MEDIA FORUM: How has national radio altered media thinking?

Virgin Radio is ten. What part has it and the other national stations played in evolving radio as a proper advertising medium, Alasdair Reid asks.

Arguably, a decade begun in the company of Richard Branson and ending in a courtroom kerfuffle with Chris Evans is not one you'd wish to remember, far less celebrate. But the intrepid Virgin Radio is determined to do just that - and it will mark the first ten years of its life and interesting times with a party at the end of the month.

Branson's was the first voice heard on Virgin when it launched on 30 April 1993 and despite his assertion that this was exactly the sort of radio station that he'd always wanted to listen to, not everyone switched off immediately. Who knows (though he now has no connections with the station, which is owned by Scottish Media Group), he might even be invited to the birthday party.

Evans, it is safe to assume, won't be, though he did control the station for a while and is (or was at the time of writing at any rate) still fighting for an unlikely pay-off following his decision to commit professional suicide.

Along with the other national stations, Classic FM, which launched just over ten years ago, and talkSPORT, Virgin has arguably helped elevate the status of radio as a medium. After all, a national media opportunity sounds so much more impressive than something carrying the local or regional tag. And for its first two-and-half decades, that was all that commercial radio had to offer in this country.

Just how important have the national stations been in the evolution of radio as an advertising medium? Kathryn Jacob, Virgin's commercial director, says: "In audience terms, we could develop outside of what existing stations had previously delivered. Being national gave us access to bigger brands.

And because we created better standards we made it easier for clients to sell the idea of being on radio to the board. Previously, company directors' knowledge of the medium might only have stretched to Radio 4. Or their exposure to commercial radio might have been a local station that only carried double glazing ads. With us, advertisers began to spend more money on creativity and the standards got better and better."

There were other structural developments on the media planning and buying side of things that helped too. For instance, the advent of more sophisticated communications planning disciplines. Previously it was a case of sorting out TV and then trying to work out how to spend the rest of the budget, if there was any. "Non-TV media were considered in a more integrated and considered way," Jacob explains.

The impact of the national stations was also helped by the launch of the Radio Advertising Bureau. (Or should that be the other way around?) The medium not only had national flagships but it was pulling together, marketing itself coherently and devising more user-friendly ways to sell airtime packages. Radio's share of national advertising revenue began to climb steadily. It was 2.9 per cent in 1992, broke through the significant 5 per cent barrier in 1998 and last year was 6.6 per cent. It has grown year on year for every year in the past decade.

Morag Blazey, the managing director of PHD, agrees that the advent of the national stations clearly represented a great leap forward. "The difference was arguably that you could hear the stations," she says. "It was always hard buying a station when you had absolutely no idea what it sounded like. You always knew that Capital sounded pretty good but didn't have a clue about the station in Tiddlington Piddlington, which probably mostly carried ads for the local garage. And it was also about ease of purchase too. It used to be murder buying radio, then suddenly you had a one-stop shop that was easy to understand. And the national stations had clear propositions and personalities and distinctive audiences. Buyers were not necessarily looking for simplicity but previously radio had been almost impenetrable."

Many in the industry believe that the national stations were directly responsible for a quantum leap in creative standards in radio advertising - seen up to that point as a short straw by even the most junior of creative teams. The national stations had a high profile so they had to take a more sophisticated attitude to their content. Crucially, their benchmark was now the BBC. So they didn't put quite so many plonkers behind the microphone compared with your average regional commercial station.

In short, the editorial environment was slick - which in turn was going to make duff commercials stand out more starkly. True? Actually, some creatives are sceptical about that argument. And Paul Burke, the BMP DDB radio copywriter, isn't Virgin's greatest fan either. He states: "If people take radio seriously, they do so because it's a medium worth taking seriously, not because it's national or not." And, in fact, he would argue that Virgin has been a missed opportunity. "If we're being honest, it's a disappointment.

You could perhaps argue that Classic has had it easier because it was doing something new. People generally didn't know very much about that sort of music whereas everyone knows about what's on Virgin. Classic is cheesy but it has genuinely made classical music more accessible. It's also available in FM right across the country. Virgin isn't and it hasn't made a good job of changing that."

Burke adds: "Back then Virgin was still quite a funky brand and they could have done a lot more with it. They've essentially been quite lazy. They should have been less predictable in their formats and employed better presenters."

Blazey tends to agree that it was Classic that made the real difference with advertisers. "Classic was a great advance because it was the first to step outside traditional radio targeting. Clients woke up to it because the boss was probably listening to it - it was in fact Chief Executive FM," she says.

Is that the way advertisers see it? Bernard Balderston, Procter & Gamble's associate director for media, argues that the value of the national stations was in the enhanced coverage that the medium as a whole was able to offer - not because they were national stations per se.

He states: "In the early days, going way back to the mid-70s and even through the 80s, it was always assumed that creatives weren't interested in radio and in general it was true that when the medium was dominated by local and regional advertisers you did get a lot of shoestring advertising that was simplistic and often grating. That didn't help those who were trying to sell it."

But in the end that, he believes, was a side issue. "You can take the view that even if all the rest of the creative in a medium is poor you can do better by bringing in bigger budgets and better brains. The more important point in reality is about what a medium offers, how that relates to our plans and whether it delivers," he concludes.

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