauer is savvy enough to know it has acquired a lot more than raw numbers. They point out that the station’s programming is award-winning and that, commercially, it is the most innovative operator in the sector.
Indeed, it is praised almost universally by agencies for the way that it has taken radio promotions and sponsorship formats to a new level. "I think Bauer has got a real bargain," Tom Drummond, the head of radio at Initiative, says.
Mike Williamson, the head of radio at Carat, agrees. "Last week, the Absolute Radio network achieved its third consecutive record-breaking quarter, with reach up 18.6 per cent and hours up 8.8 per cent [year-on-year figures]," he points out. "This growth hasn’t just come from its newer digital-only stations – the original AM/FM Absolute station is up 12.5 per cent for reach and 1.8 per cent for hours."
And, Drummond argues, the sale is good news from just about every conceivable angle. "Commercial radio should take heart from the fact that recent Rajar [figures] have shown a consistently good performance overall in terms of its share versus the BBC. Also, last month’s Ofcom report said that radio generally is in rude health," he highlights.
"Bauer’s decision to buy Absolute will give everyone confidence," he concludes. "I’d argue that commercial radio is in a better place than it has been for a long time."