A Brief History of Virgin Radio by Adam Bowie

So as the lights come down on 15 and a bit years of Virgin Radio, I thought it might be worth giving everyone a whistlestop history of Virgin Radio – how it came about and some of the things that have happened here over the years.

Look for a more personal version history of Virgin Radio from Russ Williams at 12.15pm today – the only person who’s worked here since the very start.

1990-92

Virgin Radio really started with the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which for the first time allowed national commercial radio services to come into existance. Up until that point, there’d only been local stations, with regional ones to follow. The BBC was the UK’s only national broadcaster.

The Broadcasting Act wanted to introduce a diversity of services, so of the three services that were to be licenced “one is a service the greater part of which consists in the broadcasting of spoken material” and “another is a service which consists, wholly or mainly, in the broadcasting of music which, in the opinion of the [Radio] Authority, is not pop music.” This restriction is still in place and these services are today known as TalkSport and Classic FM.

Entertainingly, the Act defined “pop music” so that no wily service operator should later turn Classic FM into a rock or pop format. It was defined as including “rock music and other kinds of modern popular music which are characterised by a strong rhythmic element and a reliance on electronic amplification for their performance (whether or not, in the case of any particular piece of rock or other such music, the music in question enjoys a current popularity as measured by the number of recordings sold).” So now you know.

The licence that was to become Virgin Radio was to broadcast on the old Radio 3 AM (or Medium Wave) frequency. In those days, it was also used to broadcast cricket commentaries during the summer.

In total there were five bidders, including Virgin Radio which at the time was a 50/50 joint venture with TV-AM. The bid wasn’t the highest, but Virgin Radio got the nod when the company that bid the most was unable to come up with the cash they needed to launch the service. Virgin Radio moved from temporary offices in TV-AM’s Camden Lock building to No. 1 Golden Square where studios were built, and where the station has been since day one.

1993-4

On 30 April 1993, Virgin Radio started broadcasting at 12.15pm from the Manchester Virgin Megastore. Richard Branson launched the service and back in London Richard Skinner played a cover of Born To Be Wild which had been especially recorded by INXS.

Other DJs who broadcast on that initial schedule included Russ Williams who presented the breakfast show on his own, Mitch Johnson in the afternoon, and Tommy Vance on drive. Nick Abbot was on late nights, and on Saturday mornings Chris Evans presented The Big Red Mug Show. Over DJs on that first schedule included Kevin Greening, Emperor Rosko, Graham Dene and Jono Coleman.

First Virgin Radio Schedule - Click on it for more detail

First Virgin Radio Schedule - Click on it for more detail

Fairly soon after launch Chris Evans had left the station, and Jono had joined Russ on breakfast to form the Russ ‘n’ Jono breakfast show. But at a managerial level, the fight was on to get Virgin Radio onto FM in London. The only national commercial FM service had been awared to Classic FM, but the Radio Authority was still licencing new services in London and elsewhere.

1995-6

By 1995, the campaign had born fruit and Virgin Radio was launched on 105.8 FM from 10 April that year, beginning with a message from David Frost at 6am followed by the Russ ‘n’ Jono breakfast show. Part of the licence requirements for the London service meant that a daily London “opt-out” was broadcast on FM, presented initially by Roland Rivron.

In mid-1996 Virgin Radio launched its first website and began streaming – making it the first radio station in Europe to be available to listen to via the internet.

And Russ & Jono won Virgin Radio’s first ever Gold Sony Radio Award for a music based breakfast show. Virgin Radio also won the On-Air Contest/Competition Award for a competition based around the opening of the film Apollo 13 in cinemas.

1997

Then in May 1997, it was announced that Virgin Radio was being sold to Capital Radio, the group that owned the flagship commercial radio station in London and a number of other cities including BRMB in Birmingham, and Red Dragon in Cardiff. Because of the size that the new business would be, the merger was referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) in July that year, before the deal was actually allowed to go through.

In the meantime, Virgin Radio scored something of a coup by signing up Chris Evans to present the breakfast show with his old team from Radio 1. Evans had previously presented Channel 4’s Big Breakfast before presenting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show from where he’d been fired at the start of 1997. Now he was being brought to Virgin Radio on an initially limited contract basis.

Quickly realising that he liked the relative freedom Virgin Radio offered him, he entered into discussions with Virgin Group and agreed to acquire Virgin Radio for £85m via Ginger Productions the company through which he was also making TFI Friday for Channel 4. He was able to do this because the MMC investigation had effectively put Capital’s merger on hold. But there was nothing Capital was able to do, and the deal was completed ahead of the MMC report that said that Capital would either have had to divest itself of Capital Gold or Virgin Radio FM on completion.

On-air, the station briefly split its AM and FM services during daytime, but by Christmas 1997 they were back together as a single service. 1997 also saw Virgin Radio win a Sony Award for its On-Air Station Image, and was the joint winner of the Themed Music Programme award for Alan “Fluff” Freeman’s Friday Night Rock Show.

