| 15 Jul 2024
Absolute Radio programme & operations director Clive Dickens - Our aim is to breach the 3.3m listener mark in five years

A quarter after he took charge as the programme and operations director of Virgin-turned-Absolute Radio, Clive Dickens appears to be a man in control. Scheduled to visit India this week for Ficci Frames 2009, Dickens is unfazed by the latest Rajar ratings and criticism of Absolute's performance from some quarters.

Tasked with building a new brand for the 15-year-old national music station, Dickens says the team has charted out a definite marketing strategy, heavy on digital, that will help the station achieve its numbers in the space of five years.

Dickens, who was named the fourth most influential person in the UK radio and music industry by the Sunday Times in April 2000, was Group Head of Programmes at Capital Radio between 1995 and 2000. One of his many roles was to oversee the integration of all FM acquisitions which included BRMB - Birmingham, Southern Radio, Red Dragon and XFM-London. Prior to heading up Capital programming department he worked for eleven years at Chiltern Radio plc in the Home Counties, where he rose from being the youngest Head of Music in UK radio to Network Controller of seven market leading local stations.

In an email interview, Dickens tells editor Aparna Joshi about the plans he has for Absolute in the months ahead.

When it launched, Absolute planned an expansion of its brand across all digital media including mobile, TV and the web, as well as areas such as music downloads, social networking, branded ticketing, subscription and personalised radio. How many of these initiatives have been kicked off? Have they started reaping dividends?

We're only 15 weeks old and already, we have made some fabulous digital advances  Firstly, our migration from to was a huge success and web traffic continues to grow. Absolute Radio overtook Virgin Radio as a Google search term in the same month as our launch  We have over 400,000 users each month and they are spending more than twice the amount of time on our site (over 45mins) than those of our competitors. We are seeing 50 per cent more listeners signing up for our VIP service and over 600,000 podcast downloads since launch  45 per cent of Absolute Radio's national listening is via a digital platform (DAB , DTT and Online). This compares to an industry average of 18 per  cent and commercial average of 19 per cent (Rajar, Jan 09).

Also, we've seen some really nice innovations on the marketing and distribution sides  Our online Rock Off... initiative was a triumph in terms of reaching out to music communities on the web and drove over 143k new users to  Also,  we continue to hold the record for number of channels that we broadcast on (now 52!) thanks to our groundbreaking three-tier radio player application, The Absolute Amp ,available on 27 platforms including Facebook, Myspace and iGoogle.

Our energy and passion to do things differently and our aspirations to build the brand in a number of directions remain unchanged. There are plenty more exciting developments to come.

The latest Rajar figures have not been too kind to Absolute, but that was probably to be expected. Did you expect the drop in listenership figures?

The way we look at it is that we changed the name of a 15 year old station (built from a brand that is over 30 years old) in a very short time and according to RAJAR, still retained 80 per cent of the listenership  In fact, we know that the figure is even higher because there is still a degree of misattribution which would have impacted the RAJAR scores  According to an Edison study carried out just before the results, almost as many listeners thought they were listening to Virgin radio as Absolute Radio. This level of confusion would clearly have impacted the RAJAR scorecards  Changing your name takes time and we always knew that there would be a J curve. We also know that our marketing is working - our awareness had doubled and our TV ad has beaten recall benchmarks. Our job now is to continue the job we've started. We've invested millions in marketing and will invest millions more.

What are the learnings you take out of the figures - are there any indicators on where and how Absolute should go from here?

We have made a great start - the positive reaction to our music and our programming, the effectiveness of our marketing and the digital advances we've made  We've also turned a brand launch around in an incredibly short time – certainly much shorter than any marketer would choose! We need to build on these great early indicators and continue to reinforce our new name and our new product to our existing audience and new listeners.

The online venture appears to be doing well, if the Rajar stats are to be believed. How is that being achieved?

Absolute radio is digital at its core  It's central to our marketing, programming and distribution plans. We are delighted to see that this focus is paying dividends. We are known as the station which launched with a blog and we will continue to innovate, to question the norm and to reach out the online community in ever more creative ways.

Have new listeners tuned in with fresh programming? Has there been a radical change in Absolute's on air sound, as against Virgin's? What is the current target audience of Absolute? How important was the iconic moniker of Virgin Radio to the station?

We know that our music and programming is really resonating with our listeners. We are playing more music they like and less repeats  This is what they asked for at the time of acquisition and this is what we will continue to provide  A radical change wasn't needed – simply a clear commitment to our listeners and one that we consistently deliver on. We're building on the Virgin heritage but also adding our own unique style  We've held 30 live music sessions already since we became Absolute Radio which is a real vote of confidence from the music industry in our new brand  We've launched our â€?No Repeat Guarantee' which already has significant recognition. We play more tracks than BBC Radio 2 and less repeats than any other commercial station  The fact that the levels of engagement with the station are at record levels shows that this is working.

