MONEY, MEETINGS AND ALL THAT JAZZ: When Richard Wheatly took over at Jazz FM he had to act fast - the ailing station had lost its target audience and new launch Viva had fallen on deaf ears. His dealmaking has retuned the broadcaster in to profit. Alexand

MONEY, MEETINGS AND ALL THAT JAZZ: When Richard Wheatly took over at Jazz FM he had to act fast - the ailing station had lost its target audience and new launch Viva had fallen on deaf ears. His dealmaking has retuned the broadcaster in to profit. Alexand

by ALEXANDER GARRETT
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Richard Wheatly's office bears little resemblance to that of the typical chief executive: the dimensions are modest, the carpet and furniture spartan, one window overlooks a building site and the other peers into the recording studio in the next room. On the filing cabinet a digital radio spills out bass lines and saxophone solos, and among the colourful wall-art is a bar of music, 'Blue rondo a la Jazz FM', signed with a flourish by one Dave Brubeck. And in pride of place over the chief exec's desk hangs a framed article from the Financial Times headed: 'Long drum solos are off the breakfast menu: after 10 years Jazz FM is taking the smooth ride to its first profit.'

When he arrived four years ago, urbane former ad man Wheatly found a business that was on the brink, its main brand mutated into something called JFM and a second women-targeted station called Viva haemorrhaging pounds 100,000 a month. Drastic action was called for, and Wheatly's first deft stroke was to offload Viva into the hands of aspiring media mogul Mohammed Al Fayed for an exorbitant pounds 3 million before taking Jazz FM back to its original name and plotting a path towards financial viability.

His second coup was to sign a deal with Clear Channel last year by which the US goliath took over the salesforce and a 34% stake in return for pounds 3 million and free advertising. The share price has tripled in the past 12 months, and the company at last finds itself within sight of that holiest of grails, profitability.

That is bound to delight long-suffering City investors, but when you're running a company listed on the Stock Exchange with just 30 full-time employees you can't afford to sit around congratulating yourself. There are advisers to see, sponsors to woo, bills to sign and, hey, why not get in the groove and record your own show? If nothing else, then, a day with Wheatly promises to offer as many variations as a Thelonius Monk compilation.

8.30 Wheatly's day begins at the Jazz FM office in a cul-de-sac near Edgware Road, a brisk 30-minute stroll from his home in Holland Park.

A tall, affable figure suggestive of a slightly older Tom Hanks, Wheatly effortlessly bridges the sartorial gap between boardroom and bebop club in double-breasted charcoal pinstripes and a soft-cotton graphite-grey polo shirt. 'When I first started to do this job,' he says, 'I used to wear a tie if I was going to see anyone in the City. But then I realised that people didn't necessarily expect a suit and tie from somebody running a jazz radio station. Now I just wear what feels right.' After a quick review of the day ahead, it's time to head off for our first meeting.

9.00 To Arthur Andersen, in Old Bailey, for an audit preview meeting.

En route, Wheatly recalls his first few months at Jazz FM as terrifying.

'There was just three months' cash left in the bank and it was unprofitable, so refinancing wasn't an option.' At the time he had limited hands-on financial experience. After ad agency Leo Burnett he had spent a year putting together an unsuccessful lottery bid and admits to having at times felt exposed in dealings with the City. Nowadays, he can take a more sanguine view.

The meeting is with James Roberts, audit partner at Andersen, and is also attended by Jazz FM's financial director Alistair McKenzie. Its purpose is to cover any accounting issues before the accounts are discussed by the audit committee, which mainly comprises the company's non-exec directors.

Roberts kicks off by confirming that there are no major concerns - 'no black holes' - and then moves on to a pressing corporate governance issue: the need for Jazz FM to demonstrate how it is managing risk. 'You're not trying to eliminate risk, because you wouldn't be able to grow if you did that,' he explains, 'but the City wants to see what your risks are, so that people can make serious investment decisions.'

In the taxi back to the office, Wheatly muses that public-company status costs Jazz FM around pounds 250,000 a year to maintain. This is the price for 'just keeping the whole thing warm' until the day the company needs to raise new money.

10.30 Back at Castlereagh Street, there's time for a quick inspection of the building to check progress on relocation work. Jazz FM plans to move to the bottom part, which includes a purpose-built recording studio once patronised by the Beatles and Otis Redding (or maybe it was Paul McCartney and Marvin Gaye, it later transpires). The rest is sub-let to a US software company. The building is a liability, says Wheatly. It's on a 25-year lease at pounds 250,000 a year, but the sub-tenancy should recover two-thirds of that.

10.45 Time to record Wheatly's weekly show. Producer Rosie Kendrick demonstrates an impressive piece of computerised kit that schedules the music, the jingles and openers, leaving Wheatly to do the links between. During the daytime and early hours, Jazz FM works from a playlist that is put together by the station's head of music with the help of some sophisticated software; in the evening, though, presenters pick their own tunes. Wheatly presents, he explains, because 'if you're running a radio station it's wet not to do a show. It also helps to really understand the business.' Turning back to the mike, he intones: 'And coming up soon, we've got one of those Jazz FM smooth soul classics, the Isley Brothers with Harvest for the World.'

