Page last updated at 13:14 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 14:14 UK

Absolute Radio loses its virginity

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Virgin Radio logo
Out with the old...
Fifteen years ago, Virgin Radio heralded its arrival with a fuzzy medium wave blast of Born To Be Wild, played by Aussie rock giants INXS.

Now it is changing its name - to Absolute Radio. Has there really been a coup at the classic rock station, or is it just rehashing an old idea?

"It's a really good choice," says radio industry expert Matt Deegan, creative director of Folder Media, of the new name. "It says 'this is what we do'".

Absolute Radio logo
...And in with the new
Christian O'Connell announced the moniker by playing The Beatles' Revolution on Tuesday's breakfast show.

Absolute is also, conveniently, the name of the management company which was put in charge of Virgin after the Times of India media group bought it for 53.2m in May.

So the firm won't have to shell out for reams of new stationery - not to mention internet domains and other intellectual property rights.

But, says chief executive Donnach O'Driscoll, the choice was a happy accident.

"We considered maybe 30 or 40 other names," he says, "but this one kept coming back."

O'Driscoll says the new station will be "resolute, strong and unapologetic" - but what is going to change for the listeners?

'No repetition'

Down-on-their-luck DJ duo JK and Joel are on their way out, as is former Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley - who presented the Party Classics show on Fridays and Saturdays.

Christian O'Connell
Christian O'Connell will continue to present the station's breakfast show
Christian O'Connell will continue to present the all-important breakfast slot, while popular night-time DJ Geoff Lloyd takes over the drivetime show and Sony award-winning Trent FM DJ Jo Russell will pop up throughout the week in various slots.

But the main changes will come in the playlist.

Audience research carried out by the station's new owners found that listeners' biggest complaint was the "repetitive" song choice.

As a result, says O'Driscoll, "we want to substantially increase the size of the playlist - by 10 times".

"We also want to have no repeats during workdays - so between 9 and 5 you won't hear the same song twice.

"And we want to introduce a policy of making people say 'I haven't heard that in ages' - every day of the year."

We're going to drop the worst bits
Absolute Radio chief executive Donnach O'Driscoll
Musically, Absolute will focus on rock - Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Rolling Stones - at the expense of chart acts like Katy Perry and Duffy, both of whom feature on the current playlist.

"Virgin has been guilty of drifting into the mainstream when it needs to be distinctive," admits O'Driscoll.

As a result, even regular acts like The Police will find songs like Roxanne - which are played to death on female-focused FM stations - rotated with lesser-heard tracks such as So Lonely or Can't Stand Losing You.

The changes all seem geared to appeal to the station's core audience, and mark something of a return to its rocking roots.

Absolute's new bosses will presumably be hoping to achieve Virgin's original audience figures, too.


Back when the station was a novelty - it was only the second national commercial station to launch in the UK - it received "disappointing" listening figures of 3.1 million in its first seven weeks.

Nowadays, with dozens of new stations on AM, FM and digital radio, its figures hover around the 2.5 million mark.

And the inherent danger with rebranding is that it can frighten off even the most loyal customers - just ask Royal Mail.

Duffy will be a casualty of the station's new playlist regime
"A radio station changing its name is always very difficult," says Matt Deegan.

"Audience figures are calculated by people putting a tick in a box beside the station's name in a diary, so they are going to have to get the word out."

Absolute has put together a rumoured 15m marketing budget to announce its arrival.

It is also easing in the changes on air with the unusual strategy of a month-long transition period - nicknamed with the radio term "crossfade" - during which both the Virgin and Absolute names will be used in tandem.

"We want to give people time to understand what we're doing and why we're doing it," says O'Driscoll.

He says the main message is that "we're going to drop the worst bits" while keeping the elements people love.

But the station has bigger ambitions, too. Part of the reason for dropping the Virgin name - perhaps the main reason - is that it restricted the owners from branching out into other areas.

Freed from the shackles of Sir Richard Branson's brand, O'Driscoll says his company has "unfettered access" to new projects - including a download store, selling concert tickets and organising live events.

But, for all his lofty plans, it will eventually be the listeners who decide whether the relaunched station is Absolutely Fabulous or Virgin on the ridiculous.

Virgin Radio to become Absolute
02 Sep 08 |  Business
Virgin Radio sold to Indian group
31 May 08 |  Scotland
SMG puts businesses on the market
27 Jun 07 |  Scotland
Virgin Radio firm rejects merger
29 Aug 06 |  Business

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