The black, shiny and functional has swept the radio market - almost. Charles Darwent finds a UK survivor with (ahem) class.
Sometime last year, David Hewitt found himself faced with a nasty problem. Hewitt is in consumer electronics - 'the radio business, we used to call it,' he growls - an uncomfortable place for an Englishman to be in these brutal times. Japanese giants - 'I don't normally talk about competitors,' Hewitt observes, 'but there is a company called Sony' - have recently been peppering the market with a remorseless barrage of technological innovation: notably with troublesome things called 'graphic equalisers' and 'digitalised tuning', all backed by titanic advertising budgets and R and D spends. If Hewitt wanted to remain in the radio business at all, he was going to have to prove that occidentals, too, are capable of innovation, to snatch some consummately British brand from the white-hot furnace of new technology.
So Hewitt picked up his telephone, dialled his woodworking unit in Suffolk and asked if they still had a template for the R200, a best-selling portable built of mahogany, red leatherette and brass, and pioneered by the company in 1958. 'They said they had, so I ordered a thousand. The response from the trade', concludes Hewitt, triumphantly, 'has been staggering. We've called them "Revival" and already sold four thousand of them. They keep coming back for more. Of course,' he adds, with a faint air of apology, 'the new model does have an aerial.
The old one just had a turntable, so all you had to do was point the set in the best direction for reception.' There is a moral in there somewhere. As the more attentive (and elderly) of you will have guessed, David Hewitt is chairman of Roberts Radios, that last little corner of the consumer electronics field that is, forever, England. While other great names in British radio manufacture have dissolved, one by one, into the ether, Roberts has gamely gone on turning out its solid, obstinately retardataire portables in West Molesey for 60 years - the last UK firm still in the business. The company was founded by Harry Roberts in the same year as that other beleaguered stalwart of Anglo-radiodom, the British Broadcasting Corporation, received its charter. Indeed, Roberts' best-known product still retains the flavour of a 1930s Auntie Beeb: one twiddles with its brass-capped tuning-knob in the vague expectation that a black-tied announcer will read out the day's Spitfire losses.
That one is, in fact, rather more likely to tune into rap singers advocating the timeless joys of shooting policemen nicely underlines the dilemma facing Hewitt last year. Times have changed; Roberts' Radios had not. There were a variety of reasons for this.When Hewitt, recently retired as chairman of Comet,took over the firm following the demise of his old friend Dick Roberts - the last family member actively involved in the company - he found himself running a firm whose ethos was overridingly familial. 'I suspect,' says Roberts' new chairman, diplomatically, 'that you have different priorities if you are an owner-driver. With no disrespect at all to Dick, he could afford to say "Let's sell to our mates". I had to say "Where's the market? Let's go and look for it".' What Hewitt found in his search was alarming enough: 'I examined the market and thought, "Christ: it's dying,"' he recalls. Nor is he speaking metaphorically. For anyone interested in the phenomenon, the precise location of Roberts' sizeable radio-buying constituency - the company's £3 million annual sales gives it a surprising 17% of the UK portable market by value, compared with Sony's 33% - must increasingly have become something of a mystery in recent years. 'The market today perceives of all consumer electronics goods as being shiny and black,' says Hewitt. Roberts' radios remained stubbornly matt and wilfully claret. They are also expensive. When the quintessential portable-radio-buyer is typically tuning in on the £25-£40 band, Roberts' wooden-cased range starts at £85 and ends up at nearly three times that sum. So: where was the company's mysterious customer-base?
It was, according to Roberts' new chairman, living in well-heeled retirement in Eastbourne. It bought its radios from nice, one-man distributors in corner shops who would change its batteries for it when they ran out. It was, moreover, willing to part with large chunks of its index-linked pension on consumer goods in the no-longer-fashionable belief that quality and expense were synonymous. Had Mr Major thought of it, he might well have added the Roberts Radio to his list of district nurses and police bicycles as icons of a British never-never-land.
