As I walk into Saga 105.2FM, I wonder if this is what it’s like backstage at the Oscars. The tension is apparent even in reception, where I chat with the receptionist as I wait for Saga’s managing director, Norman Quirk. She tells me that the office has been manic all day. Thinking she means because of anticipation of the Rajar results, I say, “I guess everyone’s nervous?” She looks bemused. It turns out that, no, she’s talking about the successful competition around the launch of Saga Magazine on to the news-stands last month, which has seen the station roped into opening entries.
I’m met by Quirk’s little bit intimidating, but also disarmingly charming, assistant Joan Morrison, who takes me through to the main office. The first department I hit is the sales team. When the station launched, Quirk was quick to position the sales desks as the first department any staff has to pass through when they come to work, “so they know who pays the wages” is his strategy. The team – led by sales director Pamela Richardson – is buzzing with excitement. It’s obvious they’re desperate to come across as quietly confident, but they’re like students waiting for their exam results.
Quirk appears and seems somewhat apprehensive at having a journalist in the room as they get the results, and immediately asks if it’s okay if the three-strong management team – himself, Richardson and, programme director, Gerry Burke – can be alone together when they get the results.
“Today is like getting your exam results,” he agreed. “We built up the team, we did the test transmissions, we went on air, and for the past seven or eight months we’ve been broadcasting. And for right reason or none, this is how we’re judged. We’re judged in the advertising world and we’re judged, by the other radio stations, on our Rajar figures, and it’s very important to us.”
Richardson has been off since the weekend with flu, and is choked with what I think is a combination of anticipation, emotion and just a general bug. But in her own words, “Wild horses wouldn’t have stopped me from being here.”
It’s clear that Quirk is more than just grateful to his sales director and programme director for ‘building it so they come’, he is fond of both them, and the rest of the team.
“There were three challenges when we started,” he said. “One was to get the premises and get them all fitted out. Second was to get the marketing and PR ready for launch. But without doubt, the most important thing was getting the right team. I said this from day one, and I still believe we’ve got the best team in radio in Scotland. The senior management team – Gerry as programme director and Pam as sales director – there’s nobody better in Scotland than those two. Everybody in here is committed to this station. Even the young people. When records come on, they put the volume up; they sing to them, they’re dancing. It’s a fun place to be.”
As Quirk, Richardson and Burke disappear into Quirk’s office at 5.30pm to look at the results, none of them will be drawn on their expectations, with Richardson repeating what Quirk has already stressed to me. “We said we’d do ten per cent in our first year, and we’re six months down the line,” Richardson said. “I think people may get confused at ten per cent and expect us to deliver that in our first Rajar. We said we’d do ten per cent in year one, and we’re only half way through year one. When we started, there wasn’t even a floor; it was a shell. To see it evolve into this, from my point of view of selling, we’ve got no currency to deal with until you’ve got Rajar. You don’t even know what value the agencies put on you.” And with that they’re gone.
I’m left to hang out with the rest of the team, and everyone I speak to is happy, confident that the results are going to be good. The witching hour comes and Quirk, Richardson and Burke emerge from Quirk’s office. They should play poker. Their faces give away nothing, although Richardson’s eyes are a bit red; but I put that down to the flu.
Once the station staff are settled, Quirk builds the atmosphere. “Okay, well, the day we opened I said we had the best team in Scotland,” he said. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. He goes on, “and we’ve proved it. Reach, ten per cent”, a cheer goes up and Richardson allows a couple of tears to escape. Quirk goes on, “Average hours, 10.9; share, 5.7 per cent; Total hours,” he pauses for effect, “2,003,000.” The results are far higher than they anticipated, and Quirk addresses that by telling the team, “Unfortunately our illustrious sales director does not believe me and is convinced I’ve not read the tables properly,” he laughs. “She’s like my mother when we did our first set of accounts for Radio Clyde [Quirk worked on the launch of that station]. She said, ‘are you sure you’ve done your sums right?’ I just think that’s a fantastic result. We all were hoping, we said we’d do ten per cent in the first year, and we’ve done it in our first Rajar. I’m so proud of each and every one of you.”
