It couldn't happen to a nicer guy, and let's hope that it doesn't, but Keith Pringle might be in one of those terribly unfair damned-if-you-do situations. If he fails to turn around 95.8 Capital FM (and, in so doing, the fortunes of the whole Capital group) it won't look good on his CV; if he succeeds, Johnny Vaughan, a man of infectious charm but arguably modest talents, will get most of the credit.
In the wider world, at least. The media industry will know better, thanks largely to the fact that Pringle (accompanied by Capital's commercial marketing director, Gavin Miller), has embarked on a getting-to-know-you tour of media agencies that began before Christmas and continues this month. Agencies have been flattered, because they rarely get a detailed dissection of programming strategy right from the horse's mouth. Pringle, who was appointed back in August, is a manager with programming in his blood -- and he might just need every last drop of it.
History has already been unkind. He became the boss of Capital FM just in time to see the station lose its position as undisputed top dog in the London market. It was inevitable that Capital's status would be challenged, given the sheer fragmentation, diversity and clutter that fills London's radio airwaves, but Pringle inherited a station losing share and he now has to show he can respond.
He's pretty convincing when he insists that programming involves a lot more than personalities and star turns. On the agency tour he is explaining a number of initiatives aimed at sharpening up the presentational style of the station. And these days it is also sticking to a playlist that pleases the core audience of 25- to 34-year-olds. But no-one doubts that Vaughan, the successor to Chris Tarrant in the important breakfast slot, is Capital's main tactical weapon.
Pringle can't hide the fact he's a huge fan. "The more we work together, the more obvious it becomes that Johnny is just such a natural successor to Chris," he enthuses. "Chris has this showbiz thing of always being upbeat and always looking to get the best out of people or a situation. Johnny has that same mischievousness. He's also incredibly spontaneous -- you never quite know what he's going to say next."
Vaughan is edgier than the cuddly and often bland Tarrant. At his best, Tarrant was anarchic without being dangerous and, at his worst, he can be a sentimental old fool. Vaughan takes far more pleasure in inflicting mild discomfort on guests, colleagues and audience.
You can tell immediately that Pringle is in his element here -- there's a touch of the Chris Tarrants or Johnny Vaughans about him. He's irrepressibly cheerful, and, yes, a bit showbiz without being an awful luvvie.
He says his favourite artist is the comfortably unfashionable Alicia Keys and he seems refreshingly down to earth. "I've been in this business for a good many years now so, yes, you do get to meet absolutely everybody," he admits. "But it's a funny old world and in the end you learn that your real friends are the ones you meet down the pub. Of course, I'm just like anyone else, sometimes going in to work going, 'Oh God, here we go again', but I don't often need reminding how lucky I really am."
You feel he's having the time of his life, despite (or even because of) the pressures and the fact he's in the spotlight. He recently moved from Barnes to a penthouse in Clerkenwell, sold the car and bought a Vespa scooter (clearly a mid-life crisis, he says: he's now in his early 40s), which means he can now get into work in a eight-and-a-half minutes. He's a member of what agencies refer to as the media industry's "velvet mafia" (but actually it says much about Pringle's open and easy-going personality that no-one makes the slightest fuss about mentioning this -- a stark contrast with the awkwardness that surrounds the issue of lifestyle where some other gay industry figures are concerned).
And if winning agencies around were even half the battle, he'd be well on the way to confirming Capital's flagship's recovery. Radio buyers clearly like him. "He's a lovely guy, a combination of the very professional and the very pleasant. He has reacted well to what promised to be another round of Capital bashing," Jo Daly, a senior radio planner/buyer at MediaCom, says.
But that's not to say they think he'll have it easy. As Helen Keable, the head of radio at Manning Gottlieb OMD, puts it: "The most refreshing thing [about Miller and Pringle's latest initiative] is the acknowledgement that there has been a problem. I think Capital FM would probably admit that it has been suffering from a touch of complacency and then became very twitchy. Now it has a game plan - and, from an agency and advertiser point of view, that's a reassuring thing to hear. My only concern is how it differentiates itself from Heart. There just isn't room for two similar stations like that."
The Pringle file
1993 Emap, group head of music
1995 Heart 106.2, programme director
1995 Chrysalis Radio, group programme director
2000 Puremix, founder
2001 Capital Radio, group programming and content director
200395.8 Capital FM, managing director
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