Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Virgin's Back

After an eight year absence Virgin Radio is back in the UK later this month on the Sound Digital DAB multiplex (picture left, due to kick off on 30 March). When the old Virgin 1215 launched in April 1993 it was the first national popular music station to come on air since Radio 1 some 26 years earlier. It promised "the best of album rock and pop from the last 25 years". The opening tracks included INXS, The Cure, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Queen and Simply Red.

Virgin 1215's DJ line-up came from Radio 1, local radio (both BBC and ILR) and the English service of Radio Luxembourg that had closed down the previous December. The joint programme directors were Richard Skinner and John 'Johnny Boy' Revell.

The station promised advertisers an ambitious 3.3 million listeners per week. Skinner accepted that his former employer "Radio 1 is our main competitor and we will primarily be head-to-head with them. We will make a dent in their listenership." Of course for non-FM listeners there was also the option of the long-wave only Atlantic 252. But the big issue for Virgin was always whether a rock audience would put up with AM's audibility over a clear FM signal. Certainly in Beverley, where I recorded the opening minutes, 1215 AM sounded a bit slushy.

Though the official launch was scheduled for 12.15 on 30 April 1993 the station had been beaming out live test transmissions throughout the month. The first live voice on air for those tests was Tommy Vance, just minutes after signing off from his last Friday Rock Show on Radio 1.  

Thanks to YouTube user 'Neatishead' for uploading this audio of test transmissions and the launch.

Needless to say I also had my tape rolling to capture the opening from Richards' Branson and Skinner. "The radio revolution is here!".

The newsreader is Tim Page (these days the news editor at BBC Radio Shropshire) who reads the bulletin provided by Chiltern Radio's Network News.   

The opening weekend featured 1,215 classic hits, played in alphabetic order of title. This is how the first hour panned out:
Born to be Wild - INXS
Purple Haze - The Cure (although Skinner back announces it as Hey Joe)
A Day in the Life - The Beatles
A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall - Bob Dylan
A Kind of Magic - Queen
A New Flame - Simply Red
A Sort of Homecoming - U2
Abacab - Genesis
Abracadabra - Steve Miller
Accidents Will Happen - Elvis Costello
Across the Universe - The Beatles

The first station schedules ran as follows:
6.00 Graham Dene
10.00 Chris Evans
13.00 Emperor Rosko
16.00 Dave Fanning
20.00 Kevin Greening
23.00 Tommy Rivers
2.00 Sandy Beech

6.00 Graham Dene
10.00 Classic Tracks with Kevin Greening
16.00 Album Chart with Russ Williams
19.00 Jonathan Coleman
22.00 Nick Abbot
2.00 Sandy Beech

6.00 Russ Williams
10.00 Richard Skinner
13.00 Mitch Johnson
16.00 Tommy Vance
19.00 Jonathan Coleman (Fri Emperor Rosko)
22.00 Nick Abbot (Fri Kevin Greening)
2.00 Wendy Lloyd (Fri Sandy Beech)

Here's how Martin Wroe of The Independent reviewed Virgin 1215's launch. Quoting Stuart Bailie of the NME he saw the station as being "for people who have nearly stopped listening to music, people on their way to the paddock. But just because millions of people buy Dire Straits albums doesn't mean their music is any good. But their are a lot of people out there with very sad taste, so the station could succeed."

Meanwhile, at the other end of the musical spectrum, Mike Soutar of Smash Hits said: "If it's a feel good station, which Radio 1 is not, then it will succeed. But my readers won't be listening to it. they're all at school."

The sole survivor from 1993, still on Absolute, is, of course, Russ Williams. From that first weekend here's part of the Virgin Labatt's' Album Chart show. The newsreader this time is Robert Nisbet, now a senior news correspondent for Sky News.    


Tim Page said...

Thanks for the namecheck - first time I've heard that for a bit :)

Robin Carmody said...

One thing I remember about Virgin's launch is that the Telegraph's listings guide had an illustration of Chris Evans & David Patrick Griffin in a boxing match against each other - perhaps aware of the awkwardness of Radio 1's opposition to the Big Breakfast host being more than two decades his senior. Neither would last in that slot very long, of course ...

Robin Carmody said...

A largely contemporary playlist from Radio 1, considering its reputation at the time. The obvious outlier is "The Proud One" which would have been the last song on the Bates show - I think he used to end his show with an oldie from his Birthday File, and presumably he played that particular song because Merrill Osmond was 40 that day.

Must admit I preferred the Independent as it was at that time - more of a pre-Murdoch Times in exile than it became later.

Robin Carmody said...

Looking here - - it would appear that Virgin were taking the official album chart but removing albums considered to be Virgin-unfriendly, whether they were too alternative (c.f. Sebadoh) or too MOR (c.f. Cliff Richard). Somewhat random - The Fall considered suitable but, seemingly, PJ Harvey not - and all very telling. The Alan Freeman show had featured a rock albums chart from 1975-78 which was similarly compiled by removing the pop/soul/MOR albums from the main chart, but that didn't exclude punk/new wave albums latterly even if some of his audience might have wanted it (and indeed he played far more new wave than some of his obituaries implied).

Robin Carmody said...

... but Radio 1 did start an hour-long album chart rundown on Sunday evenings after the Top 40 singles chart a couple of weeks earlier, bringing it forward from Mondays.

Alan said...

Going back in time I heard the first broadcasts of both Radio 1 and Virgin 1215, yes, the same frequency spanning that 26 years. In 1967 1215 Khz was 247 metres, I think it was about 1977 that Kiloherts replaced metres.

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