There are 14m adults out there who like the music we play but don't currently listen. If we look at our core audience of 30 something men, that translates to over 2.5m. In short, the potential is huge. We feel very optimistic about our future growth.

How long will it take to build the new brand?

We're already well on our way!  Our aim is to breach the 3.3m listener mark in five years and we remain very optimistic about this.

You have once said that the station already has some "fantastic broadcasters" but had lacked the marketing muscle to deliver the audience it deserved. What are the new marketing strategies that have been put in place now?

Digital marketing is a key part of our strategy  We want to fish where the fish are by reaching out to online communities with relevant content  The success of â€?Rock Off' demonstrates the potential for this. This piece of activity alone generated over 143k new users through a creative and relevant sampling opportunity which prompted listening through a radio player  We will continue to explore opportunities like these as well as continuing to develop new applications, like the mini-amp.

We are open in everything that we do and continue to engage with our VIPS  Our company blog ( has generated over 65k visits since launch – not bad for a company with just 100 employees!

We are investing heavily in offline marketing – and that creative is then being amplified online through virals, through social networks and through content channels. Our ad launch campaign for example achieved �most watched' status with over five million impressions a day on the You-Tube channel and was viewed over 250,000 times in the first week.

We will also continue to build the fame and infamy of our talented presenters through an increased focus on PR.

Why have British media companies, bar the BBC, failed to grow an international presence? How did the UK media industry/ audience take to an Indian media company stepping in take over Virgin Radio?

There was a lot of interest in the UK press, as well as the international press, around the acquisition of Virgin Radio primarily because it was TIML's first investment outside of India  Industry and media alike have been very positive about the deal. They recognise the fact that TIML is going to invest significantly in building for the long term  As hugely experienced brand builders, TIML know what it takes to develop awareness for a new company  Meanwhile, the team at Golden Square has also responded really well to TIML's open management style  It's something that we have embraced as a business and a brand at Absolute Radio.

How different is brand Absolute from brand Virgin? You have mentioned that the brand's ultimate aim is to 'go international'. Can you elaborate? Are there more partnerships with TIML in the offing to look at other ventures in Europe?

You could say that we are already international as we have a very significant online audience around the world  This potential has not been monetised in the past, due to Virgin brand licensing restrictions  As Absolute Radio, we are free from these restrictions and plan to fully leverage the brand internationally  Before we get ahead of ourselves however, we need to focus on getting the UK where we want it to be. We're only 15 weeks old and there's still plenty to keep us busy on the home front.

Would you ever look at launching / taking over a station aimed at British Asians?

We continue to look at numerous ideas and opportunities to grow our business in radio and brands.

Are there any synergies at all with Radio Mirchi, that is run under ENIL, the Times' subsidiary here in India?

At this stage TIML Radio UK is wholly focussed on the UK market.

The station has unveiled a new presenter line-up. The station has seen a lot of talent turnover, and internal reorganisation. How has it changed the station, its perception among the industry and audiences?

We have said on record that our ambition is to become the station with the most Sony award winning DJs  We are investing in rising stars like Jo Russell and Tim Shaw as well as investing significantly in the very talented and very experienced Christian O'Connell and Geoff Lloyd  And we're not done yet!

Internally, we have made changes as any new company would in order to better match our ambitions. For example, we combined our digital development and marketing teams in line with our emphasis on our digital strategy  We have a hugely talented team of individuals at Golden Square and we will continue to equip them and encourage them to be creative and to find new ways of driving the business forward.

You have mentioned in a column that 2009 will herald a new era of breakfast radio. How is Absolute going about capitalising on this?

We have invested in a new production team and additional broadcasters  The team now numbers seven and will launch some new concepts and marketing within the first quarter of 09.

Indian radio stations have often complained about paucity of good on air talent, possibly because it's still an emerging sector here. What is the scene in the UK?

UK Music radio started in the late 60s with the Pirates, followed by the BBC and then commercial radio arrived in 1973  Because of this long heritage, we have a rich seam of talent  Also, new  broadcasters continue to come through. We now have 397 stations here in the UK.

Swedish vodka brand Absolut launched legal proceedings against Absolute Radio, the rebranded Virgin Radio, for trademark infringement. Did the case reach any amicable resolution?

The case continues. We remain very confident in our position that there is no confusion and we continue to be 100 per  cent focussed on our business.