The return of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin brand is part of a bid put forward by Sound Digital, a consortium of TalkSport owner UTV Media, Magic parent Bauer and transmission business Arqiva, to run the second national commercial digital radio multiplex.
“It’s been a long held wish of mine to see Virgin Radio re-launch in the UK after the success we had with Virgin Radio UK in the 1990s,” said Branson. “The team at Virgin Radio International has worked tirelessly to accomplish this and I’m delighted that UTV Media invited us to join their exciting plans for digital radio in the UK. We wish UTV Media and its consortium success in its application to Ofcom.”
The Virgin Radio brand disappeared from the UK in 2008 when the station, once owned by Chris Evans, was rebranded Absolute Radio by its then new owner, the Times of India Group. The station has since been bought by Bauer.
UTV has struck a deal with Branson’s Virgin Group to use the brand for a new digital station if Sound Digital bid is successful.
Sound Digital faces competition from a rival bid, Listen2 Digital, backed by former Chrysalis Radio chief executive Phil Riley’s Midlands radio group Orion Media and engineering services outfit, Babcock International.
The Sound Digital bid includes a TalkSport spin-off talk radio station, similar to that proposed in Channel 4’s aborted digital radio plans seven years ago, along with TalkSport 2 and a UTV-run business station backed by Bloomberg.
Bauer is proposing to run stations on the Sound Digital platform, including Heat Radio, Absolute 80s and Planet Rock, all of which are already well established on digital platforms, and Kiss spin-off, Kisstory.
Listen2Digital is proposing an 18 station offer including a food network, a station aimed at older listeners called Wireless from Age UK, and a new sports station.
Alongside a new modern rock/indie station, a network devoted to jazz, blues and soul and a top 40 station, it will give a national platform to children’s digital station Fun Kids as well as a UK-wide version of Orion’s adult contemporary station Gem.
The Listen2Digital offer also includes Upload Radio, which it says will give a “unique opportunity to get their material distributed to a national audience”, a business and financial network and two Christian and two Asian services.
Other shareholders in the Listen2Digital bid include Fun Kids owner Folder Media and Asian broadcaster Sabras Sound.
Riley, who is chairman of the Listen2Digital bid, said: “I have long thought that the UK radio industry needed more choice and more competition in the provision of DAB and I think our bid delivers that.”
Details of the two bids were confirmed by media regulator Ofcom on Thursday with the winning bid expected to be announced in the spring.
Ofcom invited bids to run a second national digital audio broadcasting (DAB) multiplex last year.
It comes seven years after Channel 4 won the right to run a second DAB multiplex, only for the broadcaster to pull the plug on its proposals, blaming the economic downturn.
Digital radio has grown in popularity but not at the rate it was once forecast, with predictions that the industry could follow television with digital switchover by 2017 proving premature.
Sound Digital consortium (UTV Media 30%, Bauer 30% and Arqiva 40%
Virgin Radio in partnership with Virgin Group
Talk Radio – news and current affairs
Magic Mellow - “relaxing and melodic” music
Kisstory - “old skool” dance tunes and anthems
Planet Rock - classic rock
Jazz FM to provide a “non-mainstream” music station
Premier Christian Radio and UCB Inspirational for Christian audiences
British Muslim Radio
Listen2Digital consortium (Orion Media 45%, Babcock International 35%, Folder Media 5%, Sabras Sound 5% and “individuals” 10%)
GEM - female adult contemporary
Contemporary hits station - details confidential
Food station - details confidential
Jazz station - details confidential
Wireless - “oldies” from Age UK
Nation - male adult contemporary from Town & Country Broadcasting
Sabras - contemporary Asian
Modern rock station - details confidential
Share Radio - financial
Sport radio - details confidential
RTE Radio 1
Chris Country - country music
Upload Radio - special programmes and events from Folder Media
Mark Sweney and John Plunkett