Everyone starts hugging and the bustling group start cracking into the champagne. Quirk is off to record an excerpt for a show the next day. “How long will you be?” Morrison asks. “Not long,” says Quirk. “One-take Quirk, I’m known as, so a couple of hours.”
It’s obvious to anyone who’s worked with Saga 105.2FM that Quirk has endeavoured to build a brand that lasts, and one that is thought of fondly by its listeners. As the first radio station to be born in Scotland in the last five years, it has quickly been taken to the heart of the west of Scotland, with feedback to Burke showing there was a genuine gap in the commercial radio market. “It [Rajar] is the first time we’ve had any official acknowledgement for what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ve had lots of letters and phone calls, but the industry lives and breathes Rajar. You go through the first eight months and you get lots of anecdotal stuff going on. You think, this is quite special, what’s happening here. You think, well if that is reflected in the figures, we’re doing pretty well. In radio there’s a lot of duplicity; some stations could exist anywhere. Average hours tells me, as a programmer, that people are comfortable to have the station on for a long time. The style of the speech in between the songs [on Saga105.2FM] is such that you feel that there’s always something coming round the next corner. It’s great that people are willing to listen for that length of time. We’ve kept all the letters and e-mails from the website, the things people say like ‘it’s changed my life’, ‘thanks for bringing such a great station to me’. As a programmer, when you put something on air and that comes back, that’s hugely satisfying. That’s like inventing something, putting it on supermarket shelves and watching people come in and start grabbing it.”
The launch of Saga has also created some new experiences for Richardson on the sales side. “What is fantastic is that potential clients were phoning us up saying, ‘Your radio station’s brilliant, I need to advertise’,” she said. “So, if you’ve got a decision-maker that listens, and he loves it, and identifies with your target market, the brand sells itself. We offer a platform to brands that have never had a radio platform before. We’re not about stair lifts, it’s so not like that. It’s high-quality brands that are targeted at the over-50s. They’re affluent; they’ve got money to spend. They’re not interested in buying a car at £29 a week, they’re more interested in buying a £20,000 Lexus, and ‘by the way, there’s the cash’. I think it offers a platform to brands who felt they never had a platform before. We’ve brought a lot of new advertisers to radio, who’ve never advertised before.”
The launch last year brought together decades of experience from Scottish radio. All three senior management worked on the launch of Scot FM in the mid-90s, and Quirk has spent 30 years on and off in radio, having worked at Radio Clyde and Central FM before ducking out to be an executive director of Scottish Ballet; he now describes Saga105.2FM as his ‘dream job’. Richardson has spent the last 15 years working with Central FM, SMG Television Sales, Carnegie Worldwide and Absolute Radio. Burke was responsible for growing Northsound Radio’s audience reach to 60 per cent while he was programme controller.
“I think, over the years you develop a feel for what makes good radio,” he said. “I’m lucky in that I’ve also got a wee bit more commercial understanding than a lot of programmers I know, who are only interested in the on-air stuff and couldn’t give a stuff about how the money’s made. I understand how it all interfaces. Pam’s style and personality is that she understands what the programmers need as well. There’s been this thing that sales pay the wages, but if programming don’t come up with the audience, you’ve got nothing to sell.”
Quirk believes it’s the brand’s USP of its audience that has led to success, and is adamant that he’s not interested in stealing market share off any other station. “We’ve got no competitor, and I don’t mean that in a negative way; there’s no-one head-to-head with us with the same format and the same style,” he said. “We’re not about taking audience off other stations, we’re about growing the radio market for the benefit of everybody. The more people we can get listening to radio the more the advertisers are going to spend with radio, and the more we’re going to get our share of it. We’re very lucky in this area; we’ve got the best radio stations out there. It’s a phenomenal area to be in, very competitive; but we all work together. It’s very professional, and very honourable.”
With my faith in humanity renewed I leave Saga 105.2FM as the champagne, or is it QC Sherry, starts to flow.