Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Onward Virgin Soldiers

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Onward Virgin Soldiers

Article excerpt

Byline: JOHN PLUNKETT

THE ghost of Chris Evans returned to haunt Virgin Radio last week when his successor, Steve Penk, unexpectedly quit. Penk, a former Capital Radio DJ, walked out on the breakfast show just seven months after taking over from Evans, who himself was sacked for breach of contract.

The upheaval comes at a critical period in the station's nine-year history.

So what is going on at Virgin?

The station's audience has slumped by nearly a million since the start of 1999, and its market share has fallen by nearly a third to 2.4 per cent. As a result of the slump in national advertising, analysts expect operating profits for 2001 to be around [pound]12 million, about 20 per cent down on the previous year. On top of all that, Evans - who sold his Ginger Media Group (including Virgin) to the Scottish Media Group for [pound]225 million two years ago - is suing his old bosses for [pound]8.6 million compensation for lost share issues.

So did Penk jump or was he pushed?

He had only just joined Virgin from Capital when he was transferred from drivetime to breakfast in the aftermath of Evans's departure.

When the audience failed to respond - the latest listening figures are published tomorrow Virgin acted with familiar speed and ruthlessness. Harriet Scott was installed as his co-host; Penk disagreed with the changes and quit.

Negotiations continue between the station and the DJ, who has been offered back his drivetime slot.

It is this ruthlessness, say Virgin's critics, that lies behind its inability to build a more stable and loyal audience. "Virgin is a hungry commercial animal," says former breakfast-show producer Richard Kilgarriff, now in charge of Cartoon Network in the UK. "It is good at bringing in on-air talent, but not very good at keeping it."

A former presenter adds: "They don't let anything bed down. Its programming and music policy is always chopping and changing."

The same is true of its programming executives. Virgin chief executive John Pearson is becoming the radio equivalent of Aston Villa's Doug Ellis: he has had at least eight programme directors so far. …

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