CAN THIS CLOWN BE A MEDIA MOGUL? - TV upstart Chris Evans stunned the broadcasting world by buying Virgin Radio and merging it with his Ginger Productions - then fumbled a play for the Star newspaper. Now, says Matthew Gwyther, friends and rivals await the move that will make or break Evans' drive to become a real force in the sector.
Now, if there's a smile on my face
It's only there trying to fool the public
(Tears of a Clown)
Clowns are rarely straightforward funny. Behind many a painted grin may be a pretty disaffected individual. Some may aspire to be ringmasters; others to quit the Big Top and become chartered surveyors. But few clowns want to take over the circus, run the acrobats, negotiate with the performing poodles and fill in VAT forms. Far fewer would go on to buy more circuses or branch out into funfairs, theme parks or comedy clubs.
Chris Evans, however, is that rare kind of clown. (Having been born on April Fool's Day, he could hardly have been anything else.) And from being a cheeky red-haired chappie in front of a camera and a microphone a couple of years ago, he is now, at the modest age of 33, well on his way to being one of our more interesting minor media moguls. Evans has stopped playing and is about to become a Player.
Beneath the banter, the bravura and the boisterousness, Evans is utterly single-minded about getting ahead in life - and the only way he is going to get what he wants is by doing it his way.
On the day at the tail end of 1997 when he succeeded in buying Virgin Radio from beneath the nose of his arch enemy Capital Radio, at least several hundred thousand listeners heard him chanting over the airwaves, 'I'm the boss. I'm the boss.'
Now that he is the boss - the ringmaster - he has raised the stakes, and many eyes are upon him waiting to see if he can pull off further expansive stunts. So far he has tried and failed, in a bizarre manoeuvre, to buy a national newspaper, and lost a key member of his talent team who managed his television company. In addition, there is a suggestion from the anti-Evans camp - never a troop short of volunteers - that as a performer he has gone off the boil. Neither he nor Virgin picked up anything at this year's Sony radio awards and Evans didn't even bother to show up.
While everyone now waits to see what Chris Evans' next trick will be, he continues to coin it. Last year's figures for his Ginger Media were impressive. Combined operating profits for Virgin Radio and Ginger Television were up 72% to £10.5 million, from £6.1 million the previous year. Combined turnover was up 29% to £40.4 million from £32.1 million. (The operating margin at Virgin Radio is thus 38%, excluding licence fees, which suggests that, in such a tightly regulated market, you would have to be a tin-eared, helpless, no-hoper to fail to milk money out of a commercial radio broadcasting permit.) At a conservative estimate, these 1997-98 figures value Ginger at about £180 million, which makes Evans worth about £90 million on paper.
Ever since his childhood in a dismal Warrington council house, Evans had shown entrepreneurial flair. Where Richard Branson - and we will hear more of him later - tried making money as a teenager selling budgerigars, Evans ran a squad of newspaper boys at a local newsagent's and operated an unofficial sweet shop at his school. 'Running a company,' said Evans, as he sealed the Virgin deal, 'has been in my mind for years. I believe absolutely in one man having one vision for the way something should be done.'
It is two and a half years since Evans made his melodramatic exit from Radio 1. Ostensibly, he quit the BBC station, in what may have been the most over-hyped resignation since the abdication of Edward VIII, because its controller, Matthew Bannister, refused to allow him Fridays off. Such was Evans' distress that he displayed containers of prescription tablets on the table of his Channel 4 TFI Friday set, and declared: 'I'm medically unsound!' There was officially sanctioned talk of nervous exhaustion.
During his Radio 1 stint, Evans had been the hottest item in British broadcasting - an unpredictable, original, quick-fire talent who mesmerised audiences. He had come to prominence via Tarzanograms in Manchester, as a bit player in Timmy Mallet's show on Piccadilly Radio, and via Greater London Radio, The Big Breakfast on Channel 4 and then Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. Those who heard his earlier radio shows aired at GLR say they were genuinely some of the most original and entertaining turns executed on radio in the past 25 years. When Evans joined Virgin Radio in the latter half of 1997, he immediately became the star turn, raising the breakfast listening audience from 1.8 million to 2.6 million within three months.
But Richard Branson had already decided he wanted out, and Capital Radio was in the midst of lengthy negotiations to buy the station in a deal, worth £87 million, that would have given Branson 10% of the new Capital Group. Evans, however, did not want to work for Capital, which he publicly dismissed as 'a bleating, blowing asthmatic dog'.
It has gone down in broadcast legend that Evans made an impulse appeal on air for the money to buy Virgin from Branson. 'I've got to get the money together to buy this station,' he pleaded. But Evans does little on true impulse. The likelihood is that he had been talking for some time to Apax, the venture capital company specialising in media, about trying to buy Virgin - even before he joined the company.
