What’s in a radio station name? Today sees Bauer radio making a wholesale change to the branding of their local AM services, dropping the “Magic” name and adopting the “heritage” name “2” moniker.

In a recent conversation with a member of the public discussing what “radio stations” were available on a certain system revealed this nugget

“Can they get that Capital One?”

Not sure that despite the oodles of cash that the radio group and credit card company have spent on brand awareness that they’ll be that pleased at Joe Public getting them mixed up. However it does prompt an interesting question “What’s in a radio station name?” Are numbers inherently associated with radio stations, do you need ‘radio’, ‘FM’ or how about ‘extra’ in your name?

The idea that Bauer are going for is to extend the brand of each of their ‘Big City’ stations into ‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’ stations, with the former ‘gold’ formatted Magic AM stations becoming ‘Place 2’ and soon youth oriented digital station ‘The Hits’ will become ‘Place 3’. Go search out stories at Radio Today for the full low down.

Now adding numbers after station names is not new in commercial radio, 24 years ago in January 1990 Radio Clyde spilt their AM/FM services as Clyde 1 and Clyde 2, with Northsound doing a similar 1 and 2 rename move in 1995, as such the rest of the now Bauer radio family could be seen to be joining the numbers party two decades late.

670930 - Radio Times - 30th September 1967 - Radio OneCommercial radio’s brave move to “Radio by Numbers” is of course only following in the footsteps of the BBC, who in the hight of the swinging sixties, reeling from the impact of the “happening” pirates, wanted to wash off the stuffy image of the “Light Programme” and “Home Service” and launched Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. While it might have been auntie that educated the British public to identify radio stations by arbitrary number, they were not the first, wind back to the 1940’s and the first reference I can find to numbered stations is across the North Sea in post war Holland, when 1947 saw the launch of the Hilversum 1 and Hilversum 2 stations. The Dutch had their own fightback to the pirates before Britain as well with Hilversum 3 in 1965. Though perhaps in a sneaky way the beeb can take some claim for radio by numbers in their 1946 debut of “The Third Programme”, which was eventually to morph into BBC Radio 3, interestingly after doing their best to hold on as an independent “service” from the main Radio 3 for three or four years.

So here in the UK at least we’ve clocked up nearly half a century of associating ‘1’ with pop, ‘2’ with middle of the road, ‘3’ with classical and ‘4’ with talk, for a large number of the population this is all they’ve ever known. The Scottish stations back in the nighties, and other joiners to the numbers game in the naughties, like ‘The Pulse’ and ‘Signal’ have followed this tried and tested number association of ‘1 = pop’ and ‘2 = oldies’. So these new ‘1’ and ‘2’ stations are on tried and tested ground.

While the BBC may have tried to ride the ‘hip’ wave and make numbered radio stations the ‘in thing’, a decade later with the eventual arrival of Commercial Radio in the UK, names were back. To be with the times you had to be “Radio something”, “something radio” or even that quaint eighties phenomenon that of calling your station “something Sound”. References to numbers were left for wavelengths or frequencies, even from the start the commercial imperative to ensure that the listener knew how to tune in was forefront.

Let’s put aside for a moment any consideration of how much networked or syndicated programming any particular station, or groups of stations transmit, there seems to be two trends with UK radio groups building their portfolios. There is Global with their strategy of “national brands delivered locally”, thus the rise of the Capital, Heart and Smooth propositions at the loss of many “heritage” station names.

Then there is the Bauer approach of banking on their heritage brands. I recall being at some event, possibly a Radio Academy organised talk, at BBC Manchester’s old Oxford Road site, back in the late 90’s. A gent, who rather embarrassingly I can’t remember who, from EMAP radio, then owners of what’s now the Bauer ‘place’ network, detailed how they saw powerful brands as a key part of their strategy, particularly highlighting the value of a name and that they saw an advantage in owning the UK rights to the “Kiss FM” and “Radio City” brand names.

