|Broadcast area||United Kingdom|
|Slogan||Real Music Matters|
|Network||Absolute Radio Network|
First air date
1993–1997: Virgin Radio launch and early years
The Broadcasting Act 1990 allowed for the launch of independent national radio (INR) stations in the United Kingdom. The Radio Authority was mandated to award three INR licences, one of which (INR1) had to be for a 'non-pop' station (which was awarded to Classic FM), and one of which had to be for a predominantly speech-based service (this would be advertised later as INR3 and would be awarded to Talk Radio). The remaining licence was to be open to 'all-comers'. The licences were to be awarded to the highest cash bidder, providing that the applicant met criteria set down in the Broadcasting Act.
The second national licence, INR2, would take over the 1197 kHz and 1215 kHz frequencies, which were to be relinquished by BBC Radio 3. The licence was advertised in October 1991 and five organisations bid: the Independent National Broadcasting Company of Sheffield, which bid £4,010,000 per year; a TV-am/Virgin consortium (£1,883,000); Chiltern Radio's 20/20 Radio (£1,311,000); Radio Clyde's Score Radio (£701,000); and a consortium of CLT, Harvey Goldsmith and RTÉ (£211,000). The TV-am/Virgin consortium was awarded the licence in April 1992, after the Radio Authority said that it was not satisfied that Independent National Broadcasting would be able to sustain the service. Later that year, TV-am lost its ITV franchise and its stake in the radio station was sold in March 1993 to Apax Partners, JP Morgan Investment Corporation and Sir David Frost.
The station launched as Virgin 1215 at 12.15 pm on 30 April 1993. The original line-up of DJs included Richard Skinner, Russ Williams, Jono Coleman, Mitch Johnson, Graham Dene, Nick Abbot, Wendy Lloyd, Tommy Vance, Emperor Rosko and Dave Fanning. Chris Evans was also hired to present a Saturday morning show, following his success at BBC GLR in the weekend mid-morning slot. The Show, The Big Red Mug Show was sponsored by Nescafe. The first song was a cover version of the Steppenwolf song "Born to be Wild", recorded by Australian group INXS. Richard Branson was the first voice to be heard, live from the Virgin Megastore in Manchester, with Richard Skinner the first voice back in the London studios. Skinner was also programme director, a role he shared with John Revell. John Pearson was launch sales director, a role he had previously held at LBC . Andy Mollett was launch finance director. David Campbell, previously managing director of one of Virgin's post-production television companies, was the chief executive at launch.
From before its launch on AM, Virgin Radio was campaigning for a national FM network. Initially, it lobbied for Radio 4's FM network to be made available and then, when the Radio Authority launched a consultation on the use of the 105–108 MHz band, it lobbied for it to be set aside as a national network. The Radio Authority decided, however, that 105–108 MHz would be licensed to new local and regional stations and Virgin Radio applied for and won one of the new FM licences advertised in London as a result.
Virgin Radio launched on 105.8 MHz FM in London on 10 April 1995 beginning with a message from broadcaster David Frost at 6 am 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 Rowland Rivron.
Within a year, Virgin Group was considering the next steps for the radio station, including the option of a flotation or buying back the shares of JP Morgan, Apax and Sir David Frost. In May 1997, it was announced that Capital Radio had agreed to acquire Virgin Radio in an £87 million deal. Capital's plans included moving Virgin Radio from 1 Golden Square to Capital's Leicester Square building and splitting programming between the AM and FM services. The Radio Authority approved the acquisition, but Nigel Griffiths, the Consumer Affairs Minister, referred the takeover to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC). The MMC report into the takeover would not be issued until January 1998, and would recommend that the deal could only go ahead if Capital Gold was sold or Virgin's London FM licence was left out of the deal. However, the delay in approval of the Capital acquisition would ultimately lead to the deal not going through.
In January 1997, Chris Evans had left his role as presenter of the Radio 1 breakfast show as a result of a disagreement between him and the programme controller Matthew Bannister (Evans had asked for Fridays off to allow more time for him to work on his Channel 4 television show, TFI Friday). Evans was keen to return to radio and it had been reported that his agent, Michael Foster, had approached Matthew Bannister to ask if Evans would be allowed to be return to Radio 1, and he had gone as far as commencing negotiations to buy Talk Radio.
