It was a done deal. Virgin Radio was coming to Glasgow and there was nothing going to stop it. That’s maybe what many in the Scottish media marketplace thought last year, when the commercial might of Virgin Radio threw its hat into the ring for the chance to win the ultimate prize – the new FM licence for Glasgow.
Scotland’s media awaited the inevitable announcement from the Radio Authority, but it never came. Instead of Virgin Radio being offered the opportunity to take Glasgow’s FM airwaves hostage in 2004, Saga Radio, the ultimate coffin-dodgers’ network, stole the crown and gave even more credence to the saying that there is life in the old dog yet.
Four months after bosses at Saga toasted their success with a nice glass of QC Cream, Norman Quirk, a stalwart of Scottish commercial radio, has taken up the hot easy chair at Saga 105.2FM and is now faced with making the Saga Group’s dream of owning a third successful radio station a reality by the autumn.
Before the sherry is out again though, Quirk faces a number of interesting challenges during the next few months. If simply getting a radio station up and running in the first place isn’t challenge enough, he also has the task of changing what he believes are inaccurate perceptions that many people have about Saga Radio.
He says: “There is still a certain perception of Saga Radio out there. We are the new kids on the block so we have got to get out there and alter that perception. What I can say is that the perceptions of Saga Radio are not the reality of Saga Radio. At the moment, you start to talk to people about Saga Radio and they think it’s Zimmer frames and stair lifts. What we have to get across is that the Saga Radio is not a station for old people; we are a station for older people.
“People now live longer, they have more active, healthier lifestyles, and they are more energetic and enthusiastic. I know, because I am in that age group, that there is no station broadcasting to me and giving me the mix of local news, current affairs and music that I want. I can listen to music and I can listen to current affairs, but I have to switch to different stations. There is no one station I can get them and there is no lifestyle station I can go to.
“Ultimately, we will be judged by what the station is, not by what people’s perceptions are. What people are saying about Saga is going to be totally different in a year’s time to what they are saying now because what they are saying now is just the perception.”
Changing the public’s perception of Saga is vital to the station’s success and already one high-profile supporter is BBC TV and radio presenter Tam Cowan, who, shortly after the Radio Authority announced Saga had won the licence, wrote in the Daily Record: “Saga Radio, honestly folks, it is the finest radio station on the planet [except for Radio Scotland, he says, in a contractual sort of way] and the music moves effortlessly from We’re a Couple of Swells to a little bit of Rod Stewart. No loudmouth breakfast DJs shouting or wind-up merchants who hire dumb blonds to laugh at their every word. It’s all gentle stuff from a cracking radio station that really knows its audience.”
High praise indeed, but Quirk knows he has to alter perceptions among the public and potential advertisers alike in order for the station to mirror the success its sister stations, Saga 105.7FM and Saga 106.6FM, in Birmingham and Nottingham respectively, have enjoyed since the group launched its first station in October 2001.
He says: “We really are going to be part of Glasgow, we’re not just going to be in Glasgow, we will be part of it. In fact, we are going to be the only Glasgow radio station based in the city of Glasgow, so we really will be part of the community.
“We will be 65 per cent music, 35 per cent speech, we will be 24 hours a day, we’ll have our own news team, and so we will do local news. We’re not going to be Saturday afternoon football. We will cover sports and sports news, but it will not be a key plank for us because there are an awful lot of people who want to listen to other things and there are stations that already do sport very well.”
So, if Quirk can keep the listeners happy and growing, can he rely on advertising revenue to follow? And are Saga listeners really as important to advertisers as the lucrative 15–35 market targeted by so many other stations?
“I don’t subscribe to the view that our audience shouldn’t be attractive to advertisers, quite the reverse. There is spending power there, the lifestyle and the leisure time and so on. We are bringing advertisers a totally disenfranchised part of the market so, in order to get to that market, advertisers will come to us. If you are advertising a product for 15- to 30-year-olds, you’re not going to be on Saga anyway. At the moment, if you are looking to target a market over 50 on radio you have to go to a station that is really not focused on that market, hoping to pick them up.
“I think we will get a good share of arts and leisure advertising, but just because you turn 50 doesn’t mean you stop buying the things you bought when you were in your 40s. Over 50s still buy music, go to the theatre, buy new furniture, new houses, new cars and so on. A lot of advertisers tend to think that by the time people are 50 they have decided where they like to buy things from, but you’ve got to keep people.
