Feature: Orion’s Phil Riley on Free Radio

The Chief Executive of Orion Media has told Radio Today that rebranding four West Midlands stations as Free Radio is about enticing new listeners, delivering value for money and improving national sales revenues.

Phil Riley defended the decision to say goodbye to heritage radio brands BRMB, Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern and suggested that the new name would grow on people over time.

He added: “Brands and names are what you make of them. Despite some of the criticism – which you’re always going to get when you announce something new – I think some of the inherent attributes of the word ‘free’, such as unbound, independent, liberty are great attributes to have. The combination of that with our marketing brief of a music station with more character, I know that our creative teams are working on some very clever executions which pull the name into the brand and will work in a really compelling way.”

Phil spoke to Radio Today Editor Stuart Clarkson for this week’s eRADIO. The full interview is shown below..

Phil – thanks for talking to us, first of all tell us why you’ve taken this decision.

There are three reasons. The first is that inevitably with heritage brands that have been in the marketplace as long as ours have, you have a lot of former listeners. People who’ve listened for a while then moved on when somebody at some point changed the radio station and they didn’t like what it changed to. When you sit in focus groups with people who used to listen to BRMB but now listen to Heart or Capital, Smooth or the BBC, they’ve got a love and affection for the brand but they end up saying “I’ve moved on”. The great thing about a new brand is that it allows you to invite people back in to trial again. The challenge with marketing an old heritage brand that’s gone through a lot of change and had to react to a lot of competition is that you have to get over the complications of the brand name itself before you can start telling people about the product. We love the old names and so do our listeners, but there are a lot of people out there – lapsed listeners – that we need to find a way of inviting back to have another listen. You sit in focus groups and listen to what people say they like to listen to on the radio and you almost want to jump out of your seat and say “You’d love the sodding radio station if you listened to it!” This isn’t about people who are listening now and think it’s rubbish – we just want to have more listeners trying us out.

The second thing is value for money. We could have just said “BRMB is the big station, the one that makes the money and has the potential to do better – let’s just market BRMB or change the name of it and leave Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern on their own.” But actually that would be a huge waste of money because the only effective way of marketing radio these days is by going on television. All of our competitors are doing it – Heart, Capital, Smooth, the BBC. You cannot be a competitive mainstream radio station in a market as large as the West Midlands without having a TV presence. Being on TV on the Central West footprint means covering 4 million people – almost the identical footprint to Orion Media’s West Midlands FM stations. Therefore just promoting something that was going out on one frequency would mean wasting half of our money and also that we wouldn’t at all be talking about our stations in Wolverhampton, Coventry and Worcester. So the only way of getting real value for money is to give them all a common identity and market that – and people can find the local version just by putting their radio on.

The third reason has nothing to do with listeners at all so it’s very difficult to explain to them – but it’s vitally important to us. In the national marketplace, the whole drive of radio is to try and make it easier and simpler to buy. Global have been leading the way on that with the Heart and Capital brands and then we’ve seen GMG with Smooth. It is inevitably the way we are going and certainly is the reason why actually in the national marketplace commercial radio as a whole is actually doing quite well. If you strip out the fact that we lost COI which was a huge chunk of our national business, from a private sector perspective radio is doing really really well – that’s because we’re making it simpler and easier for people to buy. The Orion stations, which were previously an essential part of the Hit Music network, are now sold as an add-on to the Capital network. That’s inevitably what was going to happen – but we’re quite a hard thing to buy as an add-on. We’re four individual radio stations, covering a small patch each and the numbers aren’t huge compared with the Capital network itself. So we’re finding ourselves not getting on anywhere near as many national ad campaigns as we should be and we need to reframe our offering in the minds of national advertisers. The change will mean a single name, single brand and a single number. And it’s a big number – we have 850,000 listeners to these radio stations already and we’re hoping with a fair wind and a bit of marketing we can nudge that up towards the million. Once you start getting that sort of number you really do start to reframe in the minds of media buyers: “Actually, yeah, we’re going to buy the Capital network and we’re going to buy Free as well because it’s a huge additional number and it’s simple – we understand that it’s one brand.”

Global Radio Sales sell us nationally and if you looked at their portfolio we stuck out like a sore thumb. Four local stations with 40 years of heritage compared with everything else they do and how they present themselves. For us as a business, national revenue is about half our total income. We’re doing really well locally but with national we are slipping off the edge and we need to clamber back on board. This is the obvious way of doing it. We briefed Mike and Stephen at Global on Friday and they’re absolutely on board with it – they fully understand what we’re trying to do, are very supportive and can see all the logic.

So essentially – we want trial to bring new listeners in and trial’s just easier with a new brand. Value for money is very important and four brands just don’t work – and we’ve got to do something to reframe our offering for national advertisers.

Where did the name Free Radio come from?

It came out of a long complex properly thought-through process, which started by us saying what we want the name to do. We wanted the name to be simple, easy to spell, easy to remember, very flexible, and probably at this point not a name that means anything to a lot of people because we want to paint onto it what it means to people. We started with that brief then had multiple brainstorm sessions both internally and with our creative agency and we had hundreds of names on a long list and we cut them down to about 8. We then put those names through a research process where we asked real listeners what they thought of them. We also fed them through our trademark lawyers to identify any problems and at the end of that process Free was the one that popped up that ticked all the boxes.

