Wednesday morning saw the highly anticipated relaunch of Virgin Radio UK, and having grown up listening to the original station in the 90s, I was intrigued to see how the new offering stacked up.
The old station was a perfect match for the time with the combination of Richard Branson, Chris Evans and Britpop proving to be a powerful force for listeners and ultimately advertisers.
But listening habits have changed and the new Virgin Radio has relaunched in a much more saturated market. Despite this, demand is clearly still there with Absolute Radio, Absolute 80s, BBC Radio 6 and Radio X continuing to attract very strong ratings, which can only bode well for the reborn Virgin Radio.
The launch comes amid a new wave of commercial radio stations taking off via the second digital multiplex, including talkRADIO, talkSPORT 2 and Mellow Magic. Sister station expansions have seen great success in recent years with Kisstory, Absolute 80s and Capital XTRA, all launched to a large audience. The considerable investment by owners of commercial radio stations will also narrow the gap between the BBC and commercial radio, keeping radio firmly on the minds of marketers and media agencies. What will differentiate them from streaming services is the content and level of engagement provided by the presenters.
It’s clear The Wireless Group has been busy preparing for the big day, garnering public support from Richard and Sam Branson, as well as a sponsor for their breakfast in the spotlight. They also did a great job of rallying key agency directors, not to mention the innovative launch event on a Virgin train from Manchester to London.
But what about the music? Being its primary target audience myself, my requests for the new station would have been for a mix of old classics and emerging artists (think Wolf Alice and the Slaves a year ago), with savvy presenters offering more than ‘an update on Rihanna on whereabouts, live music, some original covers and some famous guests.
Judging by its first five hours of airing, Virgin Radio broke it in every aspect. Fully expecting to hear old favorites Oasis, Coldplay, Blur and the Artic Monkeys every hour, it was refreshing to see Virgin’s playlist for the new line of music from Chvrches and Richard Ashcroft to Walking on Cars and Jack Garratt. It is however the first song of a new station, which faithfully reflects its future personality. It was an exclusive cover of David Bowie’s Changes by relative newcomer Gavin James, who took the coveted spot, delivering a clear intention of heritage and origin on the part of the station. If this originality continues, Virgin Radio will certainly stand out from the crowd.
Host lineup also does the trick with established radio stars like Edith Bowman and Matt Richardson on Key Breakfast and Driving Time shows, with comedian Russell Kane at Saturday Breakfast. It’s also good to see Ben Jones again on Virgin Radio after being on the original station in the ’00s.
In particular, the choice of Virgin’s lead presenter in Edith Bowman seems to have lived up to it, with her energy and laid-backness providing a fairly fluid launch spectacle. And with its heritage of hosting festivals on TV and radio stations, it will be interesting to see if Virgin Radio enters the live music space either as a partner of ongoing festivals or for new ones. opportunities, which would appeal to advertisers.
As I walked around Carat’s offices on launch day, I couldn’t help but notice that every computer was listening. Comments from all walks of life have been very positive, despite a few young people who have bowed their noses (but only Zayn in the loop will appease themâ¦). They praised the station’s live music offering, however – with Travis, Mystery Jets, Walking on Cars and The Feeling all making strong appearances on day one.
It will be interesting to see the station’s rates in the Rajars later this summer, revealing just how the team at Wireless has been able to deliver the Virgin heritage and originality their audiences have come to expect.