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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Hannah Verdier

‘It’s like signing Messi’: Ken Bruce’s move a coup for Greatest Hits Radio

Ken Bruce joins Greatest Hits Radio
Ken Bruce has joins Greatest Hits Radio later this year after 31 years at BBC Radio 2. Photograph: Bauer Media/PA

When Ken Bruce announced his departure this week from Radio 2 after 31 years, leaving behind his 8.5 million regular listeners, many people assumed the 71-year-old legend would be hanging up his headphones for good.

But his next move – announced within minutes – was an unexpected one: Bruce was taking his beloved voice and fiendish PopMaster quiz to a mid-morning show on Greatest Hits Radio.

His new home may be unfamiliar to some, with a comparatively small official audience of 4 million, but the moment his move was announced its streaming figures hit a new high.

Bruce’s arrival is pivotal, according to GHR’s drivetime DJ Simon Mayo, another ex-Radio 2 voice. “It’s like signing Messi,” says Mayo. “It does feel very buzzy. Even if people aren’t in the business, they know that Ken has the biggest radio audience in Britain. There are a number of places that would love to have had him, but he’s chosen to come here.”

GHR is not just Radio 2-and-a-bit, retreading its rival’s territory. As regular listeners know, it’s distinctly different with no appetite for new music and a policy of “legends playing legends”. By contrast, Radio 2’s current playlist mixes Tiësto and Nathan Dawe with Shania Twain and Richard Marx.

While Radio 2’s ambition is to target 35- to 44-year-old “mood mums”, hungry for 90s nostalgia, GHR sticks to the winning formula of hits from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It’s essentially a classic hits format, which we felt was missing in the UK market,” says Gary Stein, group programme director for the Hits Radio network. “That gives us a really broad range of artists such as Blondie, Queen, George Michael, Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, plus a sprinkling of hits released in the 60s that remained popular in those decades too.”

One insider said this week that Bruce’s move was unlikely to dent Radio 2’s ratings, a theory that Mayo backs up – but he does warn that change needs to be carefully managed. “A controller makes changes at their peril,” he says. “People feel very strongly about the presenters and they are fiercely loyal. A lot of people just leave the radio on all day and think: ‘This is my station and I don’t want you to change it.’”

This week, one Daily Mail headline dismissed GHR as “a retirement home for legends”, which Mayo finds “very patronising”. “I suspect it was just a cheap phrase, but I thought it was rude and insulting to the audience,” he says. “You only have to spend time listening to notice Greatest Hits’ attitude and verve for life. I think our listeners are full of excitement about what the future holds and their approach to life is as full of thrills and passion as a Radio 1 listener.”

And with more time and disposable income, this is a group that advertisers want to chase. “We’re already having some very exciting conversations with advertising partners,” says Stein.

Bruce’s signing is the latest step in an ambitious expansion strategy for GHR, owned by Bauer Media Group, which also has Magic, Absolute Radio and Hits Radio in its stable. GHR is a relative newcomer, launching in 2019. Later that year Bauer acquired four radio groups, including Celador and Lincs FM, rebranding many of the stations as GHR – and by 2022 the station reported an impressive 28.3% year-on-year growth.

The strategy of acquisition and rebranding will inevitably lead to further homogenisation and fewer localised shows, which is a growing trend in radio, highlighted by the BBC’s plans to cut two-thirds of their Introducing strand.

Losing local radio comes at a cost to communities, says Heledd Gwyndaf, who campaigns for the devolution of Welsh broadcasting. “It’s a huge threat to local voices and it means that Welsh people, our language and culture aren’t reflected in local radio,” she says.

Gary Stein believes this isn’t necessarily the case. “My first job was at Radio Clyde, which will become Greatest Hits Radio in April. There’s an old-fashioned view that radio is stuck in the past and it’s absolutely not, it’s constantly evolving.

“It’s really important to us that listeners have access to their local services for years to come and in becoming Greatest Hits Radio, they’ll benefit from the national marketing campaigns, allowing them to compete more effectively with the many entertainment services that are out there now. We play to our strengths by delivering a mixture of regional and nationally produced programming on these stations.”

He believes the volume of noise around Ken Bruce’s move shows the power of the much-loved medium. “What’s been so exciting about this week is that a story about radio has been hogging the media spotlight and I think that just demonstrates how incredibly important it remains in people’s lives.”

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