It starts with a pretty blank slate. We want to build the brand ourselves. It’s funny sometimes reading people’s comments that they can’t believe we’re using this name and they think it needs to be something really powerful that stands for something – like Kiss or Magic. But before Kiss or Magic were created the words didn’t mean anything to do with music. That’s entirely in your mind because you’ve got used to the brand over a number of years. With Kiss the first thought is that it would be love songs – like you’d expect Heart to be too. I launched Magic and I remember most people saying it was a cheap and cheerful name for kids – and I got loads of bloody Paul Daniels jokes! In the end it seems to have done alright – both for me in Leeds and latterly for Emap and Bauer across everywhere.

Brands and names are what you make of them. Despite some of the criticism – which you’re always going to get when you announce something new – I think some of the inherent attributes of the word ‘free’, such as unbound, independent, liberty are great attributes to have. The combination of that with our marketing brief of a music station with more character, I know that our creative teams are working on some very clever executions which pull the name into the brand and will work in a really compelling way.

I can remember going to Manchester in 1995 when we’d bought Kiss 102 and Kiss 105 to tell the people there that we were going to change them to Galaxy because we couldn’t get a brand deal sorted out with Emap. I had people crying in the office saying “You are taking away the most iconic radio brand in the world and you’re replacing it with a word only fit to go on a bar of chocolate or a people mover”. People genuinely said that to my face! 15 years later it was “Galaxy is the iconic radio brand that those bastards at Global are ruining”. You know what? People just get used to names don’t they? I’m not saying that we haven’t got to work at it and make the word Free work – of course we have. But Free is a very powerful word.

You’ve told your audiences ‘only the name will change’ – is there anything else changing behind the scenes too?

We’re making a slight change to mid-mornings. Tom Newitt who’s on Wyvern and Beacon is moving to drivetime in the Black Country and Shropshire. so the network midmorning show on Wyvern and Beacon will become the Russ Morris show that’s already on brmb and Mercia. That’s a bit more networking but it already kind of was networked anyway. And of course we already have an afternoon show shared across all four stations.

We’re tidying up our sports coverage too which at the moment is scattered all over AM and FM. We’re putting that all on AM and DAB. I think football fans are used to that with talkSPORT and 5 live so they will find it. That gives us more clarity about the FM not being constantly interrupted by football commentary – these days football matches are happening all the time so it’s been a constant irritation to the FM programmers.

We also currently run two separate music logs – one for BRMB and Mercia and another for Wyvern and Beacon – but we’ll cut that to one.

Mercia’s already co-located with BRMB – do you see eventually all four stations being in the same building?

We’ve got absolutely no plans to change. We’re perfectly happy with the structure that we’ve got. The patch itself extends geographically quite a long way out to the west towards the Welsh borders – both down in terms of Hereford and north in terms of Shropshire. Having bases which are 25 miles further towards the furthest reaches is quite handy from a local sales perspective. We can’t move them in today anyway so there’d be no point in having that debate. I have to say we’ve brought Mercia into the Birmingham building but I would hope that there are very few people who listen in Coventry and Warwickshire who have noticed much of a difference to the quality of what we do. The guys who work here are thrilled by the level of support and facilities compared to what we were capable of providing for them in Coventry. These things work both ways – if you can make a move successfully then great but if you don’t need to and you don’t have to then stick with local premises.

You worked at BRMB in the 80s and 90s – do you feel any sentimentally towards the name disappearing from the air?

Yeah course I do. I married the marketing manager at BRMB so, trust me, when I first decided to go home and tell Mrs Riley that I was changing the name I was extremely sensitive about the implications for my marriage as much as anything else! Of course, I’m hugely sentimental about the name and I’ll now go to my grave as the guy who got rid of the name BRMB! No-one wants to be associated with something that people find sad, but you’ve got to move on and live in the world as it really is not as you would like it to be. The truth is I’m not sure the world today can support small local independently-branded radio stations given the way the industry’s moving. I’m not saying we all have to become national networks but I think there’s a size and a heft that you need to have in order to compete and survive. That naturally lends itself to growing slightly bigger in terms of the brand you put on and how you market it.

Getting rid of the names is easier I suppose because Global have already done it and on a bigger scale. If they’d not already done that you’d be facing a lot more criticism I would guess?

Yeah and I’d probably be a lot more nervous. When I sat down with Stephen Miron at Global on Friday to brief him on our plans because obviously they sell us nationally he said “Well we’ve done all the hard work for you haven’t we? You know that you’re going to get some criticism but you’ll come out the other end.” And you know what…the world is still turning isn’t it? No-one’s died because GWR is no longer here or Trent’s no longer here. People carry on listening as long as you’re delivering out of the speakers something that they find interesting and entertaining. For us it’s a combination of being local, playing the right music mix, having presenters that have got some character and belonging to the patch – and we intend to carrying on doing that.

Phil Riley is CEO of Orion Media.

Posted on Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 at 10:15 am by RadioToday UK

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