We are testing Free Radio 80s - and it sounds great.
It's particularly poignant for me to be launching a new station on 1359 and 1152 am, as these were the original frequencies for Xtra AM, which was my first station launch, back in 1989. Free Radio 80s will actually cover a much larger area, being also available on the Wolverhampton/Shropshire AM frequencies too. The Shropshire 1017 AM TX is in particular a "big stick" (technical term) which means folk as far up north as the Wirral should be able to tune in if they have a decent medium wave radio. I think the predictions from Arqiva are that over 5m people will be able to hear the station during daytimes!
Why have we done it though?
Well, we inherited "Gold" on AM when we bought the Orion stations, and really didn't have the time at first to do much with the frequencies. Gold has been quite successful in audience terms, with over 100,000 listeners regularly tuning in across the patch, and both David and I are actually fans of the station itself - it does what is says on the tin, very effectively.
In our patch, the audience for Gold has actually increased under Orion's ownership, and we think a fair amount of the station's recent success is because of our investment in football commentary, of which more later.
However, three years in, we faced a real dilemma. Nearly all of our transmission agreements were up for renewal (on both AM and DAB), and in truth although the Gold service was doing OK from an audience perspective, it was losing us money hand over fist. The TX contracts, and sports rights deals, were costing far more than the station was bringing in in ad revenues. And our own sales teams were finding it difficult to sell, because it was a disconnected national station with no relevance to our local FM output.
So we faced a choice. Close the transmitters down and hand the licences back, or see if there was a way of doing things differently. We decided to have one last go at making a predominantly AM service workable. We've negotiated long and hard with our transmission partners, and been prepared to compromise in order to bring our TX bill down. We've also redone our football deals to make that element of the output most cost-effective. The final element was to make the station one our sales teams could go out and sell easily as an add-on to our FM output.
Changing our FM stations to one brand gave us the opportunity to create a new sister brand - and that was how Free Radio 80s was born.
Why did we go for 80s?
Well to be honest we decided we didn't want to replicate a pure 60s/70s/80s oldies type service, as we are sure Gold will still be available to oldies fans on DTV, online, and possibly back on DAB. We needed to create a station which lived within our format parameters (Oldies for people aged 35-54) but which was distinctive and could generate good word of mouth (as we're not planning a big marketing push) and which felt like it was genuinely "the next station along demographically" to Free Radio FM, making joint selling possible. 80s jumped out in our brainstorming, and we all felt comfortable with it from the start.
Sitting here writing this I am listening to the tests - and it sounds absolutely great to me. Pure pop from a great music decade.
The station itself will have a bunch of real DJs - Dave Sherwood, David Francis, Tim Disney, Fresh, Ed Nell and of course Tom Ross. We'll be running local news, weather, travel for the West Midlands during peaktimes, and of course Tom will be running football commentary across the station for all of our local teams, splitting output across the frequencies when appropriate.
Changing stations and brands is always a risk - and Free Radio 80s represents a considerable investment by Orion in keeping some transmitters going with quality output when we could easily have just switched them off - but we think it'll work out just fine.
And listening this morning, I'm feeling very positive.