Richard Branson wanted Evans to work for Virgin Radio, so much so that he joined him on a Concorde flight to New York to try to persuade him to join as the drive time presenter. In the end, Virgin Radio hired Evans to present the breakfast show, replacing the incumbent Russ 'n' Jono show (presented by Russ Williams and Jonathan Coleman). His show started on 13 October 1997, the same day that Zoë Ball started as Evans' replacement on Radio 1. The initial contract would only be for 10 weeks, until the MMC announced its decision on the Capital Radio takeover. Evans approached David Campbell to discuss buying the radio station and, with Michael Foster's help, they put together a deal to buy it with venture capital supplied by Apax Partners and Paribas, with Virgin Group retaining a 20% stake in the business. The deal was announced on 8 December 1997, and would see the formation of the Ginger Media Group, an umbrella company overseeing Virgin Radio and producing programmes such as TFI Friday.
1998–2000: The Ginger Media Group
Evans' ownership of Virgin Radio started well, with a breakfast show audience increase of 660,000 to 2.2m in his first three months. In August 1998, Chris Evans took a spur of the moment decision one weekend to launch a Saturday afternoon show called Rock 'n' Roll Football, a show that is still broadcast on Absolute Radio. From 5 October 1998, Virgin Radio started simulcasts of the breakfast show on Sky One each morning for an hour between 7.30 and 8.30 am. When a track was played on the radio, viewers would see a video at the same time.
The start of the new football season in August 1999 saw Terry Venables join Russ Williams in a show that would precede Rock 'n' Roll Football. At the end of 1999, in response to the TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire not having given away its top prize, Virgin Radio set a broadcasting first when Clare Barwick won £1 million at the culmination of "Someone's Going To Be A Millionaire".
The management team at the Ginger Media Group were considering expansion opportunities, including a plan to acquire the Daily Star newspaper from United News & Media, and hire Piers Morgan to edit it. Their plans were stalled, however, when the shareholders got cold feet. Evans wrote in his autobiography that "the management wanted to stick to our original brief of expansion, whereas our investors only cared about extracting the added value."
2000–2008: SMG ownership
The management team therefore set itself on a strategy to sell the business three years ahead of schedule. It hired Goldman Sachs to run the sale process, and considered a public flotation, before selling to the Scottish Media Group (now STV Group plc) for £225 million in March 2000. The Scottish Media Group, which owned Scottish Television and the Herald newspaper, fought off other bidders including Clear Channel, NRJ and Guardian Media. Evans personally made £75 million out of the sale.
Chief executive John Pearson, who had been with the station since before launch, resigned in April 2005, and was replaced by Fru Hazlitt, who had previously been managing director of Yahoo! UK and Ireland.
On 13 June 2006, SMG plc signed a deal with YooMedia to make Virgin Radio available on Freeview. It has always placed a great emphasis on other methods of transmission than medium wave, as the 1215 kHz frequency suffers from considerable interference, particularly after dark – BBC Radio 1, which used 1215 kHz for its first 11 years on air, moved to higher-quality medium wave frequencies (now used by talkSport) in 1978 mainly for this reason.
2008–2013: Acquisition by Times of India and rebranding as Absolute Radio
On 12 April 2007, it was announced that SMG plc was to sell Virgin Radio, to enable the company to focus on its television station, STV. On 30 May 2008 SMG sold Virgin Radio to TIML Golden Square Limited, a subsidiary of The Times Group for £53.2 million, with £15 million set aside for rebranding. TIML was given 90 days grace in which to rebrand the station. As part of the deal, Absolute Radio International, operator of two FM licences in Oxford, would manage the station.
On 1 September 2008 it was announced that Virgin Radio would be rebranded as Absolute Radio at the end of the month (28 September). At the same time, changes to the line-up were made known with JK and Joel, Robin Burke, Tony Hadley and John Osborne leaving the station and Allan Lake, Joanna Russell (of Trent FM's Jo & Twiggy) and Tim Shaw joining, though Osborne would return shortly after. The last song to be played on Virgin Radio was "American Pie" by Don McLean and the first to be played on Absolute Radio was "A Day in the Life" by The Beatles. However, listening figures for the final quarter of 2008 showed that almost 20% of former Virgin Radio listeners had been lost since the rebranding to Absolute Radio.
The Virgin Radio brand, however, relaunched via DAB and online on 30 March 2016, following a new partnership with Wireless Group and approval of its digital terrestrial commercial radio licence by Ofcom in March 2015.
