Phil Vinter spent a day with the DJs at Kerrang! radio station in the city, which was forced to make cutbacks last year
In a hot metallic studio in a funky building on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter Kerrang! radio DJ Luke Wilkins is into the final few minutes of another weekday show.
For the last four hours he has been left to his own devices to present and produce his daytime rock music programme.
No producers, no sidekicks, no hangers on. In the first hour –‘The Rock and Roll Years’ – anything goes and for the remainder of the show the sparky 29-year-old has more freedom in his song choices than at almost any other station in the country.
Of course Beethoven and Ronan Keating are strictly off limits – Kerrang!’s remit is rock – but giving DJs too much independence is not something station manager James Walshe is worried about.
Like all the DJ’s at Kerrang! Wilkins is deeply passionate about rock music. In between songs the appropriately long-haired rock DJ has carte blanche to talk about whatever he wants, for as long as he wants.
There are no restrictions on the content or the time of the links.
Going against the grain of traditional commercial radio thinking? Yes. Risky? Yes. But it’s an edgy formula that has won the station more awards than any other commercial station in the five years since its inception.
But although the Sonies kept on coming the station was losing hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
The product was great, but the business plan wasn’t working.
When German media giant Bauer bought Kerrang!’s parent company Emap last year it did so with the intention of making the station popular with the bank manager as well as on the airwaves.
The workforce was cut by 25 per cent, with the presenting, marketing and online departments taking the biggest hit. While local advertising sales had been holding their own, national advertising was targeted as a potentially lucrative, untapped revenue stream.
Mr Walshe said: “It was going to happen anyway regardless of the economic slump.
“The radio station needed to think hard about the long-term future and unfortunately we had to look at staffing levels.
“We either had to make cuts or look at networking. If we networked we would lose the connection with the locals and we wanted to keep the station in the West Midlands.
“It was a traumatic time, but it had to be done or the station had no future.”
Twelve months on from the takeover and the hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of losses have been turned into hundreds of thousands of pounds of profits and there is a real buzz about the station as presenters begin to believe that edgy, non-homogenised output can actually make good business sense.
Of course in the cutthroat and often fickle world of radio things can change very quickly.
For many the jury is still out, but as the station’s listening figures reach 1.4 million and it moves past BRMB and Galaxy in the most listened to local radio stations pecking order things are looking good.
For Wilkins Kerrang! is the most exciting place to work in radio at the moment. He said: “There is nowhere else around that gives you the freedom you get at Kerrang! and puts so much faith in its presenters. It’s a really stimulating environment to work in and every presenter here is so passionate about rock music that it really comes across on the airwaves.”
But if the formula is proving successful and other stations are still struggling why are they not copying the edgy Kerrang! brand?
“If I could draw the analogy with a Ford Mondeo car,” Mr Wilkins continued.
“A Ford Mondeo is reliable, solid, safe, steady and works. So car manufacturers take the concept and make similar style models.
“However, you still get the odd Ferrari and that’s what Kerrang! is – less safe but it works just as well, others just don’t want to take the risk.”
Kerrang! is also breaking traditional radio rules by basing itself in Birmingham. It is the only nationally available radio station to broadcast from the city, but according to late night DJ Johnny Doom, being situated in Birmingham has its benefits although the city still faces snobby attitudes from the London media class.
“Running a national commercial radio station from a place like Birmingham and seeing it work gives me a lot of pride,” said Doom.
“I do think that London will always be the epicentre for radio. I’ve seen a lot of people put in hard work, but Birmingham is hampered by its image and industrial background.
“I would like to think that our base in Birmingham would encourage other stations to set up here,
“I’m fully supportive of places like the Custard Factory that try to encourage media outlets to be based in the city,” he added.
Walshe believes there are massive advantages to being located in Birmingham as opposed to London. “Record companies and rock stars always ask us why we are not based in London. In geographic terms it’s a great place to be and we get a great response from people who listen to the station here in Birmingham.
You don’t get that friendliness in London where it is completely saturated with stations.”
But for Walshe the real key to success is having good music and good presenters who know their music.
“I don’t like to hark back, but radio used to be very successful with personalities,” he said. Noel Edmonds, Chris Tarrant, Chris Evans – they all came from radio. Presenters are important. I hate stations that just get in a TV presenter to do a show simply because they are a big name.
“All the best DJs can operate their own desk and have a real passion for the music they play and that’s what we have at Kerrang!”
The success of Kerrang!’s output strategy in a business sense will be judged over a much longer timespan.
But it seems almost just that the likes of Wilkins and Johnny Doom – straggly-haired, walking encyclopaedias of their rock music genre and master craftsman of the mixing desk should be the rightful kings of the airwaves.