Barbara Manfrey of Apax told the Daily Telegraph how impressed she had been with Evans. 'You have to separate his business persona from his TV and radio persona,' she said. 'Chris always knows exactly what he's doing.
He has encyclopaedic knowledge of radio and TV and an understanding of it in terms of the market. (When negotiations began) I was very impressed with him. He had a very good understanding of what he wanted to do and he articulated it very clearly. The fact that he was prepared to put his own company into the deal showed he was serious, and we were very serious.'
So, with Capital left standing at the altar, and using Ginger Productions as a platform, Evans bought Virgin Radio in December 1997. It was an audacious deal which paid Branson £85 million - £2 million less than the Capital offer - of which £2 million was Evans' own cash. The new Ginger Media Group was backed by a £42.5 million loan from Banque Paribas and £24 million from Apax, which gave it 20% of GMG. Branson walked away with £40 million and kept a 20% stake in Ginger himself. 'The maverick in me prefers the idea of Chris Evans to Capital Radio,' said Branson. 'The station will be in good hands.' David Campbell, the Virgin Radio boss, was kept on to be chief executive of GMG and to keep Evans in safe hands and in good running order.
Evans was jubilant, but that euphoria was far from universal. Aside from Capital, there were others who were less than happy. Evans has not been popular among all his peers - and this is not just a matter of jealousy.
'I know I am loathed by the majority of people in my industry,' he has conceded. Stories of him ripping into staff who do not measure up to his high standards are legion. The most infamous occurred when he upbraided an assistant, live on air, for changing an expenses bill from £8.22 to £18.22.
Evans once appeared with Mohammed Fayed and the chef Gordon Ramsay in an ITV programme called Britain's Unbearable Bosses. A former Big Breakfast employee denounced him as a tyrant and a sexist. Evans admits he can be a very demanding boss, although he says attention to detail and the bottom line - especially when it comes to restaurant receipts - is not always a bad thing. It's all about control.
John Cummins, a former commissioning editor at Channel 4 who now runs Hydra, a media corporate adviser, thinks he knows the root of Evans' unpopularity.
'People don't like him because he's about changing everything. His greatest gift is that he wants to do everything differently and better, all the time. The rest of media-land in the UK is not about doing things differently and better, let alone all the time. He is never satisfied with himself or with other people's performances,' he says.
'Look, he's talent,' says one admirer who has worked with him. 'They behave like that in Hollywood every day and nobody bats an eyelid. Studios just accept it and factor it into the budget. And the public laps it up. It's just that the Brits do not like uppity talent.'
But why is he like this? 'Happy well-adjusted people whose mummy and daddy love them do not become national radio and TV presenters. They've got nothing to prove. You don't get there without dreadfully low self-esteem. These people have deep cracks in the essence of themselves.' In Evans' case, the cracks may result from the dreadful misfortune which visited him as a 14 year old when his father died of cancer. The significance of this event has been extensively analysed in print, and the general psychological conclusion appears to be, unsurprisingly, that it has left him ill at ease with the world. (Alfred Hitchcock's father died at a similar age. That event turned out one of the all-time control freaks - and one of the most talented film directors - of this century.)
Evans himself has said: 'There was nothing to be afraid of - because my dad died. It's obvious. That's the worst thing that could happen to you, so there's nothing to be scared of. It can be construed as arrogance or big-headedness. It's not. It's just that - I'm sorry - I'm not scared of all the other things people are scared of.' But he is fearful of losing control.
One of Evans' closest confidantes and advisers is the PR man Matthew Freud, a control master. They live round the corner from each other in Notting Hill. If Peter Mandelson spins at 33 rpm, then Freud goes at 78 - and he must accept a large part of the credit for creating what Evans is today in the public's eye.
'Chris understood very early,' said Freud a couple of years ago, 'that his media equity was the single most valuable commodity he had. He reasoned that, because he was going to be around for a long time, we would use the media for our own agenda rather than theirs. Fortunately, those agendas meet quite often.'
Freud's agenda is nothing if not complex and multi-layered. Freud is the cross-fertiliser par excellence at home and at work. He left his wife for Rupert Murdoch's daughter, Elisabeth, whom he had met through his PR work for Sky television. Today Sky sponsors the Evans breakfast show on Virgin and it is relentlessly plugged on both Virgin and TFI Friday.