2013–present: Acquisition by Bauer Media
On 29 July 2013, Bauer Media Group announced it intended to purchase Absolute from current owner, The Times Group for an amount believed to be between £20m-£25m, pending regulatory approval of the sale. The deal was cleared by the Office of Fair Trading on 23 December.
Owner Bauer Radio announced in July 2015 that Absolute Radio would be taking up the 105.2 FM frequency in the West Midlands, previously held by Planet Rock. Absolute launched on 105.2 FM on 7 September 2015. However the station ended transmission on that frequency on 16 December 2018 following Bauer's decision to broadcast Greatest Hits Radio on FM across the West Midlands.
Audience and playlist
Virgin Radio launched aiming at a target group of 24- to 44-year-olds and with a focus on album music, arguing that "singles chart shows on Radio 1 and local commercial radio were outdated because albums outsold singles by three to one." It would provide a blend of recent album tracks and chart music from the past 25 years and aim to fill the "hole in the middle" between BBC Radio 1 and local commercial radio, which was specifically aimed at young audiences and "gold" stations offering classic hits.
A year after launch, David Campbell was quoted as saying that "the music policy was wrong, even though Virgin had lots of research to suggest it was doing what listeners said they wanted. We did something we should never do: pursue critical acclaim, playing obscure tracks, gaining the praise of the music press." The station's approach had been to mix in more familiar music.
Fru Hazlitt, when interviewed for The Guardian in September 2006, described the type of music the station championed: "It's pretty much mainstream rock festival type music. Razorlight, Keane. These bands are becoming some of the biggest in the world."
When announcing the rebrand as Absolute Radio on the One Golden Square blog, Clive Dickens, chief operating officer, noted that the station would be "sticking with real music – not manufactured rubbish – and we're building on the amount of live music we do – we're just going to discover more of all of it."
The music policy continues to focus on guitar-based rock, mostly British. In a blog post in February 2009, Head of Music James Curran noted that the 30 most played artists in the first four months of Absolute Radio had been: Manic Street Preachers, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Snow Patrol, Kings of Leon, The Killers, Oasis, Travis, U2, Placebo, Suede, Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian, Queen, Keane, Stereophonics, Caesars, Elbow, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Nickelback, The Offspring, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Biffy Clyro, The Beatles, David Bowie, Nirvana, The Police and Blur.
Notable former presenters
Other past presenters on the network include Danny Baker, Robin Banks, Kelly-Anne Smith, Vicki Butler-Henderson, Robin Burke, Martin Collins, Gary Davies, Daryl Denham, Chris Evans (who also owned the station), Ben Jones, Neil Francis, Alan Freeman, Tony Hadley (from Spandau Ballet), Nicky Horne, Janey Lee Grace, Kevin Greening, Gary King, Jason King, Phil Kennedy, Jeremy Kyle, Allan Lake, Iain Lee, Geoff Lloyd, Tim Lovejoy, Pete Mitchell, Al Murray, Christian O'Connell, John Osborne, Lynn Parsons, Steve Penk, Annabel Port, Vic Reeves, Joel Ross, Jo Russell, Holly Samos, Harriet Scott, Tim Shaw, Graeme Smith, Suggs, David Tennant, Clive Warren, Ray Cokes, Dave Gorman and Pete Donaldson.
From the 2010–11 to the 2015–16 seasons, Absolute Radio broadcast live commentary of 32 Premier League games on Saturday afternoons. Ian Wright joined the station to host a post-match phone-in programme, as well as a regular music show on Absolute Radio 90s and a football podcast.
Virgin Radio and Absolute Radio broadcast from studios at 1 Golden Square since Virgin Radio's launch in 1993.
The 1215 kHz frequency (247 metres) was used, in selected areas only, by the BBC Light Programme until 1967. It was then used nationally as the original home of BBC Radio 1 until 22 November 1978, then from 23 November 1978 until 28 February 1992 by BBC Radio 3.
