Orion Media chief executive Phil Riley tells Graham Young why he's sacrificing the most famous name in commercial local radio.
After 38 years and one month on air, the BRMB name will be gently phased out from the airwaves next week.
Despite boss Phil Riley’s former allegiances to the station’s main commercial rivals further up Broad Street, the surprise move should not be interpreted as ‘a Heart transplant’.
It is simply rebranding and moving with the times in a bid to become competitive again.
And that, according to Riley, means joining a market place which increasingly demands that local commercial radio should have regional, if not national, advertising clout.
With former long-standing rivals turned sister stations Wyvern, Beacon and Mercia also under Riley’s three-year-old Orion Media umbrella – a name that few people outside of the industry are familiar with – he concluded that BRMB was literally caught between a rock and a hard place.
If, as he believed, it was no longer possible to sustain the individual names associated with bases in Worcester, Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry respectively, then something had to give.
In the end, the Orion chief executive has gambled his own future on creating a one-size-fits-all brand to match the likes of Smooth, Heart, Galaxy and Capital.
The new name in town, or rather right across the West Midlands and beyond, is Free.
In losing a name that is as universally familiar in Birmingham as BRMB, the move is akin to Apple suddenly becoming, say, Tree Fruit.
Or Coca-Cola perhaps turning itself into something like Dizzy4Fizzy. Unthinkable.
But Phil, a former BRMB DJ himself in the early ‘80s, is unrepentant.
And, what’s more, he’s ready to risk falling on his own sword in order to let a new leaping frog logo prove his intuition right.
The name Free was one of eight shortlisted via a process of ‘research, liking them and legalities’.
Four were ditched because they would have frazzled too many expensive lawyers’ brains.
Free was, amazingly enough, free. As in available.
Once the name had been approved, a creative agency spawned the amphibious logo at a business pitch.
Riley admits he was the first at the presentation table to admit ‘I quite like that’.
When other colleagues leaped to his side the frog got the gig, even though a persistent ‘frog in the throat’ is every DJ’s worst nightmare!
The original choice of new logo – a bird against a pink background – was then dropped in favour of the frog and the spring freshness of the colour green.
Looking totally relaxed in his remarkably sparse, traffic-noisy office overlooking Broad Street, Riley recognises that “change for the sake of it is not good.
“But you do have to respond to your environment.”
Interesting words, given that frogs are particularly adept at such skills.
“We could have done it (changed the name) within a minute of walking in (as Orion Media in June 2009),” he adds.
“But we didn’t. We thought we’d have a shot of fixing things... now the external environment has changed and we have to respect that.”
BRMB’s rivals have already consolidated under brand names.
So now Orion is making its own Global to Capital-style move.
“That’s a big network... and we’re becoming another one,” he explains.
The move to a universal name like Free is designed to protect revenues by making it easier for national advertising buyers to respond to a brand that can now be marketed right across the Central West TV region.
These are business reasons, though, nothing to do with listeners. So where do they come in?
“We’ve almost got more lapsed listeners than we have listeners,” Riley confesses, before explaining that research showed how difficult it could be to win them back without making a radical change.
“There’s a bunch of people who should be listening to us who have a perception about the name BRMB.”
Riley also points out that what people also probably don’t appreciate is that his four stations already have 75 per cent shared content...
“Yet (afternoon presenter) Dan Morrissey can’t name the station he’s on,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
In Riley’s view, the daily geographical migration of many potential listeners means the localness of a service is perhaps not as relevant as it once was.
“At BRMB we have employees who live everywhere from Shropshire to Worcestershire,” he explains.
“People can live in one area, commute to another and have family in a third bit.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re sacrificing and throwing out this heritage.
“We are not going to lose that sense of belonging to this area.”
BRMB pioneered the art of the phone-in through legends like Ed Doolan and Tony Butler, while Les Ross commanded breakfasts for 25 years (including his 1989-93 stint on the then new sister-service XTRA-am, which was the first station Phil launched himself in the late ‘80s after he’d returned from earning an MBA in New York).
It also became synonymous with community events like the Walkathon.
This year each Orion station will have its own charity event, with BRMB/Free’s Outer Circle bus route walk returning on Sunday, May 13 to build on the legacy of the late but inspirational fundraising schoolboy Harry Moseley.
“Entries were soon up 60 per cent on last year,” says Riley with great pride.
“We thought: ‘How are we going to get all of these people out?’.”
