Is Chris Evans ushering in an ad-free future?

Paul Blanchard
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According to the media and people hipper than me, we’re going through a bit of a 90s revival in music and fashion. As if on cue, Chris Evans’ new breakfast show on Virgin Radio kicked off earlier this month.

“I just press buttons... musicians play songs,” Evans said at the start of the show, before handing over to Verve singer Richard Ashcroft, who sang Lucky Man live. With guests during the first week including comedian Paul Whitehouse and band Texas, it felt very 90s indeed – and, therefore, on trend.

In other areas, it seems the show is setting trends, rather than reflecting them. Virgin Radio announced there would be no adverts aired during the programme – a first for commercial radio – and, crucially, made this a major selling point.

Of course, the programme wasn’t entirely free of commercial plugs. As reviews of the programme noted, Virgin Radio is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK. The programme is sponsored by Sky, with eagle-eyed – or eared – listeners picking up on the fact there were interviews about stuff on Sky.

The chief executive of Wireless Group, the News UK radio division that includes Virgin Radio, told trade magazine Campaign that the arrangement with the breakfast show’s sponsor, Sky, was similar to the breakfast programme Evans used to present on BBC Radio 2, which didn’t have traditional 30-second commercial spots, but did have many promotions for BBC content.

Fair point. I’m a fan of ad-free radio, TV and other types of content. Thanks to set-top boxes it’s easy to series record and fast-forward through the ads when watching programmes. It’s also easy to avoid ads online. For example, you can pay £11.99 a month for “YouTube Premium” which is free of adverts; you can avoid ads in Spotify’s music streaming service (where you can listen to the track list played without the talk from DJs). Depending on your subscription, you can avoid newspaper adverts too.

I for one, would be happy to pay extra to avoid hearing ads on one of my favourite stations, Chris Country, which specialises in American Country music. The big question for advertisers – and the companies buying advertising – is whether Virgin Radio’s ad-free show is a one off, or the start of a trend.

That will partly depend on the show’s ratings; if it manages to poach enough listeners from the BBC and the sponsorship deal delivers good results for Sky, the results could potentially be better than traditional advertising.

That said, I wouldn’t write the obituary for traditional advertising just yet. After a decade of declining ad revenue, there was a glimmer of hope for newspapers last year, when research showed that print display advertising in the national newspaper market had risen 1% to £153m in the first quarter of 2018. It was the first time there had been an increase since the last quarter of 2010. I hope that this recovery continues.

And yet, Evans’ ad-free programme is a welcome reminder that adverts aren’t the universal panacea for all media. Yes, some adverts can be clever and witty and lodge themselves in the public’s consciousness, but many of them are just a slight irritation that we’d rather avoid. The challenge for advertisers is to refresh and rethink their medium – something that Virgin Radio is uniquely placed to do. I’m not the only one who will be watching with interest to see if this becomes a trend.

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