Graham Young meets the 'Godfather' of modern commercial radio, Richard Park.
Paul McCartney’s prophetic question about turning 64 has become a strange kind of anthem for many late in life employees: ‘Will you still need me?’
In Richard Park’s case, director of broadcast at Global Radio, the answer is unequivocally ‘Yes’.
“I’ve been married twice and have got four children – I gave each wife two children each,” he says.
“I’ve got six grandchildren and seven radio stations.
To which he might have added: ‘And 20 million listeners’.
He scoffs at those who say Rupert Murdoch is ‘not fit’ to run a major company at 81, pointing out how many great achievements he’s made.
“There’s clearly an agenda there and some people have a massive axe to grind,” he says.
“Murdoch has trusted people and they’ve let him down, but he is capable of making his own decisions.
“The Times and The Sunday Times don’t make money, but he closed the News of the World because it was toxic. Isn’t that admirable?”
Almost 20 years ago in the late spring of 1993, Park was the iron-man warrior from Capital Radio parking his tanks outside BRMB to ‘save the station’.
This year, rival three-year-old owners Orion Media have rebranded BRMB as Free Radio, while Park’s Global empire now includes networks Heart FM and Capital – both with stations in Birmingham – as well as Classic FM, LBC, Choice, Gold and XFM.
“Heart FM is the biggest commercial network this country has ever seen,” he says of a station which was once his enemy when launched against BRMB in Birmingham in August, 1994.
Since then, the industry has played musical chairs with ownerships while embarking on an extraordinary, technological revolution.
Behind Global’s main reception desk is an ‘obsession’ statement dedicated to those who... ‘strive to make each detail right’ and who are ‘bold enough to try the never been tried before’.
“I think everything is right for its own time,” says Park.
“We live in highly competitive times where we are trying to get into first place, but commercial radio has to cut its cloth accordingly.
“We’re here in Leicester Square and have all the benefits of being right in the heart of town, but we’re not here at any price.
“All the presenters here drive their own desks and that’s something that someone like Ed James (Heart’s ten-year breakfast host in Birmingham) is very skilled at.
“Would any of the presenters of the ‘60s have people splitting their sides now?
“Music has become very important to individuals and we respect that. When people think of Heart they know it stands for ‘More music variety’.
Park says commercial radio has had to adapt to the BBC cornering the market with highly paid stars by consolidating individual stations into bigger brands, like Heart and rivals Smooth.
“Time waits for no man,” says Park. “Since MTV, you can’t change the world (in one city). You have to position yourself where you want your services to be.
“So we have national brands, locally delivered with local news and local adverts – that’s been booming, really, because companies love being on our programmes.
“And local people want to hear high quality output, rather than have a local presenter (for the sake of it) who isn’t able to reach the standard required.
“We can still deliver the news quicker than anyone else.”
Orion Media chief executive Phil Riley (a former BRMB DJ who ended up running Heart himself when it was owned by Chrysalis) recently turned BRMB, Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern into the one-size-fits-all Free Radio.
Asked to comment, Park says: “I’m not a sentimentalist and it was a magnificent name in its day, but those four letters BRMB are not a good enough reason to keep it.
“It’s sad, but there was an inevitability to it.”
Does he like the name Free Radio himself?
“It might come to compare in a position in the market place,” says Park. “I couldn’t say that for certain but the people running it like Riley and (David) Lloyd are legends.”
Since we first met 20 years ago, Park admits that the rise of the female singer has been the big change on the back of The Spice Girls.
“Guitar bands haven’t done as well, but another of our stations XFM has a big audience for people who don’t necessarily want wall to wall pop.
Park admits that the public don’t care who owns which station when they can just switch off if they’re not happy.
“It’s like when people go into Boots,” he says.
“They just want to know where the Anadin is, not who the store manager is.
“What people want now are brands. It’s all about the brands. Beanz Meanz Heinz!”
Park himself began his career as a journalist, switched to newsreading on a pirate ship and was very soon playing records. Always ambitious, he was quickly enjoying a prolific mainland career covering his beloved sport of football – several times during our 75-minute conversation he diverts quite naturally into the inner workings of Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish.
Though publically best known for being the ‘headmaster’ on BBC1’s Fame Academy equivalent to The X Factory, radio is Park’s natural home.
“I enjoyed the telly, but I’m not the same as Simon Cowell,” says Park.
“I’ve known him for years and think he’s a really good guy, but I don’t have the same desire as he does to be the earliest adopter of musical talent.
“I’m a better judge of someone who has already made a record.
“Will Young (from Cowell’s Pop Idol) is still about, but most of them aren’t the real deal.
“They’re not musicians and most of the people who were on Fame Academy have gone back to being musicians.”
As for Cowell’s career, he advises: “You have to remember how powerful Hughie Green once was and how his career went – when you lose that youthful look, the world has a habit of putting you in your place.”
How would Park react if I offered him Cliff Richard’s next single?
“I’d say: ‘Can we hear it? Does it fit the brand?”
What are 76-year-old Engelbert Humperdinck’s chances at Eurovision?
“I’m not interested. I’ve never been a fan of that type of crooning.”
Would he pay £175 to see Madonna at Birmingham’s NIA this summer?
“I saw her in 1983 in the Palladium Club in New York and I was thinking ‘This chick is hot’.
“I’ve seen her a few times on tour since and each time she hasn’t been as good as the the time before.