R.A.P. Interview: Jeff Thomas

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R.A.P.: So how do you image this station called Virgin Radio?
Jeff: When I got here, the station had a very strong visual image with the brand name of Virgin because of the history with the record company, the publishing company, and so on. Basically, my brief was to come up with a unique audio image that was not only unique to the U.K. but, as much as possible, could stand alone in any market. We wanted to inject as much of a sense of humor as possible. We also wanted to create as much fun and excitement as possible, keeping in mind all the time that we were targeting more "thinking" adults, if that is a fair way of describing them.

The stuff I'm responsible for are the IDs and the promos. If there are any specials or anything like that, I'll do that. Any stuff outside the radio station that is representing the radio station, that comes under my control. We just try to make it all a little different for Virgin. Whether we're using a production package, whether we're using grooves from a song, whether we're using just simple drop ins or whatever, we just try to make it a little bit different so that if you hear something on this radio station, it will be slightly unique. There will be something about it that makes you perk your ears up for whatever reason, be it conscious or subconscious.

R.A.P.: Are you also writing the promos and IDs?
Jeff: I basically write the promos. Like any station, I'm working very closely with the Program Director and the programming department, and the writing is one of the things I like a lot. But I'm not writing positioning statements or station IDs. I'm having input on those, but I'm not sitting down saying I think we should say "more music" or "less talk" or any of that sort of stuff. That's done in a bigger discussion and under a greater umbrella. But the production department looks after the promos, whether it's the bigger stuff where I'm sitting down surrounding myself with encyclopedias or videos, or whether I'm just doing a weekend promo or a tour promo or something like that where I'm just walking around the production studio like an idiot making a lot of noise and jotting things down on paper.

R.A.P.: What differences might there be between the way a rock station in London is imaged versus the way stations in the U.S. or Australia do it?
Jeff: I think it's a two-sided coin in a way. Australia, I guess, is not at the stage the States is, but still I would say the stations are more aggressive in attacking each other. So, coming from that sort of marketing into London, there's the side of the coin where I'm used to doing that kind of stuff and can take for granted that the people will pick up on the thoughts or ideas that I'm trying to put on the air. And I'm keeping in mind what's been happening on the radio here and making allowances for that. But I also think there's the other side of the coin, and I like to affiliate the two in a lot of ways. Even though radio here is a certain age and has decided to take a certain tack, the music industry here is as old as any and is as up front as any and is as good as any and is taking as many risks as any. So, I have the opinion that just because commercial radio didn't start here until 1973 doesn't mean that people's attitudes and people's understanding of good production or simple subconscious reaction to audio--if there is such a phrase--it doesn't mean their attitudes and understanding started only twenty years ago. There were the Beatles. There was Hendrix. There were all of those guys, and now it's U2 and whoever else.

So I think there is definitely a strong bridge that can cross over there, and if you're providing something that is not insulting anybody's intelligence, something that is trying to cause a bit of a reaction, whether it's the hair raising on the back of the neck or a few goose bumps here or there, or something that's a little bit different and taking a few risks, then that has every chance of getting the same acceptance as the latest U2 single.

R.A.P.: You mentioned earlier that Production Directors in the U.K. don't usually produce their own voice. What does Virgin Radio do for a station voice?
Jeff: One of the first things I had to do was to find a new voice for the radio station. I found it very hard at first, not having the history with (a) the accent or (b) the talent around. There are some amazing names here and some amazing talent. I think there is a lot of versatility here, and there are a lot of American accents on the air here. Capitol uses Brian James. Radio One sticks more to their jocks. There are not a lot of guys floating around doing free-lance, specifically targeting radio stations, like there are in Australia and in the States.

So I spent something like my first two weeks in London listening to the tapes of voice over guys around and soon realized that we weren't going to really find or really want one voice to do IDs, promos, and that sort of stuff. And because of the history of Virgin in this country, we wanted to keep a predominantly British heritage. We didn't want to have a big American or Australian or Canadian read sweeping between songs. What we decided to do was to set up a bit more of the Virgin "farm," if you like, inasmuch as we've got different voices we will use for IDs, and we've got a few voices for promos, and we've got a few different voices that just float between the two. Don't get me wrong; we don't have a block out rule that says we won't have any Americans on the station. We use Keith Eubanks quite a lot. We've used a Canadian who lives here, Bill Mitchell, for quite a few things. All I'm saying is that we didn't want one voice to sum up the radio station. We didn't want one voice to have the personality of the radio station. We wanted it to be a little more multifaceted and a little more multidimensional in a way. I think that's really worked in our favor. I think it is the link with all of these things that is the style, rather than the voice. We can get a girl. We can get a guy. We can do this or that, or we can try something new. But at the end of the day there is this one thread that still makes you think you are listening to Virgin, but it's not necessarily one voice.

R.A.P.: In the U.S., the reason stations usually pick one voice to voice all the promos and IDs is to maintain consistency with the identity. Most stations will use the one voice based on the premise that the listeners will identify with that voice and say, "that must be station X." But for you to use so many voices and try and link them together with the "style" of the station is an approach I'm not familiar with. Do you feel it works there because the competition is limited?
Jeff: Well, at the moment, I feel like it's working because what we're trying to do production-wise with the radio station is still fairly unique to this market, and that's not saying it's better or worse or slower or faster. It's still developing and it's still growing. We're still trying to do new things with it, but at the moment I definitely think it's working. We're using a few different styles and taking a few different approaches. Some of it may be a little too subconscious in a way, but I think the underlying factor of all of it is that it's coming from Virgin. It's not about dropping hilarious lines on you. It's not all the same, but there's this underlying thread throughout that is constant.

I'm definitely not trying to set this up as being an invaluable link to the radio station. There's a lot of training and a lot of talking about it within the department. I'm not making everything for the radio station. I think it's an attitude that is still developing within production as it is still developing within programming and with promotions, and I think as the station moves on, the link between the three will become stronger, and eventually you'll have something that's very viable.

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