Paul Robinson casts an eye over Arqiva’s commerical radio power list

Sir Richard Attenborough, Gillian Reynolds, Chris Tarrant and Chris Evans are among the 40 most significant people in the 40 year history of UK commercial radio, named last night at the Arqiva Awards ceremony in London.

The actual 40th anniversary of the start of legal UK licensed commercial radio broadcasting isn’t until October, but the40 names are a good cross section of the three phases of the industry: the early pioneers, those who grew the sector in the 80s and 90s, and the leaders of today’s fewer consolidated players.

LBC and Capital Radio, the first two stations in the original 19 station “Independent Local Radio “ network, (you couldn’t use the term commercial radio then), are well represented  by Tim Blackmore, John Whitney, Nick Ferrari and Dickie Attenborough, Capital’s founding chairman who had a passion for radio while his brother David loved wildlife.

Tim took the brave step in 1977 to leave the secure confines of the BBC to join Capital as Head of Programmes and helped steer Capital to formidable audiences, peaking at a weekly reach of 43%. John Whitney was Capital’s first managing director, but prior to 1973 had led lobbying of the government to allow UK commercial radio and set up The Local Radio Association.

LBC, originally in Gough Square near Fleet St, now part of Global Radio had a tough start financially, not helped by the UK economy at the time which was characterised during the station’s early period by the 3 day working week and power cuts.

Now revived and stronger than in the previous decade under its current owners, Nick Ferrari, its breakfast presenter continues to demonstrate that there is an alternative current affairs format to the BBC’s Radio 4.

Other early pioneers in the list include the formidable Lord Jimmy Gordon, who was the first managing director of the hugely successful Radio Clyde in Glasgow (another one of the original 19 stations), and Richard Park, a broadcaster and programmer at Clyde who then employed his considerable skills at Capital Radio, as a consultant at Magic, and now as director of broadcasting at Global Radio.

Over in Edinburgh, Richard Findlay was turning Radio Forth into a success, and, having helped found Radio Tees in North East England, Les Ross went on to dominate breakfast listening on BRMB in Birmingham for decades.

Gillian Reynolds, the Daily Telegraph’s radio critic since the 1970s became commercial radio’s first female programme controller at Radio City in Liverpool.

After the original 19 stations launched there was a pause in the development of the sector until 1980 when the 20th station was awarded, launched and flopped. CBC in Cardiff was commercial radio’s first failure, but fortunately the 21st ,Mercia Sound in Coventry, was a huge success, and the industry went on to add scores of new stations, including three national networks and gig regionals.

These were the growth years with big personalities and big cheque books. Alan Robson became an unlikely household name on Tyneside as the late night phone-in host on Metro Radio, while Chris Tarrant was in the midst of his 17 year stint on Capital’s breakfast show.

 Helen Mayhew was cooling it down on Jazz FM with Dinner Jazz, and Ralph Bernard went from humble beginnings at Wiltshire Radio in Swindon to build the GWR empire. Ralph was a pioneer of Classic FM, now a solid pillar of UK commercial radio, although there were plenty of sceptics at the time.

From his roots at CFM in Cumbria, John Myers was energetically building big regional brands such as Century and Real with loud engaging personalities on the air. Over at Capital, chief executive David Mansfield and head of sales Linda Smith had built such a successful business that Mansfield initiated the merger with GWR, creating GCapMedia.

Talk Radio had a more difficult start, but having been brought to break even it was repositioned as TalkSport as Moz Dee, having originally been a presenter, became program director and refocused the station to great success.

Virgin Radio, now Absolute and shortly to be something else, is the home to the most successful Sony Radio Academy Award  winner, Christian O Connell, who has unbelievably won 10 Golds.

Chris Evans is one of very few names on the list with a strong BBC connection but he appears as the person who made the most money out of commercial radio in a single transaction.

Having bought the station with private equity and his own cash he sold it and the rest of Ginger Media Group to Scottish Media Group at the top of the market, personally making around £75m. A transaction never to be repeated.

Commercial radio in recent years has been permitted to consolidate and has developed into an industry of smaller local groups and three larger players: Global Radio headed by Ashley Tabor, Bauer Media whose chief executive is Dee Ford and UTV Media, which owns TalkSport and a chain of local stations.

Notable regional players such as Michael Betton of Lincs FM and Phil Riley of Orion Media are rightly included in the list.

These names have selected to celebrate commercial radio’s 40 years – and it’s a great list. As the industry continues to consolidate and adapt to change it is clear that fewer people will lead the sector in the future.

Paul Robinson is a former commercial radio presenter, program director and CEO