Smoothing over Jazz\'s cracks

By The Drum | Administrator

February 25, 2004 | 5 min read

It’s official – heavy metal killed jazz. Ozzy slayed Ella, Maiden mauled Marvin and Nugent nuked Nina. In the battle of guitar vs. trumpet, the head-bangers turned their Marshalls up to 11 and blew the competition away.

Or, to put it another way, the fact that Kerrang won the vacant West Midlands radio licence last year put the final nail in the coffin of Jazz FM in the North. Surprised? So were we.

GMG Radio boss John Myers revealed all at the group’s Salford Quay’s base: “We thought if we could win the West Midlands licence we could establish a semi-national Jazz brand. We’d have been able to justify its survival by spreading a lot of the costs across the spine of England, as it were. But the Radio Authority favoured Kerrang and, to be fair, it was a great application. They deserved to win. Once that happened we had to evaluate the business as a stand-alone, and the stand-alone basis for the North West just wasn’t good enough. We were growing the audience – but no matter what we were doing we weren’t growing it fast enough.”

But obviously that’s not the whole story – it wasn’t a simple case of ‘axe’ murder. In Myers’ experienced eyes the brand was already on its last legs in the region and euthanasia was becoming an increasingly attractive option.

“People simply were not sampling it,” imparted the former BBC Radio Cumbria DJ, not to mention star of BBC2’s ‘Trouble at the Top’, across the boardroom table. “We conducted a vast amount of research and came to a simple conclusion. People just didn’t like the name. They thought ‘jazz’, they thought ‘old guy sitting around playing a trumpet’. In London (where the station has in excess of 800,000 listeners) they don’t seem to have the animosity towards the name, their perception of it is positive. In the North West it just didn’t work.”

Is that because we’re just unpretentious, spade’s-a-spade, down-to-earth folk who can’t be arsed with all that cool “Hey man, I dig jazz” bullshit? Well, perhaps. John Myers didn’t exactly agree, because I didn’t exactly ask him that question, but I’ve got a funny feeling he might. He’s a straight-talking man and he talked pretty straight about the pros and cons of Jazz (NW).

“We didn’t come up with the name, we inherited it when we bought the station two years ago. People here think of jazz and they think of Cleo Lane, but it’s not. We play a huge spectrum of music and artists, massively popular names like Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and Rod Stewart. If people listen to it they like it, but they weren’t sampling it because of the name. It wasn’t an output problem, it was an image problem – and changing the image of stations and building audiences is something that I think we do extremely well.” A stance vindicated by the change in Scot FM’s fortunes since GMG set about it with its Real Radio brand scalpel.

So the image is changing, but the output isn’t (bar a bit of cosmetic “tinkering”). And on 2 March the bandages will be removed to reveal the new, improved (and, hopefully, very attractive) 100.4 Smooth FM. But how will Myers and Co ensure that people tune in to sample the relaxing delights of Smooth? How will he facilitate a greater regional awareness than the mere 47 per cent of the population, a figure he describes as “criminal”, who were familiar with the name Jazz FM? His answer: “With the biggest radio media launch the North West has ever seen.” Which seems like a pretty good response.

He explained, “We’re very proud of the new product and we don’t intend to keep it a secret. We’re spending over a million quid to make sure we don’t. We’re going very big on TV, with over 1,000 ratings, we’ll be big on outdoor, big on taxis, big on buses – we’ve got over 30 per cent of the bus fleet. Our approach to marketing is a simple one: we like to dominate the media we appear on. We don’t go for the ripple effect; we go in hard and make a splash. Over the next three months, 90 per cent of the population will see our ad 11 times. You’d have to emigrate not to hear about Smooth.”

For those of us not heading off for a place in the sun, Clear Marketing’s lava lamp execution is something we’d better get used to. Myers heralds it as a “distinctive campaign” that sums up what the station is all about. Which is “no screaming phone calls from listeners, no twenty-grand give-aways on a Monday morning – it’s an easy, relaxing, smooth-sounding station that people can escape to”. If that sounds like your sort of getaway, 2 March is the time to book your ticket.

But will those of you outside the North West get a chance to feel the Smooth vibes? Is Myers looking to re-create his success with the Real brand and incrementally extend the station’s influence across the UK?

Well, he’s adamant that the Jazz in London will remain unmolested, but with a predatory glint in his eye he admitted, “Let’s just say that we have a good brand that we’d like to build up. Ofcom has just announced a whole raft of new licences and I think that in various markets the Smooth brand would sit very well.” Other radio groups beware: this Smooth operator may soon be on the prowl yet again.


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