'On an ongoing basis,' said Freud, outlining the strategy that got Evans into everyone's consciousness, 'our role is to make sure that whenever someone is writing about Chris, we are either feeding it to them, enhancing it, spoiling it or blocking it - whatever we have to do.' (Management Today, incidentally, got the blocking tactic. Despite exhaustive negotiations - about which Evans and his Ginger cohorts had no knowledge - we were denied access to Evans for this piece. When we approached GMG directly, they declined to answer any 'qualitative' questions or enquiries about the future.)
Once Virgin was bought, one of GMG's first concerns was that it should start to spread its wings with projects in which Evans did not need to be the front man. An alliance was struck with Kelvin McKenzie's Talk Radio to bid for digital radio licences, and there have been rumours that Ginger Media wants to become an internet service provider, concentrating on music fans.
Its first big move, however, came after a chance meeting by Freud and Rosie Boycott, editor of the Express, aboard a flight to last year's Labour Party conference in Blackpool. Chris Evans, they decided, should buy the Star newspaper. Boycott, as a former editor of Spare Rib magazine and now a New Labour stalwart, takes a dim view of the Star, which stands one small step above the Sport in the tabloid stakes. She is not alone in this. Its proprietor, Lord Hollick, chairman of United News and Media, has never been seen on the editorial floor of the Star and finds the paper an embarrassment.
The Star is a limping duck of a product. It has haemorrhaged half its readership in the last decade - although, according to Express insiders, it doesn't actually lose money now that its resources have been cut to the bone. 'It's read by half a million builders and guys in vans,' says one Express insider. 'Actually, if there are more than two guys in the van, then after the first and the second have bought the Mirror and the Sun, the third will get the Star. There are few sole purchasers.'
Freud saw a gap in the market for a blokeish, younger lads' paper that concentrated on sport and TV - with the odd bit of news bolted on if it was felt really necessary. The first thing they needed to do was lay their hands on a prospective editor, and Freud came up with Mike Soutar, the ex-editor of FHM magazine. Soutar was a bit bored after turning the EMAP publication from a miserable also-ran in the men's magazine market to a half-million circulation Leviathan - the largest consumer magazine in Europe and the semi-secret object of desire for most 12 year old English males. Freud's thinking all made perfect sense to him.
'I was at KISS-FM radio,' says Soutar, 'when I got a call from Kris Thykier (Freud's right-hand man) asking if I would like the opportunity to reinvent popular daily newspapers in Britain.
I thought it sounded interesting, so I scribbled some things down on the back of a fag packet and along I went. It was a really sweet deal for everybody involved: Express Newspapers needed to concentrate on their battle with the Mail, but keeping the Star in the building was a good balancing weight for economies of scale for such things as print, paper-buying and distribution.
'It was obviously a great deal for Ginger, because it was a non-Evans-reliant vehicle. Certainly, he'd be the marketing firework (ie, on-air plugs for the paper on Virgin) but not integral to the actual running of the paper. Chris was incredibly excited about it as a business opportunity.'
The negotiations advanced promisingly in secret with Nicholas Rudd-Jones of Express Newspapers. The paper deal would have given the Express about 16% of GMG, worth about £20 million. As people at the Star went about the daily task of pasting women's breasts through its pages, nobody there had an inkling of the fate that awaited them as one of the weakest of the red-tops was lined up to be flogged off to become a Ginger-top. Then in early March this year, about four days before the deal was due to be presented to the City, and to the amazement and disbelief of the contingent at the Express, it suddenly went sour - and Ginger backed off at a rate of knots. The Express put out a smokescreen that the deal had stalled because 'the cost of running the presses for the two remaining titles would be too expensive'. The truth was that Apax had grown nervous about the whole business and had canned the deal. Evans was livid.
A more intriguing factor is precisely what Richard Branson thought about the prospective purchase. 'He was definitely not keen either,' says one Ginger insider. Until Branson's name was mildly tarnished by the fiascos of Virgin Rail, he had enjoyed a Triple-A gold-plated media image. One reason for this was a healthy relationship with the tabloid newspapers, which loyally recorded the details of all his daring balloon exploits and never made any real attempt to 'turn him over'.
If Evans - and Branson with him - became a tabloid owner and showed any sign of revivifying the Star in a cut-throat red-top market, it was a near certainty the wolves of the Sun and Mirror would be at them in seconds and show little mercy. (In the case of the Mirror, this would be business as usual for Evans because the paper has traditionally run knocking stories about him. But the Sun has been his loyal lapdog for years, carefully digesting every titbit that Freud throws in its direction.)
