(L-R): Real Radio’s agency sales director Kevin McAuley, GMG Radio’s chief executive John Myers and Real Radio’s group managing director Shaun Bowron soberly toast their success.It is the middle of December 2002. I am sitting in an office on the first floor of Real Radio’s swish Glasgow studios, around a table with Real Radio’s group managing director Shaun Bowron, programme director Jay Crawford and sales director Billy Anderson.
As I sip my coffee and we chat a loud cheer erupts from the far side of the Real Radio sales floor.
Anderson grins: “That means the sales team has just made its sales target for December, two weeks early. Not bad, eh?”
Playing the sceptical journalist, I offer that the sales team’s amateur dramatics were particularly well timed, but Anderson and Bowron assure me that the hoots of delight were not simply to hammer home how well Real Radio has been accepted since the station hit Scotland’s airwaves exactly a year ago.
Obviously, Bowron, Crawford and Anderson will shout from the rooftops about the station’s achievements, but the real picture lies within the Rajar figures.
Scot FM’s last ever Rajar report in December 2001 saw the station, acquired by Guardian Media Group’s radio division in the summer of that year for £25.5m from The Wireless Group, attracting a weekly audience of 438,000 across the Central Belt. That equated to a market share of 17 per cent, with each listener tuning in for 7.8 hours per week.
Almost a year on, and following substantial investment in new premises, new equipment and a heavy marketing campaign, Real Radio’s weekly reach has risen to 561,000, which is 21 per cent of the available audience. Even more impressive and an indicator that changes in programming have been successful is that listeners are staying with the station for 10.7 hours per week, an increase of almost three hours a week year on year.
“We did not really expect to be at this stage of our development already,” says Bowron. “It is well documented that we are two years ahead of our business plan as laid out by GMG, so there is a lot of delight not only here but at GMG also. Our target for the first twelve months was to get listener hours up to eight, so to get 10.6 puts us well ahead of the game. I know John (Myers) is pleased with what we have done, but there is still a lot more to do. Because we have made such a good start, more is expected of us. In sales you are only as good as last month’s sales figures, so we know we all have lots to do and we have some great ideas to get us there.”
Bowron took charge of Real Radio in Scotland in January 2001, shortly before the station’s launch, after a career in newspapers. Six months later his role changed and he became group MD for the Real Radio group of stations, which also covers Yorkshire and South Wales.
Anderson joined Real Radio late in January 2001 from the Carnyx Group, the parent company of The Drum, having spent time at Auto Trader and Scot FM in its earlier days.
Crawford could be described as the grandfather of Scottish commercial radio, with a career spanning 28 years at stations such as Clyde, Forth and, latterly, Scot FM. He joined Myers’ growing GMG Radio when GMG acquired Scot FM and says it was the best decision of his life.
“I have never regretted it for an instant,” he says. “Perhaps I was anxious about the station’s move from Edinburgh to Glasgow, as anyone would be if they were being asked to move 45 miles, but that was the best thing that has ever happened to the station and after 28 years in radio I think this has been the best year I have ever had personally. There has been a combination of factors to that. The success of launching a new radio station, which is always the best time to work in radio, combined with the overall success of the new station and hitting the target audience goals that we had set for the first two years within the first two months of broadcasting, was tremendous.”
It all sounds radio-tastic, but what does the management team put the success down to, particularly when they were faced with an entrenched market leader like Radio Clyde in the West of Scotland?
“In the first three months I think people just sat back and watched us to see if we could deliver what we said we would deliver,” says Bowron. “Gradually we have delivered and each Rajar has improved on the previous one, so that is the proof of the pudding. Early on, the sales department and I agreed that the programming has to be as strong as possible at all costs. We will not compromise that. It has come to a point where we have had to turn money away a couple of times to ensure that the quality of the output remains as high as possible. Without a good product, Billy and his team have nothing to sell.”
From the outset Real Radio has prided itself on its commercial nous. The station only allows 16 ads per hour of broadcasting, only four in any one ad break and promises category exclusivity for clients. Indeed, as you enter the station’s premises there is a mission statement that clearly outlines its intent to make money by delivering a cost-effective bridge between its listeners and advertisers. In the creative industries, where the word profit is often a dirty one, such an upfront approach to profit could be refreshing.
Bowron adds: “We have a clear list of business objectives that everyone in the business is clear about, from the cleaner to the presenters, so they can see which direction we are heading in and we also have some values of how we want to operate as a business. Any good business has them as part of its stock. We want to treat advertisers and suppliers as fairly as we can. I want suppliers to make a profit. I don’t want them to be so tight that they give us a bad service. I want everyone in the business to feel good about it and look forward to coming into work each morning. I think we have achieved that this year. There have been a few people who haven’t worked out. They have understood that they have not worked out and they came to us and said as much. We have not had to take anyone out of the business.”