1998

1998 saw Johnny Boy’s Wheels of Steel show start, and the on-air positioning statement was changed slightly to “Classic Tracks & Today’s Best Music” – dropping “Album”. Jonathan Ross began his radio broadcasting career on Virgin Radio in March 1998, and the following August Rock ‘n’ Roll Football began on Saturday afternoons.

The autumn of 1998 saw another first for Virgin Radio as Sky One started simulcasting the breakfast show each morning for an hour between 7.30 and 8.30am. When a track was played on the radio, viewers would see a video at the same time. Remote-controlled cameras were installed in the studio as well as a roving cameraman. Chris Evans was a Bronze Sony Award winner for his breakfast show, but he won the overall Gold Award that year as well.

1999

Pete & Geoff joined Virgin Radio from Key 103 in January 1999 presenting their evening show at 6.45pm if you lived outside London and from 7.30pm if you lived in it (Paul Coyte was by now presenting the London opt-out show). Jonathan Ross’ time at Virgin Radio came to a finish at the end of January, and Gary Davies joined as a late night presenter in March that year. Meanwhile Harriet Scott started presenting TFI Nightly as the London opt-out show.

By July 1999, the Virgin Radio website had reached its third major version with new streams being introduced, and the start of the new football season in August saw Terry Venables join Russ Williams in a show that would precede Rock ‘n’ Roll Football.

In November 1999, Digital One launched which meant that for the first time, Virgin Radio was available nationally on DAB offering a superior sound quality to those outside London. Although initially radios were very expensive, they’ve gradually come down in price over the years, and as they’ve done so, more people have been able to listen to the station via DAB.

At the end of 1999, with the TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire having not given away its top prize, Virgin Radio became the first radio or TV station to make a listener a millionaire as it gave away £1m to 35-year old Clare Barwick at the culmination of “Someone’s Going To Be A Millionaire.” A week later, someone won a further million on TFI Friday.

2000

Then in January 2000, Scottish Media Group announced that it had reached agreement to takeover Ginger Media Group including Virgin Radio. As well as owning STV and Grampian in Scotland, they then also owned Pearl & Dean, the cinema advertising company, a poster company called Primesight, and the Glasgow Herald newspaper group. The takeover was approved in March of that year and the new owners moved in. March also saw The Radio Authority fine Virgin Radio a then record £75,000 for a breach of impartiality following Chris Evans’ support of Ken Livingstone as he ran for Mayor of London.

In April, Leona Graham joined the station, taking over from Gail Porter who had been covering weekend evenings.

In June 2000, the second London DAB multiplex formally launched including Virgin Radio Groove as the first digital spin-off service. The first song played was ABC by The Jackson Five. This was also important because Radio Authority rules meant that services that broadcast on DAB had FM licence extentions automatically added. By November 2000 Virgin Radio Classic Rock had launched as an initially online service.

2001-2

On the 28th June 2001, Virgin Radio confirmed to the media that “Chris Evans is no longer a presenter at the station.” Following widely reported media coverage of his absence, the management felt unable to keep him on as a DJ.

Steve Penk joined Virgin Radio in July that year, and began his stint on the breakfast show, and June 2001 also saw Ben Jones join Virgin Radio.

Daryl Denham joined the station in January 2002, initially presenting the drivetime show, but then was parachuted into breakfast a few weeks later. Also in January 2002, the third London DAB multiplex, DRG, launched, including a service owned and operated by Virgin Radio called Liquid.

2002 also saw Jezza – aka Jeremy Kyle – joined Virgin to present his late night Confessions programme. And Jon Holmes was sacked, and the station fined £75,000 for playing a late night game on-air called Swearword Hangman with a child. Meanwhile Pete & Geoff won the Gold Sony Radio Award for Music Programming.

2003

January 2003 saw Pete & Geoff move into the breakfast show slot, with Daryl Denham moving across to Drive. In the meantime legal proceedings were moving apace, and in June 2003, Mr Justice Lightman ruled that Chris Evans was not entitled to any damages for being sacked by Virgin Radio. Indeed at a hearing the following month, the court ordered him to pay Virgin Radio’s court costs.

The internet was moving apace, and a fifth version of the Virgin Radio website had launched by November 2003. Meanwhile Liquid was replaced by Virgin Radio Classic Rock on DAB in London and online. The first record played by the station was the original version Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf. Richard Skinner was once again the first voice of the station, with Leona Graham presenting the following show.

Dominic Mohan won Virgin Radio a Gold Sony Award for his Who Special, while Ben Jones won a Bronze for Virgin Superstars.

2004-5

In June 2004, Jezza’s Confessions programme ended. Then in April 2005, it was announced that Fru Hazlitt would become Virgin Radio’s new CEO. In September that year, Virgin Radio Xtreme launched, and on 16 December, Pete & Geoff presented their final breakfast show by inviting listeners off the streets and into the studio. Many took up the opportunity!

2006-7

The 23rd January 2006 saw Christian O’Connell present his first Virgin Radio breakfast show having joined from Xfm, and Geoff moved to a new late night slot. In July, Virgin Radio launched on Freeview meaning that the service was now available on all the digital TV platforms as well as many other platforms.