Like Scotland’s newspaper sector, radio is a highly competitive area, with groups such as Scottish Radio Holdings, Capital Radio and Guardian Media Group all fighting for audience share and advertising spend. So, where does Quirk expect to get his listeners?
“I think we will take a bit of audience from Radio Scotland, Clyde 2, Radio 2, Real Radio, but I don’t think we are going to put any of them out of business, because none of them are direct competitors. That said, some of their listeners will, I hope, like what we are going to be offering and come across to Saga.
“Because we are offering something different, I think a lot of people will be coming to us who are not already listening to radio because there is no station for them. I know, because I speak to people from my age group, that many don’t listen to the radio because there’s nothing for them or if they do they are listening to a national service. I want people who live in Glasgow to know that this is a broadcasting organisation that looks at the world through the eyes of the people it serves.
“Around 39 per cent of people in our transmission area are in our target age range. By 2015 that figure is expected to have risen to 40–42 per cent, so our potential audience is growing all the time. People come into our target market when they hit 50 and, being realistic, they could be in it for up to 40 years. Everybody is growing into our target market and they will be in our target age group longer than they will be in anyone else’s.”
Saga 105.2FM will broadcast from the old Wills Cigarette factory building on Alexandra Parade, which, after a significant face lift, has been regenerated into a modern and plush business centre called City Park. Quirk and the forty-something full- and part-time staff he intends to appoint in the coming months will take a large section of the top floor and work on converting it into a cutting-edge digital broadcast facility, which starts on 26 April.
The coming weeks will also see Quirk step up his quest to fill the key positions of programme director and sales director, both jobs he aims to fill from Scotland.
He says: “I very much intend to fill the key positions from Scotland. There is a lot of talent out there so we would be looking to place people in Scotland. We want quality broadcasters and we want good broadcasters. Yes, I want to get them from Scotland, but I would never say to a person you can’t go on air because you’re English. We took a gamble way back at Radio Clyde and put Steve Jones, an English guy, on the morning show and he was great because he found out about the audience and he never had any bother, because he was professional and good. We want to encourage local talent, as there are lots of good people out there, even people who have not been on radio before.
“One thing that was made very clear to me is that there are group resources I can use. For instance, we have great presenters like David Hamilton, David Cash, Sheila Tracy, who can do programmes, but it will be up to us locally whether we take these programmes with the presenter, whether we take the format without the presenter or whether we don’t take anything at all. Obviously, we have quality programmes and quality presenters, but we are being totally allowed to put the local identity on the station here, which I think is brilliant.”
The last six years have seen Quirk in charge of Scottish Ballet, a job he says he would have stayed in until the day he retired. So why did he decide to swap evenings at The Nutcracker for evenings of Nat King Cole?
“If someone had told me a year ago that I would have left Scottish Ballet I would have said no way. Scottish Ballet, from a personal and professional point of view, has been the best six years of my career. To be at that level in that organisation was just fantastic and I loved it. I would have been there until I retired and they pushed me out the door. But then this opportunity came along. Radio is in my blood, I love it, I think it is the supreme media. It is personal, it’s immediate, it’s just wonderful. It must be everybody’s dream to start up a radio station. I mean, whatever field you are in people want to start their own things. To be able to launch a radio station with the head start of having the Saga brand behind you is a dream. There is virtually nothing I would have left Scottish Ballet for, but this was the one thing.”
Quirk can always be reassured by the fact that, if competition ever gets too hot, he can always take refuge in the nuclear bunker beneath the old Wills factory.
Norman Quirk - CV
Quirk, a charted accountant by profession, got into the radio industry only after mechanics working on his car changed his car radio to a fledgling radio station called Radio Clyde in 1974. The station was advertising for a chief accountant, Quirk got the job and became part of the management team that made Clyde the leading commercial radio station in Scotland.
In 1985 he left Clyde and joined the Institute of Chartered Accountants, then he moved on to the Joint Monitoring Unit, where he monitored the financial services industry.
He returned to radio after launching his own management consultancy where he did some work for Central FM, eventually becoming chairman of the station.
After discussions with the Independent Radio Group, Quirk was appointed managing director at Scot FM in 1996 when IRG acquired the station. He then became chairman of IRG in Scotland, overseeing Scot FM, 96.3Q FM and The Wave in Dundee.
In 1998 he moved to Scottish Ballet where he spent the next six years as MD and chief executive. He left Scottish Opera earlier this month and took up the post of Saga MD on Tuesday 20 April.