We all know by now how these profiles work. They’re about a person
who has been handed a medium-sized promotion, moved company, bought
something or been sensationally fired. Not so on this occasion. The
story behind this piece is that 15 years ago last Sunday, Ralph Bernard
stood in the bathroom of a haunted house in the middle of Wiltshire and
began broadcasting the station which sparked off GWR.
Happy anniversary, then, to Ralph Bernard, who is the chief executive of
GWR and Classic FM. But to complicate matters further, he’s not here to
talk about himself - he’s here to talk about GWR. How do I explain that
to my editor? And, to cap it all, I’ve lost my make-up bag somewhere in
the bowels of Classic FM.
On the plus side, Bernard’s reticence presents an ideal opportunity to
chew over some of GWR’s more seedy roots, and also its glowing
For those of you who are too young to remember, GWR set itself up in a
grotty old house in the middle of Wootton Bassett in October 1982.
The house came with its own problems. ’It was disgusting,’ Bernard
’Nowhere to wash, and it was haunted.’ He has tried to come up with a
rational explanation, but the paranormal sightings have left him in no
doubt that Johnnie Walker - once a jock at the station - was wise to
hire the exorcist when he did.
The core team has changed little over the years. Simon Ward, now group
sales and marketing director, was in the original presenter line-up.
Quentin Howard began as the technical director, and still is, although
his position was taken up only when he had decided against a career in
Henry Meakin, GWR’s group chairman, put up the original funding for
Radio Wiltshire. And completing what Bernard calls the ’Big Five’ is
Simon Cooper, breakfast show presenter-turned director of human
resources and public affairs.
Bernard is here to talk about the future of GWR, and Classic FM, which
the group acquired last December. ’Classic FM is now the jewel in GWR’s
crown,’ Bernard says. And the group is expanding further, with the
launch of the Classic record label heralding a new era of brand
extensions. ’Classic has an enormous feeling of goodwill behind it,’
Bernard says. ’The idea of us not doing anything else with it is simply
not on the agenda - though we are obviously being careful not to put our
name on just anything. Maybe financial services?’ he muses.
And the GWR empire has been boosted by the setting up of its own sales
house, as the Capital-owned Media Sales and Marketing will no longer be
handling GWR’s sales, in compliance with Government regulations.
Of course, not everybody has come round completely to the idea of
commercial radio in the 15 years that Bernard has been on board, and,
ironically, some of its more conscientious objectors are of the
classical music-listening ilk. In fact, as I was waiting in the Classic
FM reception, the receptionist had a call from someone making a
complaint about an ad. The ad in question was for Classic’s new record
label, and the caller’s cat was apparently perturbed by the sounds of
bagpipes and a wailing moggy on the soundtrack.
’It’s the fourth call we’ve had today,’ the receptionist sighed.
Bernard, on hearing the tale, said: ’Some people still think advertising
is a sin, but it’s our job to improve that. And many people who think
that radio ads spoil the broadcast will remember the Ovaltinies with
love and affection. What we are trying to do is reactivate those
So how do other people talk about the man who doesn’t talk about
Simon Ward said: ’Well, he is certainly driven, and a great
He’s a very good negotiator, too - generally speaking, everyone comes
out as a winner when dealing with him.’ Why just generally speaking?
’Someone once said that he’d chase a rabbit down a hole just for a
deal,’ Ward replies, cryptically.
Ward also gives us an insight into why Bernard will not talk about
himself. ’If you take a look at the company as a whole, Ralph’s profile
is not as large as you would expect. The profile is spread out pretty
evenly between everyone. Basically, we’ve all shied away from the press,
because we’re just busy doing our jobs.’
But, reluctant as Bernard is to talk about himself, it is still possible
to come away with the impression that you have made a friend. The day
after the interview, a parcel plops on my desk. It’s my make-up bag,
accompanied by a note: ’Dear Elly, I think that you will have more use
for this than me. Ralph.’
THE BERNARD FILE
1971: News journalist, various publications
1975: Radio Hallam and Network programmes, documentary producer
1980: Radio Hereward, launch programme controller
1982: Wiltshire Radio, managing director
1985: GWR, chief executive
1992: Classic FM, chief executive.