Media Headliner: How Absolute is rapidly making a name for itself

Alasdair Reid talks to Chris Goldson about the innovative approach helping Absolute step out of Virgin Radio's shadow.

Chris Goldson has Absolute Radio's director of corporate communications sit in with him on our interview - hardly unusual, you might think, in the current climate, when even the most confident of companies suffers the odd bout of corporate insecurity.

But it perhaps serves as a reminder that we're expected to be on our best behaviour. We have been guilty, it could be argued, of giving Absolute something of a hard time over the past couple of years. When Times of India Group bought Virgin Radio for £53.2 million in June 2008, we affected to be sceptical, perhaps rather disgracefully, about what such a company could bring to one of the UK media market's strongest brands.

And when, in September 2008, it changed the name of that brand to Absolute Radio, we were terribly sniffy, arguing that such a generic term would never convey very much - and that its adoption threw away any chance of retaining even a little of the brand heritage built up since Virgin Radio's launch in 1993. All of which has been compounded by the manner in which we have tended, in recent times, to damn Absolute's audience performance with faint praise.

Which brings us to the most recent Rajar figures. Audience reach across the total Absolute family was down 6.2 per cent year on year but up 13.7 per cent quarter on quarter. There are no prizes for guessing which figure we are expected to focus on.

But, actually, they needn't have worried. Before the interview, we'd been sounding out media buyers and had become aware of a thumping consensus in the business. There's something rather interesting happening at Absolute, we were told, and this (not so) quiet revolution is being led by the chief operating officer, Clive Dickens, and his commercial director, Goldson.

"There's a lot of collective goodwill in the radio industry towards Absolute," Matthew Landeman, a board director at Carat, reveals. "I'm not just talking about our side of the fence, either. Other media owners are fascinated about what's going on there - largely, I suspect, because they plan to steal all the best ideas."

We've already hinted at one of the themes of this revolution when we talked about the performance of the Absolute "family". It has been launching digital brand spin-offs - for instance, Absolute Classic Rock, Absolute 80s and Absolute 90s - and in parallel with the extension strategy, it has been evolving a unique mix of content strands to be woven across this family.

Music is, as you'd expect, still the mainstay, but the company has also been developing its credentials in comedy (contracted artists include Dave Gorman, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel) and it has also made the leap, thanks in no small part to Skinner and Baddiel, into football. We're not just talking about football banter, either - this season, it will be carrying live commentary of one of the Saturday 3pm kick-off games in the Premier League.

Last, but by no means least, Absolute has been a pioneer in terms of its distribution philosophy, embracing more platforms (DAB, internet streaming, podcasts, Freeview, digital cable and satellite, mobile apps, you name it) than any of its rivals.

If it continues in this vein, we'll have to redefine "the radio medium" altogether. But isn't there a danger that Absolute will dilute its brand and cannibalise the audience on its flagship stations? No - quite the opposite, Goldson says.

He explains: "Actually, what happens is that they support each other. Traditionally, commercial radio has behaved very differently to the BBC when it comes to promoting itself - and, in particular, it has been terrible at cross-promotion. You've even seen situations in the past where sister stations would not acknowledge each other. I think what we're doing is closer to BBC-type behaviour. It develops the audience relationship."

Goldson graduated in the early 90s from that notorious den of iniquity that was the Media Week sales team (contemporaries included The National Magazine Company's Jude Secombe and Carl White, the European boss of ValueClick) and he moved from there to BBC Magazines.

Before joining Virgin Radio seven-and-a-half years ago, he also worked in the digital media space. At Virgin, he moved up through brand development then headed up sponsorship and promotions, becoming the commercial director after the departure of his predecessor Nick Hewat, who moved to Telegraph Media Group in June 2009.

So, of course, Goldson is very much in the front line when it comes to translating kudos and audience into commercial success - and he admits that the current airtime market remains challenging.

There are even those who believe that, when market growth does return, it will feed on to the bottom line at the commercial medium's two powerhouse companies, Bauer and Global. They are more than capable of devising share deals to put the squeeze on what they might see as pesky little rivals.

And yet media agency observers believe that Absolute is well placed to make progress. As one buyer puts it: "No, the brand is not as strong as the Virgin Radio brand - but so what? It needed to move on. I think we've reached a point when we can look at Absolute for what it is and give the people there the whole credit for that. It has a clear positioning. It's innovative. Audiences are moving in the right direction. It has a very positive story to tell."

Age: 41
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