Lunching out at the Sony Radio Awards I found myself brooding over the
contrasting fates of ailing Viva! radio in London, and the soaring
national success of Radio 5 Live, which won the coveted accolade,
Station of the Year.
There is a double lesson here: firstly about the limits of niche
broadcasting, and secondly, about never losing sight of the
fundamentals, such as making sure your message is getting across. Viva’s
weak signal makes for horrible listening.
The violently differing fortunes also speak volumes about PR limits.
Some of the sassiest operators from Lynne Franks downwards won Viva!
more headlines and column inches than the minus 500 weekend listeners
the industry’s measurement system detected. But the launch publicity
never told you the basics, like where to find the new channel. In
contrast, Radio 5 Live’s recasting as a news and sports channel
initially got a bad press, but with 4.8 million listeners a week, the
blokes have voted.
The basic problem with Viva! is that the concept is wrong. I’m the first
to pick up glossy women’s magazines when time allows, but it has never
been clear that this impulse to browse could translate into enjoyable
talk-based radio for female achievers. I often listen to Woman’s Hour on
Radio 4 but it is an honourable exception. To aim a station at women,
especially professional women, is daft: we are too diverse and busy to
build a commercial radio brand upon: it does not meet a desperate need.
When busy women get into the car, or mooch around on Sundays, we just
might want to tune into the mainstream.
I have every sympathy with Viva’s new owners, Liberty Radio, who say
that since the initial output has ‘failed miserably’ they want to
abandon the all-women format, in favour of interesting programmes which
anyone will want to turn to. They have immediately run up against the
Radio Authority regulator, which hates seeing performance promises
junked. Surely Liberty should be allowed to renegotiate. Viva! was
always going to be an experiment.
Meanwhile the question is how long Radio 5 will be allowed to get away
with its hold on sporting radio rights, brilliantly identified by the
BBC as an undervalued asset. As the Sony awards made clear last week,
the station won through because it was providing what large numbers of
listeners could not do without: top class commentators matched with live
radio rights. One of its finest moments, recognised by the Sonys, came
with last autumn’s Ryder Cup. Since TV rights were controlled by Sky,
Radio 5 was able to act as the people’s friend.
Radio 5 Live is a kind of throw back, allowing the BBC to display its
news gathering strengths and hark back to a lost era when radio was the
popular way of spreading news. Enjoy it while you can. The secret is