Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Phil Riley, Orion Media Group - Radio Star

Meeting Phil Riley, who runs BRMB, owning this station and a clutch of others across the West Midlands, turns back time, for me... Back to serving on the Board of Chrysalis Radio Midlands run by Phil during a period of heady growth, having launched and built 100.7 Heart FM and set up Galaxy FM under the polished and perceptive chairmanship of Viscountess Penelope Cobham.
I ask him how it feels to be back in Birmingham after a decade or so in London running Chrysalis Radio for Group Chairman and founder, Chris Wright.

Phil Riley, Group Chief Executive, Orion Media Group
'I have launched, re-launched or run most of the radio stations in this patch at some point!'
“I am a big champion of the West Midlands I started work here at BRMB in 1980, married a Birmingham girl, and it feels like I have launched, relaunched or run most of the radio stations in this patch at some point! I’ve lived either in the city or on its doorstep for most of the past 30 years.
"Birmingham is a much misunderstood city.  It’s a great place to live, work, relax and enjoy. It has great culture and entertainment. 
"Architecture has moved on a lot from the ‘60s and ‘70s.  It’s great for people to be able to live and work in such a professional, vibrant city or be able to work here and live 45 minutes away in the middle of fabulous countryside in rural Warwickshire, Worcestershire or Shropshire.  The airport is an under-developed gem and generally the infrastructure is good. 
“Birmingham has a well-developed professional network of lawyers, accountants and financiers, keen to do business, big enough to do everything most firms need, and well differentiated from their London colleagues - usually on price, which tends to be 30-40% lower than equivalent services from the capital.”
Having overseen strong growth at Chrysalis Radio Phil concluded it was the time to sell when the market peaked in 2007.  Following board approval he oversaw and managed the sale to private company Global Radio for £170m.

Under Chief Executive Ashley Tabor and Chairman Charles Allen, Global in 2008 went on to buy the FTSE 250 listed GCap Radio to add to its Chrysalis purchase. Being allowed to merge both Chrysalis’s and GCap’s Midlands assets seemed unlikely, so when the competition authorities deemed that Global Radio had an unfair advantage, they were forced to sell down in this patch. Phil thought it just might provide an opportunity to return once more to Birmingham.  

It wasn’t too much later, in May 2009, when Phil purchased BRMB, Mercia, Wyvern and Beacon in the West Midlands and Heart 106 in the East Midlands from Global Radio for an undisclosed amount in a deal backed by Lloyds TSB Development Capital. 

Orion Media Group was formed with its stations reaching over 1 million listeners, with a footprint covering 6 million people, employing 150 people and generating approximately £20m income annually.

Proud Heritage - Made in Birmingham

BRMB - Made in Birmingham
“Local history and heritage is very important to us as a set of local radio stations.  At BRMB we want to be clear that we’re differentiating BRMB on the basis that we’re clearly ‘local’ not ‘national’.  

"We’re proud of the heritage of the city and surrounding region in making things.  That’s what Birmingham should be doing, making things well”. 

So when both Phil and David Lloyd, his Programme Director, were looking for a theme for BRMB they were both struck by the publicity for the Matthew Boulton Exhibition, which showcased how he had designed and made his extraordinary collections in Birmingham. In turn they came up with the idea of ‘BRMB – Made in Birmingham’ as the station’s new strapline to emphasise the station’s roots in Birmingham and their pride in the region’s design heritage. 

“We have a tremendous heritage round here in manufacturing – building things – in which good design obviously plays such a critical part. 

"However, there’s a danger in speaking of design that we start to confuse it with creative industries generally, such as music, TV, film and advertising which in Britain are London-centric where the really big UK cluster is based."

Creative Challenge

“It might be unpopular for me to say this, but I’m afraid that, for me, Birmingham starts from a weaker creative position than one might expect for a city this size in terms of popular arts and media." 
In terms of the Creative Industries he believes that the real issue is, ironically, Birmingham’s proximity to London, which almost precludes the development of stronger clusters in this area. His view is that as long as people can get on a train and be in London within an hour and a quarter they will continue to do this for ‘make or break services’ such as creative advertising or production, because London does offer world-class talent in a clearly defined creative “hub.”

BRMB Street Stars

“You couldn’t talk about Birmingham having a distinct musical identity today.  If you went back 20 years or more with the rise of multi-culturalism there was something about the wider place that was happening with the formation of racially-diverse bands such as The Selecter in Coventry and UB40 – and of course we had a clear position in the heavier rock music explosion of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

"Today there are talented Birmingham bands and artists around, but I don’t think they together form a cluster of talent with its own sound or identity.

“In TV we’ve never had a major long-running prime-time TV series such as Eastenders or Coronation Street (I’m going to ignore Crossroads!) And when Midlanders do appear in drama they are often used as a comic foil to make people laugh.

"I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the top TV performers/media names who come from round here are Lenny Henry, Jasper Carrott and Frank Skinner – all slightly lugubrious comedians, along with Adrian Chiles, who brings new meaning to the word “glum.”

"ITV is not local anymore except for news, and Central isn’t the force to be reckoned with that it once was. The BBC still has a presence of course, but I bet even they get slightly miffed at all of the BBC’s
resources now being focussed on building a 2nd base in Manchester.

Foxy and Guiliano
 “There’s no major film of the last 20/30 years that one could associate with the city, which could serve as an iconic reminder of Birmingham’s strengths (in the way Rocky does for Philadelphia for example, or Notting Hill does for London, or Manhattan for New York) and there isn’t as much filming in the city as I think we’d all like to see.

"Despite Orion pulling in the local direction, much of the other local radio round here is moving to national networks. 

"Local newspapers have seen their readership decimated over the past 20 years.
"Moving on from traditional media, to create a digital industry it’s recognised you need a hub and whilst there’s some good work going on in places like the Custard Factory and some good local digital shops are emerging which we use – generally they’re small scale.” 

Economic Challenge

Running a business covering the West Midlands he worries about government’s plans for economic development involving the possible fragmentation of the region into 6 Local Economic Partnerships.

“It’s crazy to split the region into 6 pieces.  However I do feel strongly that Birmingham should be the ‘badge’ because, I believe, it’s the place most people have heard of.

“When we bought BRMB, Beacon, Mercia and Wyvern covering the WM there was no joint rate card so if a large corporate wanted to buy the whole region each station had to quote separately, there wasn’t one unified offer. This was one of the first things we fixed when we walked in the door.
“The danger is the LEPs will be in exactly this same position, each struggling to get their voice heard, no unified position, and no strength of voice, with each one working to undermine the other in the struggle to get a deal for their patch.  You do need some leadership whether in business or in regional government.
“When we’re talking to listeners on each of our stations it’s really important they know and understand that we’re their local station, based locally and focussing on their interests – local radio with a common purpose.  But when we’re talking to business we want to be able to speak to them coherently in a way that makes sense for them.  This is what the LEPs need to aim for otherwise we run the risk of a multitude of LEPs with no common purpose.”

In terms of their plans for the future Phil says they are very happy running the businesses they bought and that he has “no ambitions to recreate Chrysalis Radio.  "We bought businesses which need a bit of attention but which are essentially sound and we are keen to keep building on their strengths.”

Beacon Radio
Wyvern Radio
Mercia Radio
Heart 106
Beverley Nielsen
4th September 2010

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