In a number of areas, particularly where the signals from the main 1215 transmitters overlap with each other, Absolute Radio uses filler transmitters on different frequencies. Below is a list of the AM transmitters in use by Absolute Radio (transmitters marked ** were turned off from May 2018; transmitters marked ∆ had their power reduced from May 2018):
|Transmitter Name||Coverage||Frequency (kHz)||EMRP (kW)||Grid Reference||Air date|
|Boston||Lincolnshire||1242||2||2 September 1994|
|Brighton (Southwick)||Sussex||1197||1.1||9 November 1993|
|∆ Brookmans Park||London, Hertfordshire, Essex, South Bedfordshire||1215||125||3 August 1993|
|** Chesterton Fen||South and Central Cambridgeshire||1197 (off air)||0.2||2 September 1994|
|Dartford Tunnel||Dartford Tunnel||1215||0.004||8 March 1993|
|∆ Droitwich||West Midlands||1215||105||8 March 1993|
|Fareham||South Hampshire and Isle of Wight||1215||1||9 March 1993|
|Fern Barrow||Dorset||1197||0.25||11 March 1993|
|Gloucester||Gloucestershire||1197||0.3||14 March 1993|
|** Greenside Scalp||East Tayside||1242 (off air)||0.5||9 March 1993|
|** Guildford (Pirbright)||West Surrey and North East Hampshire||1260 (off air)||0.5||24 December 1993|
|** Hoo||North and West Kent, South and Central Essex||1197 (off air)||2||15 March 1993|
|** Hull||East Riding of Yorkshire, Northern Lincolnshire||1215 (off air)||0.32||15 March 1993|
|Kings Heath||Northamptonshire||1233||0.5||7 November 1993|
|Lisnagarvey||Northern Ireland||1215||16||8 March 1993|
|Lydd||South East Kent and South East Sussex||1260||2||2 April 1995|
|Manningtree||South East Suffolk and North East Essex||1233||0.5||6 November 1993|
|∆ Moorside Edge||North West and Yorkshire||1215||200||8 March 1993|
|Oxford||Oxfordshire||1197||0.25||12 March 1993|
|** Plymouth||Devon||1215 (off air)||1.1||15 March 1993|
|Postwick||East Norfolk and North East Suffolk||1215||1.2||16 March 1993|
|** Redmoss||Aberdeen and East Grampian||1215 (off air)||2.3||25 March 1993|
|** Redruth||Cornwall||1215 (off air)||2||28 July 1997|
|** Sheffield||South Yorkshire||1233 (off air)||0.3||6 November 1993|
|Sideway||Staffordshire||1242||0.5||9 July 1993|
|Stockton||Cleveland||1242||1||15 March 1993|
|** Swindon||Wiltshire||1233 (off air)||0.1||11 November 1993|
|** Torbay||Devon||1197 (off air)||1||19 March 1993|
|Trowell||Nottinghamshire||1197||0.5||27 March 1993|
|** Wallasey||Merseyside||1197 (off air)||0.4||27 March 1993|
|∆ Washford||South Wales, Avon, Somerset||1215||100||11 March 1993|
|∆ Westerglen||Central Scotland||1215||100||10 March 1993|
|Wrekenton||Tyne and Wear||1215||2.2||18 March 1993|
The station is available on 105.8 FM from the Crystal Palace transmitting station in London.
In the summer of 1993, Virgin Radio began broadcasting in stereo on the Astra 1A satellite on an audio sub-carrier of the Sky News channel. This service ceased on 1 July 2001 in anticipation of Sky's cessation of its analogue satellite service. Virgin Radio was one of the first 20 radio stations which joined the Sky Digital service on 20 November 1999. Carried on Astra 2A, it launched on the channel 917 of the Sky EPG, and can today be found as Absolute Radio on channel 0107.
Website and internet broadcasting
Virgin Radio launched its first website on 7 March 1996. Designed by AKQA, it hosted a live RealAudio stream, making it the first European radio station to stream 24-hours a day on the internet. The station went on to redesign the website a further six times as Virgin Radio. Streaming audio formats and presentation developed over time: QuickTime streaming was added in July 1999, an interactive media player launched in October 1999, an Ogg-Vorbis stream was launched in June 2003, and HE-AAC and Ogg-FLAC streams were launched in December 2009. In Autumn 2012 it launched the Opus Streaming Trial as part of the Listen Labs, including streams for all seven stations in 24, 64 and 96 kbit/s. This trial was cancelled without further notice in autumn 2014, along with the live webcams and the public playlist API.
In 2001, Virgin Radio joined the Measurecast and Arbitron internet broadcasting measurement services. Both measurement services have since closed. In 2009, Absolute Radio started publishing its internet listening and download statistics.