So, the sales policy coupled with radical changes to the programming appears to be paying dividends.
Anderson says: “Our sales policy dictates that there are only 16 ads in each hour. That gives us a real point of difference and there is an argument to have us on any schedule in the Scottish media marketplace.
“Also, if you look at the day parts in UK commercial radio you get peaks and troughs. Something we have tried hard to do this year is iron out those peaks and troughs. We hold our breakfast audience right through mid-morning and then we have specific programmes, such as the all request lunch and Real Ones in the afternoon, to draw people back in, which keeps it high right through the day rather than there being the peak with the morning drive and the peak with the afternoon drive. Traditionally, when buying radio people will say give me a couple of spots in morning drive, a couple of spots in afternoon drive and a couple in Saturday sport. We have tried to buck the trend by giving advertisers the option to spread their spots and get a little bit more out of their advertising, which has worked well for us.”
Obviously, the battle for breakfast listeners is the biggest battle of the day and, with Radio Clyde’s George Bowie long crowned as Glasgow’s king of breakfast radio, making a dent has been tough. But with Real, Robin Galloway and Marie-Clair, the Real Breakfast Show, has proven a high point, according to Bowron: “Our flagship show at breakfast has been the single most successful part of the daily schedule. At its peak, Robin and Marie are pulling in more than 100,000 people, which is just great. At its peak in the Scot FM days the breakfast show was hitting no more than 55,000 listeners. The other success story for talk ability is the Football Phone-in in the early evening. That has been a real pleasant surprise for us. At its peak, Alan Rough and Bill Young are getting an audience of 45,000 listeners to that show. Interestingly 25,000 of those are men and 20,000 are women. If you do listen to the show you will hear a lot of women calling in because they like the crack that the guys have.”
So, what of the competition? Like Scotland’s newspaper industry, its commercial radio sector is equally competitive and set to become even more so with another new radio licence up for grabs for Glasgow this year.
Bowron says: “It sounds glib, but it is not meant to. I am not concerned about how our competitors feel about us. We all have great respect for the commercial rivals we have. Clyde has done a fantastic job and it is the heritage brand in the West and similarly Forth in the East. SRH is a very well run company, as we know. But we have a clear direction for this station so I am less concerned with what they think or how they have reacted to us. They have reacted in a commercial manner, as we thought they would, but it has not swayed us from having just four ads per break and we have not compromised on our prices either.”
Anderson reinforces Bowron’s comments, saying: “We respect other stations, but we don’t follow any of them. Commercially, from a buyer’s point of view, what we have done is we have heated the market place up. What we bother about is the clients and the listeners. We have given them an option and we have also tried to build a new marketplace so it is not just cannibalising the radio listeners and advertisers that are already there. We have brought people from BBC stations and listeners who have not been tuning in to commercial radio so, from an advertiser’s point of view, that is what they want. They want consumers who can make the buying decisions and have the disposable income.”
Unlike publishing, where many editorial teams and sales teams are as friendly as Saddam Hussein and George Bush, the relationship appears to be much more relaxed at Real Radio. Believe it or not, Crawford actually values what the sales team adds to the station’s output.
He says: “The brands that the sales team has brought on board all add to the quality of the output; ScotRail, EasyJet, Whyte & Mackay, Arnold Clarke, Optical Express, WHSmith and other quality brands. They have a snowball effect of their own as people take notice. As soon as the Whyte & Mackay sponsorship deal was announced we had a couple of other whisky brands on the phone. Good sponsors also allow us to improve the quality of the output. After Whyte & Mackay came on board as sponsor for the football phone-in, we were able to make it longer and added Richard Gough to the team. So we were upping the game, which, from an advertiser’s point of view, and the listeners’, can only be a good thing.”
And so, what of the future? Can this success story continue?
Crawford says: “I’m looking forward to 2003, as is the whole team. If you had asked us before we launched whether we could become the biggest commercial radio station in Scotland then we might have been sceptical, but we have only got one to beat now. We are the market leader in our target demographic and really that is the most anyone can expect of you. The fact that we can now see as an achievable target becoming the biggest station in Scotland, I don’t think anyone would have thought that possible in the Scot FM days, because it lacked investment and that is one thing it doesn’t lack now under GMG. They promised financial backing and support and have delivered.”
However, while Bowron’s career may be flying high, his feet remain firmly planted on the ground: “We are not stupid enough to think that we will jump by five percentage points at each Rajar. It will be a slow burn and we are on this journey for the long term. We will build gradually.
“There will come a time when our Rajar stutters a little bit, as Jay always tells me minutes before we get the results in on Rajar day. We can expect that at some time we will hold and not build, but we will take it in our stride and carry on regardless.”