Keeping the best of both worlds

Graham Bryce, managing director at Xfm , Choice FM and Capital Gold - Charged with managing three radio stations, Graham Bryce tells Mark Banhamhow he does it

Graham Bryce is a very busy man – very busy indeed.

And although he is unlikely to admit it, he is one of the rising stars within Capital Radio Group, charged with the overall responsibility for the group’s alternative station Xfm.

As if that’s not enough – after the group acquired the remaining 81% stake in urban music station Choice FM in February 2004 – he has also taken the role of steering that station as it settles within the Capital empire.

This means maintaining its formerly semiindependent edge while it makes the transition into part of one of the country’s largest radio networks.

Enough for any man you may think? Well David Mansfield, chief executive of Capital Radio Group, obviously didn’t think so, because earlier this year he also charged this amiable Scotsman with the rejuvenation of the group’s AM oldies stalwart Capital Gold, a station that advertisers had often consigned to the “drop-zone” on client’s schedules.

Coming from a finance background, originally at KPMG, has done nothing to dull Bryce’s fortunes within the notoriously shareholder driven Capital Group and he is proud to announce that, not only is his employment within the group his second “real job”, but also he has been with the network for a decade this year.

He’s open about the ups and downs that have formed his career to date, including the unsuccessful bid for the then Richard Bransonowned Virgin Radio, blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and the uneasy introduction of the formerly independent Xfm into the Capital Radio Group stable, a move that was met with open protest from original listeners, who were worried about the dumbing down of a station they held dear.

“When Capital first took over Xfm, there was a huge furore, the listeners were up in arms that the arch enemy had taken [the station] over and we didn’t help ourselves at the time.”

Bryce laments the way the switchover was handled and there is a definite feeling he’s learned from his mistakes, and those of his employer. “I’ll readily admit that we did it all wrong, when we switched it off on a Friday afternoon, put a tape on for two days and started it up again on the Monday with totally different presenters and a totally different music policy,” he says. “Jesus Christ, thinking back, what the fuck were we thinking about?” He says that it was a good couple of years before he got a firm involvement within Xfm and he approached the repositioning from a business standpoint, concentrating on the brand and its objectives first.

For all of you who think you found the “new black” in media when the brand-focused media neutrality debate reared its head, think again. Bryce has been starting from a brand perspective with the Capital stations for years.

“From my strategy background, I was very interested in where we could take the station from a strategic standpoint and also from a brand standpoint, because I think that brands are hugely important. David [Mansfield] did a restructure of what we could attempt to do with Xfm, and because I’d been badgering him he said ‘right, you’ve been talking a lot of good theory, now go and sort it out!’ And that’s how I got the role of managing director at Xfm –which was good.”

It is raising the profile of Xfm that has led his chief executive to trust Bryce with a station with a different proposition, Choice FM, the newest introduction into the fold.

Although you may think that this would be a huge mountain to climb for a managing director of a guitar-based indie-rock station, Bryce sees similarities, like he did with Xfm, in keeping the majority of the key audience, while introducing new listeners.

“Part of my ethos with Xfm was, how can you combine all the great things that Capital can bring, with retaining the identity of what Xfm stands for, and keep the best of both worlds. It’s the same with Choice.”

Boosting the station’s presence

Feedback Bryce has received over the past few years in reference to Xfm’s resurgence would suggest that he has done a successful job of boosting the station’s presence within the radio landscape. “I think we’ve turned around all the negative comments, generally I haven’t heard anyone who has a problem with what we are trying to do with Xfm,” he says.

“Mostly people understand where the station is, they think it’s sounding better that ever.

The brand is extraordinarily strong from an advertiser standpoint, simply from a financial point of view.”

He says he will use the same template to boost Choice’s standing within the London market, in tandem with achieving its improved presence on advertiser’s schedules. “We want to have all these things with Choice as well, we want to retain exactly the brand identity that Choice stands for, we want to get the advertisers more involved with the station, as they are with Xfm, and beyond that the strategies are similar.

“They are both what you would call ‘newgeneration’ stations, which aren’t about geography.

Capital FM or Key 103 or Clyde in Glasgow have core values that are about location, Capital’s about London, Key is about Manchester, Clyde is about Glasgow. Xfm and Choice FM are about the lifestyles in relation to the music. It doesn’t matter if you live in Sheffield, or if you live in London, it’s about a community of people, a community of interest that isn’t geographically based. Both brands will also be quasi-national stations going forward.”

Bryce is wary that any switch from his new station’s original music policy will not be greeted with open ears from its current audience, so a seismic shift in programming policy is not on the horizon. “Choice is an urban music station, and it’s the only urban music station in London. You might argue that Kiss is, but Kiss is really a dance station. Kiss is more at the pop end of the spectrum, but is trying to maintain credibility through an urban positioning. We’re going to retain Choice absolutely as an urban music station, because urban music is popular as it is. There’s absolutely no point in dumbing down or blanding it in any way.”

He is adamant that the station should keep its links to the black urban community and reflect the desires and the attitudes of this group, as the station has always been part of that community. He does counter, however, that the founders of the station never meant Choice’s remit to be entirely about the black community and says that to a certain extent the station has been adopted by the black community, because of the lack of mainstream media focused on this demographic.

The black urban community focus is something Bryce welcomes and says it is important to keep hold of, but he also wants to make the station accessible to a more mainstream audience, and not create a niche player.

“I think it would be wrong for us to create a music station that only talked to the black community. The type of music that Choice is about is not so much a race thing, but it’s about lifestyle and attitude – race transcends that,” he says.

Advertisers are also uppermost on Bryce’s agenda for the station and the broadened appeal he says will bring in audience, but this is only part of his plan to make Choice a more viable opportunity for the advertisers and their budgets.

“There’s lots of positive aspects to where the station is positioned currently,” he says.

“The type of audience that we already attract is really interesting to advertisers. The urban community are so brand conscious, they’re spending their wage packets, they’ve got the right trainers on, they’ve got the right mobile phones – the proposition advertisers want is absolutely there and these groups are hard to reach anywhere else.”

Pre-conceived notions

The problem, Bryce admits, is that advertisers have a pre-conceived notion of what a Choice, or indeed Xfm, listener represents. “With Xfm, the pre-conceived notion was it was a station for marijuana smoking, indie kids from Camden, who were all students, not with two ha’pennies to rub together, and now we’ve been able to educate them that it’s actually 25 to 34-year-old ABC1 professionals, with loads of disposable income.”

He is also worried that advertisers will have a pre-conceived notion that Choice will have a stereotypical derogatory view of its audience.

“The notion will be that it is a bunch of unemployed people from inner city areas like Brixton, but that is definitely not the case.”

Bryce sets the record straight. “It’s actually female-bias, upmarket, big-spenders, brandconscious, exactly the type of people advertisers want to attract.”

With a constantly shifting audience, Bryce is in charge of pulling what many primarily perceive as niche stations into a more mainstream positioning for his paymasters. He leaves us with his masterplan. Simple, but no one would argue with it: “As more and more radio stations come on stream, the audiences fragment,” he explains.

“If you want to remain the number one radio group and you want to remain the number one buying point, you want to build a portfolio of special interest stations to remain the first choice for advertisers. We want a complimentary set of radio stations that offer the best advertising proposition to the advertiser, the best stations to the consumer and still be number one in the marketplace from every angle.”

Career path

Graham Bryce

2004 Managing director Xfm, Capital Gold, Choice FM

2000 Managing director Xfm

1997 Head of corporate strategy and development Capital Group

1995 Business development executive Capital Group

1994 Group accountant Capital Group

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