Sitting down for a meeting with Mike Pennington, Alison Halstead and Freddie Mercury was a rather unnerving experience. As soon as I’d unpacked my Dictaphone, pen and paper and introduced myself to Real Radio Yorkshire’s MD and PR manager, Freddie piped up in the background with “one dream, one soul, one prize, one goal”.
Composing myself, my first question related to how Real Radio had been performing in the run-up to its first anniversary broadcasting in the region. The response – “It’s a kind of magic, magic, magic ... daaaanoooowww.” I could swear I was being set up.
But, of course, as prestigious a publication as The Marketeer is, I doubt they’d change the play list of their radio station to try and subliminally indoctrinate one journalist into writing a positive piece. Real’s 353,000 other listeners might have something to say about that.
As soon as Freddie’s voice left the building Pennington’s replaced it ... with interest. The affable, but undeniably focused, Yorkshireman is also quite a character but, unlike our deceased Mr Mercury, you get the feeling he’s a wee bit more down to earth.
“Yes, we are ambitious,” he agrees, when talking about Real’s ambition to attain a 15 per cent reach in its catchment area by the end of year two. “But, as a Yorkshireman would say, ‘balls on the table’.”
Before I can do what I’m told, he explains, “You don’t get anywhere by saying ‘Well, we may do this’ or ‘We could do that’. You know, let’s go for it, and with the backing and the people we’ve got there’s no reason why we can’t achieve our goals.”
And, to be fair, the Guardian Media Group’s Real ambition does seem to be paying dividends. After one year in business the Wakefield-based station is, in Pennington’s words, “bang on” its initially daunting business targets. “We’ve now got a 12 per cent reach, which is what we wanted, the audience and rates are bang on the business plan and, as far as revenues are concerned, we’re ahead of it. At the moment we’re also recording 10.6 hours per listener, which is way ahead of the competition in this marketplace.”
It’s perhaps this last indicator that seems to suggest that the Real Radio formula appears to be reacting well with the target audience of 25- to 54-year-olds.
One of the great challenges facing commercial radio is fighting the listener’s predilection to “do the twist” when the ad breaks come on – switching the dial to the next station along. Pennington and co are trying to counter this natural instinct with a creative approach.
“Creativity is vitally important to us,” he stresses, pausing for a rare breath. “We’ve all heard the ads you get on commercial radio stations that just aren’t conducive to the quality of the music or presenters, and that just encourages the audience to flick the switch on them. We’re very conscious about the creative-led sell, because, if you keep the creative standards of the ads high, you’ll keep your audience’s interest for longer and everyone’s happy.” With this in mind, the station has just bolstered its in-house creative team with the recruitment of Paul Renhard from Pulse in Bradford as the new creative manager. Add this to the fact that Real limits the output of commercials to four per slot (with category exclusivity) and only four slots per hour, and an outside observer can understand why the station retains its listeners’ attention.
However, for a relatively new kid on the block the main challenge isn’t just in retaining what few friends it has, it’s in attracting more of them. And if, as Pennington states, Real wants to be the most popular member of Yorkshire’s commercial class, it needs to win over punters who already have firm friendships. As Pennington concedes, this won’t happen overnight.
“It is difficult because people in Yorkshire are incredibly, I’d say uniquely, loyal. It takes a long time to convert audiences from something they’ve established trust in and that’s what we’ve got to do. That’s why I was brought on board after spending 20-odd years at the Yorkshire Post (he rose from “receptionist” to assistant group MD) – for my knowledge of the area, of the people and of the marketplace. We do have a job on our hands, but we’re confident we can do it.”
The station’s substantial marketing budget is the tool that Pennington aims to swing into action to get that job done. “One of the main focuses of the business at the moment is how to use our marketing budget to meet our audience objectives – I want to make sure that we spend it right. In the past we’ve stuck to traditional media but now we’re looking at as many options as we can. We’ve done branding at the airport. We’ve done a deal with White Rose Shopping Centre to brand one of their main escalators. We’ll continue to brand taxis, which I think is a fantastic medium – I’d do more of them if we could. We moving into direct marketing, we’re doing leaflet drops through newspapers, we’re doing press campaigns, which we haven’t done before, as well as buses, as well as potential TV. Traditionally, the media can fall down when it actually comes to advertising itself, but we’re making sure that we practice what we preach.”
Despite Pennington’s belief that Real can play an effective marketing hand, he is quick to acknowledge that the station’s main competitor has even more cards up its sleeve than the mighty GMG. That competitor is the perpetual thorn in the side of commercial radio, John Myers’ personal nemesis – Radio 2.
“Radio 2 is still the main player in all our TSAs,” he admits, “and it is an undeniable threat to our sector. They have an almost unlimited budget, with millions to spend on personalities like Terry Wogan, and in the rest of the BBC services they have a fantastic vehicle to advertise, free of charge, a strong national brand. We don’t have that unlimited budget and no commercial station could ever afford to spend on advertising coverage what they can get for free.
“But at the same time the challenge of Radio 2 is facing all commercial stations, so at the moment we just have to accept it and concentrate on what we’re doing. I don’t want to get distracted by what they, or what anyone else, is up to. I want us to focus on building this station and meeting our own objectives; that’s the only way we’ll continue to be successful.”
And, with that, Pennington’s voice fades and the piped-in music becomes audible once again. I was kind of expecting a visit from Freddie again to chant, “We are the champions, my friend” but any prior suspicions of an audio conspiracy proved unfounded by the arrival of the Sugababes. Which is a bit of a shame really, I was starting to like Real Radio.