11.15 Sandra Strunz, internet manager, arrives for an update. Jazz FM's main web site attracts listeners from around the world, and in June it launched eJazz, a subscription-based service allowing listeners to choose from a selection of shows. Initial response was slow, and Wheatly wants the latest. 'We've got 23 subscribers now, the majority in the US and the UK, but others from Australia, New Zealand and Canada,' reports Strunz.

Wheatly reckons eJazz only needs 200 subscribers to break even and both are encouraged by the figures. It appears that listeners are being deterred by the slow access time on the site, and Strunz explains how it can be speeded up. There's good news on the main jazzfm.com web site: with more than 30,000 user sessions a day, it has qualified for a link to MSN, the Microsoft site.

11.45 Programme controller John Baish arrives for a meeting. There are two main topics up for discussion: Jazz FM's forthcoming bid for a licence in Yorkshire - it already broadcasts in Manchester and is awaiting the result of a further bid in the West Midlands - and presenter Tony Blackburn.

Wheatly wants the erstwhile legend of the airwaves to increase his output, but anticipates opposition from Capital. After a brief talk about tactics, Wheatly's secretary calls to say he's downstairs. Blackburn bounces in with a quip about being sacked, then professes himself delighted to be included on the new bid. He doesn't think he has to clear it with Capital, but he'll check with his agent. London, he thinks, is out of the question for now. The discussion turns to digital and Blackburn enthuses about a Roberts retro-style set he has discovered. 'It cost pounds 800, but for some reason they haven't put a handle on it.'

1.00 To Shoeless Joe's in Victoria for a lunch event to promote the London Jazz Festival. Guests include writers from jazz magazines, promoters from independent labels and a cross-section of others from the tight-knit jazz community. Also on hand is one of the restaurant's founders, England rugby international Victor Ubogu. Wheatly says attending such events is partly a question of 'paying our dues'. Purists may look askance, but Jazz FM's contribution is increasingly appreciated, he feels. The lunch spawns a useful contact in the form of Alex da Silva, Shoeless Joe's marketing director, who is keen on co-hosting jazz evenings with the radio station; Wheatly has coincidentally been looking for venues.

3.00 Back to the office, where Simon Cooke, head of enterprises, and Judy Lipsey, PR adviser, have come to discuss a programme of educational visits to schools.

Cooke is responsible for the Jazz FM and Hed Kandi record labels, together with concerts, the internet, mail order and event management - all designed to expand the Jazz FM brand. The schools programme, which has been running in the north-west and is soon to be rolled out in London, is about de-mystifying jazz to kids, says Cooke. 'It can have a bit of an old man's image,' he concedes.

Wheatly wants to know when it's going to run, which schools have signed up and how it is going to be promoted. Lipsey suggests a lunch to which education editors, teachers, jazz journalists and even politicians can be invited; the pros and cons of Ronnie Scott's and Pizza Express as a venue are then chewed over. Culture minister Janet Anderson has agreed to attend, and Wheatly promises to look into possible dates.

4.00 Next up is a meeting to discuss progress on digital broadcasting with Martin Charman, chief engineer. There are 14 projects under way, including a request to supply output to Japan, and supplying digital services to the Ministry of Sound. The latter hasn't paid its bills yet, says Charman.

'Well, you can always switch them off,' Wheatly ripostes. Jazz FM has just won a bid to broadcast on a multiplex in Scotland, and Charman warns that there is likely to be demand for local content within a year. Jazz is a member of the MXR consortium, which also includes Chrysalis, Capital and Guardian Media Group, and is bidding for a number of regional digital licences. It looks as though they will have to accommodate local news, which could be tricky. Wheatly frowns. The advantage of digital, he points out, is that if you win the bid you get automatic renewal of your analogue licence, and it helps to build up national coverage. The downside, though, is an pounds 80,000 investment on each licence, with no immediate revenue in prospect.

5.00 The last business meeting of the day is with Neil Bedwell of Jazz FM's ad agency, WARL. As part of its deal with Clear Channel, the station is entitled to a specified number of free poster sites for three months each year but, with the outdoor market booming, Wheatly knows he'll have to push for it. Bedwell reports the findings of an audit and Wheatly's knowledge comes to the fore as they talk six-sheets, 48-sheets and 96-sheets.

There's also a discussion about whether the agency should come up with a fresh execution for the successful campaign, which features a chameleon in headphones with the line 'Listen in colour'. Wheatly says: 'I think we've got three great executions we can run with, but if your guys want to come up with another subject we'll look at it. Can you minute all that?'

6.00 The hard graft is over and it's time for Wheatly and McKenzie to head over to EC2, where the company's corporate finance house Brown Shipley is hosting a drinks reception at Ironmongers' Hall. Philip Johnson, its managing director, is interested in the risk-management issue from the morning. There are lots of grey men in suits, but Wheatly says he nevertheless enjoys City schmoozing - he's a director of the City Arts Trust and is organising a jazz festival in some of the Square Mile's most venerable locations.

8.30 Last appointment of the day is at Pizza Express in Dean Street, where American chanteuse Stacey Kent is putting on a set to promote her new CD. When it comes to jazz, Wheatly says he's a fan rather than an aficionado. Step-children Ben and Sidonie are both there, and the Wheatly digits are soon tapping the beat. Being chief executive of a public company inevitably has its stressful moments, but this isn't one of them.

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