Virgin Radio was also among the first to explore the opportunities for delivering its services to mobile phones. It took part in a joint venture with Ericsson in 1999 to investigate the use of third-generation (3G) mobile phone technologies for radio, launched a WAP site in 2000 and took part in a trial in 2001 with Crown Castle and Manx Telecom to explore the use of 3G phones to add interactivity to digital radio broadcasts. In 2009, Absolute Radio launched an application for the Apple iPhone and tagging for the Apple iPod Nano. In 2010 applications were released for the Amazon Kindle, the Nokia Ovi Store, the BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 and Absolute Radio was selected as a launch partner for the Apple iAd mobile advertising network.
In January 2014, Absolute Radio Network has restricted the access to the internet radio on their own website to UK listeners only, and removed their apps for iPhone and Android in non-UK app stores.
A number of subsidiary stations to Virgin Radio and Absolute Radio have been launched as online and digital radio services over recent years, many being established during the period when SMG plc was in charge of the station. The stations were collectively known as the Virgin Radio Network (now the Absolute Radio Network). All 'Absolute' branded channels broadcast online and via smartphone apps, with several also transmitted over DAB and digital television platforms. The line-up of stations within the network has changed over time, and those currently on air are:
Absolute Classic Rock
A radio station on DAB, Virgin Media, Sky and the Internet playing classic rock from the sixties to the nineties. Launched as Virgin Radio Classic Rock in 2000 as part of SMG Radio's strategy to trade total network listening hours at a time when analogue listening hours had been falling. The service was rebranded as Absolute Classic Rock in 2008.
Absolute Radio 60s
Launched on 22 November 2011, Absolute 60s is the sixth radio station launched under the Absolute branding. The station is broadcast on DAB, some digital television networks, and online. The station has defined itself as "the home of the Beatles, Stones and Mo-Town". With The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as highlights of the station's broadcasts, it plays music originating from the 1960s. Pete Mitchell was the main daytime presenter, returning to Golden Square: he was last on Virgin Radio in 2005 hosting the Breakfast show with Geoff Lloyd.
Absolute Radio 70s
Launched on 29 November 2011, Absolute 70s is the seventh radio station launched under the Absolute branding. The station is broadcast on DAB and online. With Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Prince as highlights of the station's broadcast, it plays music originating from the 1970s. Richard Skinner, another previous DJ from the Virgin Radio days, returned to Golden Square to feature on this station.
Absolute Radio 80s
A radio station launched on 4 December 2009 on DAB, Freesat, Sky, Virgin Media and the Internet which plays classic hits, and is aimed at "reluctant adults" who want to reconnect with the tunes of their youth.
Absolute Radio 90s
Absolute Radio 90s launched on 21 June 2010 on DAB to a 13 million population in London, Essex, Wiltshire, Bristol, Berkshire and Bath. The station is also available on Sky 0201 and online via website and mobile smartphones. The first song to be played on the station was "Roll with It" by Oasis.
Absolute Radio 00s
Absolute Radio 10s
Absolute Radio 20s
Former spin-off stations
dabbl was a user-controlled music radio station broadcast on the Internet and selected local DAB multiplexes 24 hours a day, and on DAB in London from 7 pm to 6 am daily. Its content was chosen by members of Absolute's VIP Service, who selected songs which were then voted for, and songs with the most votes were played. dabbl has now ceased, its DAB slots outside London taken by Absolute Radio 90s.
Virgin Radio Groove
A radio station on DAB, Virgin Media, Sky and the Internet which played motown, soul and disco music. Originally named The Groove, it was rebranded as a Virgin Radio station in 2004 and closed at the end of 2007.
Liquid was a station playing indie, alternative and Britpop. It ran on DAB in London between 2000 and 2004, with its slot taken by Virgin Radio Classic Rock (now Absolute Classic Rock).
Virgin Radio Party Classics
Launched on 15 June 2006, Virgin Radio Party Classics played party pop music. The radio station was based on Suggs' Virgin Party Classics show broadcast on Virgin Radio. The station, which broadcast on Sky Digital and online, closed on 3 October 2006.
A radio station on DAB, Virgin Media, Sky and the Internet, playing new music. Absolute Xtreme was launched (as Virgin Radio Xtreme) on 5 September 2005, by Lali Parikh (Station Manager) with Steve Harris being the main on-air talent. On 4 December 2009, Absolute Xtreme was replaced on DAB and digital TV by Absolute Radio 80s.
Virgin Radio Viva (cancelled)
Virgin Radio Viva, which was due to launch on the new 4 Digital Group platform (which ultimately never launched), was due to be a popular music station aimed at 15- to 29-year-old females. It did not go ahead.
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