In August 2006, SMG confirmed that it had received a merger approach from UTV plc, owners of TalkSport amongst others, in which SMG shareholders would receive a 50% interest in the merged entity. By September, merger talks were off, but following a profits warning from SMG in October, the merger talks between the two were back on.

In February 2007, the merger talks were off once more, and there was a major reorganisation of the SMG board as a new Chairman and CEO were put in place. SMG now announced that there would be an IPO of Virgin Radio.

Meanwhile, Christian won a Gold Sony Award for Who’s Calling Christian.

2008

The 2008 Sony Awards saw Geoff win a Bronze for Music Personality of the Year.

On 30 May 2008, SMG announced that it had agreed to sell Virgin Radio to TIML UK Ltd, a division of the Times of India group of companies. This sale was completed on the 30th June 2008, with a new management team in place comprising of Donnach O’Driscoll, Clive Dickens and Adrian Robinson. The sale did not include the rights to continue to use the “Virgin” name, and so 1 September 2008, the new name of Absolute Radio was announced.

This Monday at 7.45am, we officially become Absolute Radio (as well as Absolute Classic Rock and Absolute Xtreme). So that brings us up to date. From this coming Monday morning, the start of the new era of this station begins as we become Absolute Radio.

Adam

[Come back at 12.15pm today for Russ Williams' goodbye to Virgin Radio]

Comments (10)

  1. Niko (from Manila) @ September 26, 2008 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Wow. I never gleaned this much elsewhere, not even on Wikipedia nor on the Virgin Radio website! And hoping we’d be able to see this bit of history on the website’s about section, too. It’s undeniable, after all.

    I’ve been wondering, though. What was Liquid about, format-wise?

  2. David, Northern Ireland @ September 26, 2008 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Fantastic stuff – Lots of useful info for my radio project.

  3. Alistair MacPherson @ September 26, 2008 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Wow… that was a brief history!

  4. Russ @ September 26, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I remember pretty much all of that. Does that make me sad?!?!

    Looking forward to the next 15 years of history in the making.

  5. Ian @ September 27, 2008 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Listened to Virgin since the pre-launch day test broadcasts, when I used to be a Newsagent. Won a couple of early morning show competitions, probably because I was the only one up!

    Shame to lose Virgin, but c’mon Absolute.

  6. Lee @ September 27, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Scary to realise quite how the money guys control the music guys.

    Good luck to the India guys with Absolute – make it your own.

  7. Wayne @ September 28, 2008 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I remember the swearing hangman, and some of the other great features of the John Holmes show. I remember before the War in Iraq when Daryl Denham presented the weapons of mass distraction where if a listener picked the right numbers between 1 and 100, the listener got a kiss from a woman who presented with him.

    I remember there used to be a new music show, and remember in 2002 when Virgin provided unofficial coverage of England’s world cup matches. I used to enjoy the rock n’ roll football on Saturdays when songs would be interupted if there was a goal, and listened sometimes when no station did commentary on my team.

    I enjoyed Virgin’s coverage of the festivals when they started doing coverage, but wish when they did coverage they’d spend more time broadcasting a wider selection of the acts instead of broadcasting highlights in the evenings.

    I currently enjoy Iain Lee. I’ve heard Alan Lake before and I would enjoy his show if it was on at a decent time. Tim Shaw is a great listen.

    On another station, he once got into trouble with Ofcom because he phoned his nan and pretended that he had died but was winding her up. The station was told to broadcast an appology and I think it was broadcast on every show even though it didn’t need to be. The appology would be followed by the call, and it was just as funny each time I heard it, and I would tune to Absolute Radio every time he is on if he is going to play that call. I hope the holocaust interview Tim Shaw did will also be replayed.

    I think it’ll be great if more resources are put into Absolute Xtreme. It has potential, and should aim to take listeners from analogue and digital stations with a similar format.

  8. Gwynfor Olsen @ September 30, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    What a station Virgin radio was,it was just like yesterday when i first tune’d on a train from London to my beautifull home in Caernarfon,N.Wales when the station was launched.Really enjoyed the the history letter,brings back memories,15 years,where has it GONE!!! Let’s now move to a new generation with Absolute Radio and it’s new emphasis on it’s music and good line up of DJ’s.Hurry up Russ with you’r history book on virgin radio!

  9. Ged Burke @ June 29, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I remember Richard Skinner on Virgin Radio. Great presenter him and Graham Dene, great djs. Paul Coyte was great aswell talking to America on the phone during the night, getting through to the olympic games great. Mitch Johnson was great aswell, saturday breakfast follwed by Rowland Rivron and Paul Ross, on the big red mug show. Tommy Vance 4.oo -7.oo was good aswell. Virgin Was a great station. Russ and Jono great djs, N.J Williams was a great night time presenter playing all the rock tracks. Nick Abbot another great dj 1993-2001

  10. glen lilley @ September 5, 2010 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    lovd skins and tommy when virgin startid.dont listen now at all.xfm is my choice now,sadly absolute not my thing!bring back skinner!!

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