Piccadilly 261 Car StickerMost of the local heritage identities of the AM stations in the north of England got slowly eroded over time as services such as “Piccadilly Gold” transformed into “Piccadilly Magic” and eventually just “Magic” with no reference to Piccadilly at all. Those older members of the radio enthusiast brigade are no doubt getting hot under the collar at the lost opportunity to bring back the Piccadilly name, as the new ‘brand extension’ services are taking the ‘Key’ name. However time goes on and the Key 103 name now as just as much heritage in the marketplace as the Piccadilly name. Piccadilly Radio launched in 1974, Key 103 came along fourteen years later in 1988. After Key 103’s early experimental “music not music” phase, through the 90s it yo-yoed between “Piccadilly Key 103” and plain old “Key 103”. However by the new millennium along with it’s Piccadilly Magic AM sibling the Piccadilly name vanished from the airwaves. Even with a bit of overlap the Key name clearly trumps Piccadilly in longevity in peoples minds.

This same sticking around factor is probably why the “Rock FM problem” has not been solved. Rock FM was born in 1990, after clocking up just under eight years as “Red Rose Radio.” Rock FM’s namesake is supposedly Blackpool rock, and nothing to do with rock music, being like it’s other ‘place’ brethren a CHR formatted station. I guess the Red Rose name is even more lost in the mists of time than Piccadilly and even with a name that “doesn’t do what it says on the tin” it probably would be commercial suicide to ditch the 25 years heritage of the Rock FM name.

In 2006, MFM re-branded to their 1983-1989 name Marcher Sound, with a line suggested in their publicity because “that’s what people still call it.” As per my argument that Piccadilly and Red Rose names are dead and burred I can’t help thinking that not that many MFM listeners in 2006 were walking around asking their friends if they heard something on Marcher Sound. Clearly this was just a nice line to use to explain the mid 2000’s trend that then owners GCap were adopting of dropping ‘FM’ from station names. The most obvious example of this was reverting to the “Capital Radio” name instead of “Capital FM”.

Over recent times I’ve read many a viewpoint from consultants such as James Cridland in the UK and Larry Gifford across the pond debating the radio industry “throwing away” the name radio. Through the 90’s the term “FM” became synonymous to “Radio”. The public were educated to know that “FM” meant radio. As platforms diversified people might be listening on other devices than a FM radio receiver. We’ve got cases of services with “FM” names who don’t have a FM transmitter. Jazz FM has a strong brand, which of course they’d be silly to throw away just because they now are a digital only operation. Maybe if back in the 90s they’d started out as “Jazz Radio”?

“Radio” doesn’t need to mean a radio broadcast, just as “FM” doesn’t need to be a frequency modulated VHF transmission. If it sounds like “radio” than the general public will probably call it radio. Does this matter if this comes from a Pandora type ‘new media’ company, or a broadcast ‘old media’ company.

I find it interesting that Capital went back to using the “Capital FM” name, even though they do an excellent job of educating the listener that “Capital” equals “hit music”. With on-line, TV Channels and mobile services, does Capital even need the “FM” bit? I’d suggest plain old “Capital” would suffice. If only that pesky credit card company didn’t have a trademark on putting the number one after their name, maybe they’d be going down the numbers route rather than the “extra” road.

While numbers are a tried and tested method of identification, this only really works given that magic word again, the “heritage” of their use. The BBC’s numbered stations are clearly identifiable, however once we get the likes of Radio City 3 and Key 3 on-air, I hope no one will be tuning in expecting a Classic FM alternative.

BBC Radio by Numbers

There is something to be said for Global Radio’s named brand strategy, offerings such as “Smooth” and “Gold” do what it says on the tin, meanwhile when I come to listen to some BBC Radio their radio by numbers has become a right mess of Radio by numbers and letters, FM, L, X, SX, Ex, LW …where do I start? I guess I just look at the programme names rather than what channel it’s on.

As for fixing misleading names, if you want have a degree of accuracy maybe they should have launched Key 261 today.


Photo Credits:
“Radio Times – 30th September 1967 – Radio One” by Bradford Timeline
“Piccadilly 261” by fragglehunter aka Sleepy G
“Virgin Media TiVo EPG” by Phil Edmonds