Three years on, is anyone actually still missing Plymouth Sound, Fox FM or SGR? After a period of major consolidation in our industry followed by re-positioning by the big boys, we’re entering the next phase for UK radio brands: regional and local ones.
In a special feature, Radio Today Editor Stuart Clarkson takes a look at what Orion, UTV and Celador are doing to keep up with the Global Radio brands dominating some of their patches.
In the next few weeks, Midlands stations BRMB, Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern will become Free. The station soon-to-be-formerly-known-as Beacon will get a new rival in the shape of Signal 107 on the merging of four licences. And two more stations – Andover Sound and Newbury Sound – will join The Breeze network in the South of England.
Owners Orion, UTV and Celador have seen what Global have done with Heart and Capital. They’ve seen what Bauer have done with Kiss. They’ve seen what GMG have done with Smooth. And they’re joining the party.
Money is clearly a big driver. With a single brand you can sell it more easily and attract more national advertisers. And the cost-savings are plain to see too in terms of sharing programmes, buildings, even letterheads and branded balloons.
Orion Media is gradually introducing the Free Radio name on air, with mentions four or five times an hour at the moment. By the start of April the references to the old heritage names will have gone. The group’s CEO Phil Riley is clear about the objectives. “You can genuinely see that there should be changes in national perception that mean proper pound note value benefit being dropped on to the bottom line,” he told me. “I think it’s more difficult to see whether bringing a brand to the likes of Newbury or Andover will have a national sales impact. It’s probably more about sharing programming and some marketing materials, I imagine, rather than hoping that they’re going to get a bigger share of national revenue.”
Celador bought the Newbury and Andover licences last summer. Since then they’ve introduced programme-sharing and co-located the two stations in Andover. While geographically they fit nicely with The Breeze clusters in Wiltshire/’Avon’/Somerset and Hampshire, Ofcom regions mean the new additions have to have their own local breakfast and drive programmes. Again the change has been gradual, with the group insisting they’re currently The Breeze ‘in all but name’. The name will arrive on April 2nd.
“There are a lot of advantages in having a brand – even if it’s only on the very limited level that one can share merchandise,” says Celador’s Group Creative Director Richard Johnson. “There are huge advantages in understanding where one’s focus needs to be and relentlessly driving out that name. We have 2 Jack FMs and 9 Breeze stations at the moment and that is where our fairly obvious intention lies – to go forward with those two brands.”
Over the last 12 months or so, The Breeze in the West has quickly grown from a single licence (Bristol, formerly run as Star FM) to four. All run separate ad logs as well as bespoke news, weather and travel bulletins plus the capability to have split links if required. “We have made no secret of the fact that we’re ambitious and wish to grow,” says Richard. “What we’ve done is picked off a station here and a station there and bought things that have worked for us strategically and at the right price. Paul (Smith, the group’s chairman) is a very patient man and we have a vision to continue to grow it – but it depends what comes up and at what price.”
Generally speaking, the likes of Heart and Capital haven’t seen the decline in audience figures that some within our industry predicted when the brands replaced heritage names like Trent, Hereward, Red Dragon, Chiltern and 2-Ten FM. Celador have the advantage of creating a network featuring some stations that, like Bridgwater or Bath, had seen a number of name changes over the years and historically poor RAJARs. Richard Johnson again: “We’ve described some of them as being patchy or slightly distressed. If you’re at 100% reach there’s nowhere to go. Starting from the other end, to quote Yazz, the only way is up. I look at the Bristol market where the GWR name was so incredibly strong before Heart but their audience stayed the same at the time. From the outside looking in that was quite interesting that it didn’t negatively impact.”
UTV Media’s Signal 107 goes live on 26th March and brings together the licences originally awarded as The Wolf, Telford FM, The Severn and The Wyre and will cover Wolverhampton, Telford, Shrewsbury, Oswestry and Kidderminster. They bought three licences from MNA in January, after the newspaper group had said they were going to give them back to Ofcom if a buyer couldn’t be found. UTV’s Director of Local Radio, Calum Macauley, told me it’s a case of ‘the sum of what you create is bigger than the individual parts’ – and with the MNA stations not having been in RAJAR recently, The Wolf’s new larger TSA can only go in one direction. “At a national sales level we’re offering a widespread coverage of that region,” says Calum. “Signal 107 now becomes the second biggest TSA within the group and also from a national point of view I think if you’re buying Beacon then now with one telephone call you can also buy the competitor to Beacon in that market.”
UTV say taking on the MNA licences made geographical and financial sense. “For us it’s about driving the bottom line and driving the profit,” Calum tells me. “By bringing them together you create cost synergies and having them all under the auspices of a strong brand name such as Signal means that you’re driving the top line as well at the same time. It’s important to have a brand that people know what it stands for. The name is important – particularly from a commercial viewpoint – and I think in time the listeners in Wolverhampton will be as used to Signal 107 as they have been with The Wolf.”
Of course, Signal 107’s competitor won’t be Beacon. It’ll be ‘Free Radio Shropshire & Black Country’. People in Wolverhampton lose The Wolf and Beacon in the same week, just as listeners in Nottingham lost Trent (to Global’s Capital FM) and Heart (to Orion’s Gem 106) at the same time just over a year ago.
“I think the Capital-Gem thing was quite interesting because it was essentially two radio stations covering exactly the same area changing at exactly the same time,” says Phil Riley from Orion. “Our view was: ‘You know what, there’s going to be so much confusion here we might as well jump in and do it at the same time’. The Signal 107 thing is slightly different because – with all due respect to them – they’re not the same size as Free in terms of the footprint. I think their total coverage area is about a million – it’s closer to what Beacon looks like. But their timing, I would imagine, is being driven by the circumstance of having bought those radio stations, needing to do something with them and coming to the conclusion that actually they have got quite a good name (Signal) that’s got some resonance with people in terms of clients and London agencies that seems to work. I don’t suspect that they’re doing it because we’re doing ours – I would think they’d want to leave things as they were for a while if they could. I suspect they’ve taken the opportunity to do it irrespective of us. We’re going to be doing pretty heavy marketing – I don’t know what they’re going to do but I certainly wouldn’t imagine them to be advertising on TV.”
What does Calum from UTV think of his new station going up against a new name for Beacon in the RAJAR diaries? “It makes it interesting! In terms of the content and output Beacon will remain relatively unchanged apart from the name, I guess. We’re still going to have a strong competitor in what was Beacon. But the right time to do it is now – it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out over the forthcoming months.”
UTV say they don’t have any current plans to create or extend brands anywhere else in their local radio portfolio. Celador is highly likely to add recently acquired Midwest Radio to its West cluster of Breeze stations – probably before the year is out. And for Orion, Phil Riley is quite open about the fact that, in 5-10 years, Free Radio could be replaced by another brand. “It’s probably more likely than not,” he tells me. “Once you’ve broken the mould these things develop a life of their own. I can’t see it in the short term because we’re clearly in charge and we’re doing what we want to do. But all stations go through changes – there’s hardly a single station in the States that hasn’t gone through a name change at some point.”
With the exception of ‘passion’ station Kiss, groups like Bauer have made it clear that they have no plans to follow Global down the brands route and intend to keep the original names for ‘place’ stations such as Radio City, Metro, Hallam and Aire.
Phil concludes: “The number of pure heritage stations that have been around for a long time and have not changed is getting smaller and smaller by the day – and good luck to those that can survive. But I think the dynamics are against them and that’s because the big boys have already done what they’ve done. What they’ve done for the right reasons is, in the national marketplace, they’ve made radio easier to buy. Once you start to do that everybody else has to play catch up. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
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