Riley says the Harry link can only be truly valid for one year, but is glad to have respected the wishes of a boy who’d said: ‘Next year I want the Walkathon to be for me’.
Moving the station forward will, of course, require new jingles. Like clothes, it’s remarkable how they date.
“They will be subtly different to the old ones,” says Riley. “Even the ones that are ten years old only sound OK... I wouldn’t want to put them back on the air.”
As well as having an all-new website, he acknowledges that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are also important, with up to 30 per cent of the current audience likely to communicate over the course of each month.
Free’s music policy will be to strive for the middle ground between the older Heart and the younger Capital listeners, with U2 / Oasis being about as progressive as it will get ‘within the context of a mainstream audience’.
So will the music policy be focused – or safe?
“More focused I think, because every time you play something ‘risky’, somebody will switch it off if they don’t like it,” says Riley.
“You can’t afford to play too many songs that people don’t like... what’s on my iPod doesn’t sound like any station!”
Football will leave FM to go on to Orion’s AM service.That’s because women in general don’t want football on BRMB /Free, while the men’s audience is fragmented according to whether they are actually at the game or if their own team is playing.
“Whether a game is on AM or DAB, people will find it,” says Riley, who originally came to BRMB in 1980 courtesy of a graduate training scheme.
Manchester-born and an imposing 6ft 5in tall, he found himself working on outside broadcasts and ‘editing bits of tape’.
But getting his hands dirty at everything paid dividends after he’d been put on to the overnight shifts as a DJ.
One day he had 15-minutes’ notice that he’d be doing the drivetime show after a colleague ended up at the dentists.
“I didn’t have time to panic, I played the songs in the right order and managed to get through that without taking us off the air or making a complete fool of myself,” he laughs.
“Interviewing Oscar-winning actors and big music stars was a fantastic experience, part of the chance to do lots of different things that you had 30 years ago.”
“And, working alongside Les Ross, Butler, Doolan and Robin Valk were halcyon days.
Yet Riley was also intelligent enough to know that he wasn’t one of them. Not in the true sense of what it takes to be a great broadcaster.
“People who are any good in front of a camera or microphone aren’t like us normal folk,” admits the electrician’s son.
“In day to day life they are slightly different... and I’m trying to be very diplomatic here.
“I was a bit too sane to be as good as guys like Ed and Les.
“I am not gifted in the way that they are gifted.
“So I came off frontline presenting to be more of a producer.”
As well as inheriting his mother’s clerical skills for being organised, the ambitious Riley had another realisation...
“That as one of half a dozen people in the management team, it would take forever to get to the top.
“I had a friend at IMI, a chemical engineer, who went off to do an MBA in London.
“I really wanted to go to the US and thought I would be a ‘master of the universe’ with a job on Wall Street.
“But I ended up loving radio in the States... and had to come back here to try to make it just as exciting.
“I was always looking for the next thing to do, not to be the MD or chief executive, but in order to do bigger things and get more involved you have to be the boss.
“And being the boss is what I think I do best.
“I feel very comfortable in the role, having great people and letting them go on air to deliver.”
Even though he prefers the big picture to details, life at the top, though, surely means having to worry about legal matters and bureaucracy?
“Nothing fills me with dread more than going through legal documentation,” sighs Riley.
“But I do have a good finance director!
“Commercial lawyers work flipping hard. I tell my kids ‘Never be a lawyer’, though it would be fun to be a barrister if you were that way inclined.”
His children are all now teenagers – there’s Alex, 18, Jessica, 17, and Mark, 14.
Wife Jean, a former BRMB marketing manager, is a full-time mother who looks after the needs of Riley and their children of whom he says: “They don’t care about radio or my job – and they keep me extremely grounded.”
Having previously run Heart’s then parent company Chrysalis and led the consortium of investors which bought BRMB for an undisclosed sum – think anywhere from £20 million to £40 million – one assumes Riley is worth a bob or two himself.
But not so much that he can afford Free to be anything other than a proper job.
As much as he still loves radio, at the age of 52 he still can’t afford to be in it for pure fun.
“We’re a commercial business,” stresses the man with 125 staff and 50 freelancers relying on his judgement.
“We are here to make money and deliver a return for our backers.
“That’s the challenge. We are not the BBC!
“I am absolutely confident we have done the right thing for the business and that it will work out for us.
“But I am terribly nervous about what’s going to happen in the transfer period.
“I would be mad not to be making as big a change as this.
“If I can do it I will sleep easy, or I’ll be thought of as the ‘butcher of Birmingham!’