So why did Apax get cold feet? A good enough reason is that there is no easier way to lose large amounts of money quickly than in newspapers which have been in sector decline for decades. The most likely accompanying explanation is that, bold as Apax is, it feels it has to keep Evans on a tight rein, because it has taken a big gamble putting so much money into so potentially volatile a commodity. Its worst nightmare must be that Evans may fall out of the Groucho club one night and disappear down a manhole. Or he'll come a cropper during another disastrous bender with his mates Gazza and Danny Baker, although these outings seem to be fewer and further between now that he has executive responsibilities.
This nervousness is understandable because without Ginger, what is Ginger Media? There may be justifiable anxieties about what would befall News Corp when Rupert Murdoch finally has the towel thrown in for him. He is, after all, at the nexus of a fiendishly complex web of companies that, many say, nobody fully comprehends but himself. But at least the Sun and Sky can survive without him. Without Chris Evans, what would Virgin Radio be but a station with a line-up of broadcasters who sound alarmingly similar to Simon Bates and DLT? (And look what became of them.)
The debacle with the Star has left many people wondering about Evans' next move. 'He is very restless,' says Soutar, now in New York editing Maxim for Felix Dennis. 'But it's a very good restless.' While the fruit of a deal to produce Red Alert, a new mainstream Saturday evening programme for the BBC, is awaited, there has been no shortage of knock-down Ginger from those who wish him ill. First, it has been suggested that, despite Channel 4's vast investment, the TFI Friday programme is a spent force, a tired format badly in need of rejigging. A story at the end of March in Campaign magazine said TFI is now regarded by some viewers as equal to Blind Date or, even worse, Noel's House Party. It said TFI was 'the sort of TV categorised as 'get your ironing done viewing' - fading from its position as a must-see show'. Some viewers said it had become 'formulaic and naff'.
It is significant that Eileen Gallagher, the new managing director of Ginger's TV arm, said recently that Evans is very insistent that she grow the company beyond him. His goal is to join the big players in independent television production.
TFI is actually not doing so well at the moment, principally because BBC2 has come up with a less-than-imaginative but nevertheless killer double-dose of old Simpsons reruns to put up against it. Ginger has found his match in Homer.
Ginger's other programme offerings have not exactly set the airwaves alight. First there was Tee Time, a golf show that gave Evans a chance to present a programme about his main passion outside the studio - but his natural viewing constituency is not thought to include many golfers.
Second was Carry on Campus, a university quiz presented by his Old Etonian sidekick Will MacDonald. No BAFTAs for that yet, either.
An added mystery on the TV front was the abrupt departure of Michael Foster, former chief executive of Ginger Productions. A long-term key man in the Evans entourage - his agent and close adviser - Foster apparently was intent on having a crack at some upmarket costume drama. Evans, it seems, wanted nothing to do with it. Why produce some quality drama, and make peanuts, when margins are so high on disposable zoo-TV?
Back at Virgin Radio, there have been experiments with alternative methods to raise turnover still further. After winning BSkyB as a sponsor for his breakfast show, Evans signed a deal with Sky to 'simulcast' the show on Sky 1 in October of last year. After an initial acceleration when he first joined Virgin Radio, the listening figures have now stalled and in some cases tailed off. Having vowed to 'kill' Radio 1, Evans must have been disappointed by the last RAJAR numbers, which showed Virgin down by 90,000 nationwide to 3.03 million - although in London, where the broadcast is on FM, they were up from 911,000 to 1.1 million.
In London, Evans easily surpasses Zoe Ball, his rival across on Radio 1 - although Ball is hugely popular among children, which may say something about the future. However, in the capital, both Evans and Ball are dwarfed by the appeal of another, rather more elderly cheeky chappie - and exposer of would-be royalty - Chris Tarrant, who costs Capital £1 million a year to keep in his seat.
Freud maintains Evans' media profile, albeit at a reduced level from the mad days at Radio 1. Recently he was fined by the Radio Authority for broadcasting the mobile phone number of a hapless freelance photographer who had been involved in a scuffle with Oasis singer Liam Gallagher. Evans instructed listeners to 'hound him until he goes toes up'. That cost Evans £10,000.
Then, after the 'drug disgrace' and dismissal of a Blue Peter presenter, Evans announced that half the BBC's staff were on drugs. All in a day's work for a mini media magnate.
Except more than this is required. Although Evans has shown remarkable ambition, and Ginger is making good money, if Evans is to become the next Richard Branson, a genuine leap is in order. Also looming over the enterprise is the sizeable Paribas loan of £42.5 million, which Andy Mollett, Ginger's chief financial officer, has been reported as likening to the proverbial Sword of Damocles.
With the market bubbling away nicely, a sale or a stock market flotation is always a possibility, but just how Evans would cope with the control demands of the City is anyone's guess.
The City is not averse to the decorative sound of gongs - but it likes its lunch served promptly afterwards.