Media Headliner: Bauer turns to muso Blaxill to lure BBC listeners

With extensive music industry contacts and knowhow, the Big City boss poses a threat to his old employer.

It will surprise some, but Ric Blaxill's tentative first steps into the radio world weren't too promising. As a young producer at Capital Radio, he showed up to his first outside broadcast without any records, CDs, running orders or headphones. Yet he went on to forge a career in radio and music to the extent that he's now viewed as a bit of a music legend.

Steve Parkinson, Bauer Radio's managing director, notes that at the Q Awards last month, Blaxill, the former Q programme director, knew everybody, from artists to management to promoters. And it's these music connections that will prove a major weapon in Bauer's mission to steal listeners from the BBC, as Blaxill steps up to head music across Bauer's Big City network of stations.

For Blaxill, music has always been at the centre of a career spanning commercial and BBC TV and radio. Working as an executive producer on Top Of The Pops at the height of Brit Pop in the 90s, he remembers having to do eight retakes of guest presenter Damon Albarn introducing Oasis because the Gallagher brothers, waiting on stage to perform, were making obscene hand gestures behind the Blur frontman's back. "Damon was a true pro under such circumstances," Blaxill recalls.

However, he's less happy to share his reminiscences on the radio phone-in scandal that occurred when he was the head of programming at BBC 6 Music last year, for which he was lambasted by Ofcom and eventually forced to resign. Ofcom said that Blaxill himself was complicit in faking a "winner" for the competition phone-in on Russell Brand's radio show, one in a series of phone-in scandals at the corporation at that time.

But those days seem firmly behind him now and he takes on Bauer's 20-station network including Viking FM in Hull and Key 103 in Manchester at a positive time. The latest Rajar figures show Rock FM and Key 103 with rises in listenership in the last quarter. Blaxill's role has been newly created, Parkinson says, to "supercharge" the station's commitment to music.

One industry trader believes the first thing Blaxill must do is to address "the Heart thing", referring to the Global Radio-owned Heart network's recent successful rebrand. Unlike the Heart network, Big City operates only as a trade name with each station retaining its local heritage, reflecting Bauer's policy on local programming. "It's the antithesis to a roll-out. As a group, we believe in generating content that is relevant to audiences," Blaxill says.

Critics argue that there is less consistency in programming in the Big City network compared with Heart, but Blaxill feels the focus on local content is to Bauer's advantage, arguing that it creates a stronger connection with listeners in each region. However, Blaxill will be focusing on making the most of the scale that the network provides and aims to broadcast many more big-ticket events, such as last summer's live broadcast of a U2 concert across the network's stations as well as online platforms.

"The more we look at joining up the Big City network to do live events, the more it shows that when we pull together, it puts us in a strong position," Blaxill asserts. He is intent on building on the network's relationship with listeners by raising its profile with record companies, promoters and commercial partners. Spotify and other streamed radio services, where consumers choose what they listen to, also present a challenge for Blaxill and it is one he is addressing. "It's important we open the door for listeners to interact with the station and its personality," he says.

The Big City music policy is aimed at 25- to 44-year-olds and Blaxill argues that it is deliberately "feel-good". In the coming weeks, he will be reviewing the programming strategy across the stations. Conveniently, perhaps, Blaxill himself has very broad taste in music and listens to everything from The Cult to the Black Eyed Peas.

The network aims to take advantage of upcoming changes in the BBC's line-up, according to Parkinson. With speculation rising that Chris Moyles will be removed from his Radio 1 breakfast slot and a planned line-up change at Radio 2 next year, Big City is looking to take share from its rival. "Our job is to keep attacking the BBC without cannibalising from other commercial audiences," Parkinson says. "This is where Ric comes in. We've got a music champion at the table."

Richard Jacobs, the head of radio at MediaCom, notes Blaxill's passion for music and believes he is a great asset for Bauer: "He's such a muso, people can warm to that. He has enormous credibility."

Parkinson believes that Blaxill, who has an insider's understanding of the BBC as well as commercial radio, is the right choice to raise the profile and importance of Big City and his industry contacts should help Bauer give the BBC a run for its money when it comes to broadcasting major music events across its brands and channels.

But, as well as the BBC, Blaxill could also take lessons from commercial rivals such as Heart. One trader says: "He needs to be the Richard Park of the Big City network, a consistent voice." What he doesn't have, in marked contrast to Park, is the sizeable ego, but Bauer believes that this won't prevent him standing up for his vision.

Blaxill is focused and committed to the job in hand, but his challenge in taking on the might of his former employers at the BBC, not to mention a resurgent Global, won't be straightforward.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 46

Lives: Hertfordshire

Family: Wife and two children

Favourite radio show: Ricky and Melvin on Kiss; good to hear JK and Joel back on breakfast at Radio Aire; Fighting Talk on 5 Live; Kate Lawler on Kerrang

Most played-tracks on your iPod: You've Got The Love, Florence And The Machine; I Gotta Feeling, Black Eyed Peas; Sweet Disposition,The Temper Trap; Unfinished Sympathy, Massive Attack; She Sells Sanctuary, The Cult; Inner City Blues, Marvin Gaye; Empire State Of Mind, Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys

Last book read: The Blair Years by Alastair Campbell

Motto: Keep on keeping on.

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