The feeling this discovery struck about David Hewitt's heart was far from rosy. Maiden aunts and retired vicars are all very well in their place, but they are not noted for their life expectancy. Dead men don't buy radios. 'We had', says Hewitt, 'to find a younger market.' But here was a problem. Stick graphic equalisers and billion-decibel speakers onto his existing radios and old ladies and vicars would have breathed their last in droves up and down the country. HM The Queen Mother is an avid Roberts fan: the publicity could have been very nasty indeed. As well as (probably quite literally) killing off its extant market, there would be no guarantee that the desired younger, and more fickle, electronic consumer would be inclined to queue up to buy Roberts' products either. The company's brand-name is primarily known to a generation who called radios wirelesses and Radio 1 the Light Programme. Nor is youth prone to spending upwards of £100 on its portable trannies. More, penetrating the populist High Street sector would entail taking on the aforementioned Japanese competitors at their own game, and, as David Hewitt tersely notes, 'Sony very probably spends more on its advertising in a day than we turn over in a year'.
Hewitt's response to this has been nothing if not imaginative. While the consumer electronics market in the '90s has, he says, as a whole gone 'pmph', Roberts' share of it has held up very nicely, thank you. Hewitt's reading of this is that the company has benefited from the fact that 'there really is no price competition. Nobody else is making radios like ours. Knock a tenner off the retail price and it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference.' Given the solidity of this customer base, Hewitt's first strategy has involved a discreet updating of the traditional wooden-cased series by industrial designer Tony Worsfold: 'I said to him, "Do what you like, as long as you don't change anything,"' Hewitt recalls.
The result is a cunning elision of a recognisably Roberts radio with vague nods towards the technocratic existence of the late 20th century. Stations are now preset, indicated by digital rather than analogue display and housed in a chassis that includes both hardwood end-panels and the ubiquitous shiny black facia. Nonetheless, the whole ensemble is clearly kin to the R200/Revival, which is as Hewitt would have it be. Maiden aunts are unlikely to have the vapours at its appearance, and its greater modernity widens the age-grouping for the product's likely market. 'A Rolls-Royce will always look like a Rolls-Royce,' suggests Hewitt, modestly. 'Of course, like Rollers our traditional line will never sell en masse - they're too bloody expensive.' More potentially egregious to Roberts' Eastbourne clientele may be Hewitt's strategy for dealing with this last problem. Dicky though the whole question of mass-market penetration may be, his conclusion is that the only thing worse than being in the High Street is not being in it. 'Our research tells us that roughly one-third of the market lies in the £25 price range,' Hewitt reasons. 'That's a big chunk to miss out on. In pricing terms, our traditional product is only dealing in 20% of the market. What about the other 80%?' The rationale is irreproachable, even if one suspects it to have been forced upon him by demography. But troubles loom even so. While those who remember hearing that nice Mr Chamberlain declare war on their Roberts sets may be willing to accommodate shiny black inserts and aerials, much of the brand-name's selling-power still lies in its overt Britishness. To underline the point, part of Worsfold's redesign of Roberts' wooden-cased range involved the inclusion of an enlarged royal coat of arms (the company holds royal warrants to a whole clutch of HMs and HRHs) in its logo. It almost goes without saying that Roberts does not possess a mass-production capacity of its own, and that overtly British firms able to supply the company on an OEM basis are extremely thin on the ground.
Hewitt has therefore had to bite the radiophonic bullet and look eastwards to the republics of Korea and Taiwan for his new, budget ranges, launched last April. The only British component in these is the Roberts badge glued to their shiny black fronts. This, rather pointedly, does not include the royal arms (warrant-holding rules specify some British input as a prerequisite), which may be just as well. Allowing Hewitt's prediction that his new High Street product will eventually account for 65% of Roberts' sales by volume to be correct, the danger that its presence might erode the cachet of his traditional product seems far from improbable.
This would be a serious development indeed: although the luxe range will account for only 25% of total sales by volume according to Hewitt, its percentage by value will be 'far higher'. Hewitt's hopeful suggestion is that the two lines will seldom appear side-by-side, and takes heart from initial High Street responses to the new, low-cost products. 'So far,' he says, 'dealers have bought them, and I've got great faith in their judgement. I know these people, Dixon's and that lot. It's not like the old days. They're not going to buy to be nice to us. They buy because they think they can sell.' Nonetheless, the feeling persists that graphic equalisers and black plastic will never replace mahogany and brass in the hearts of West Molesey. David Hewitt's office says much about why. Its walls are covered in mementos, not of Hewitt but of Dick Roberts: Roberts playing golf with friends in Spain, pressing palms with Princess Margaret, even (God help him) meeting Mrs Thatcher.
'Dick was a marvellous man, a wonderful host,' says Hewitt. 'The company has always been about family values. Well, I can't provide them myself, but I can be very conscious of retaining those values. At the same time, we have to move on to survive.' He picks up one of his new Taiwanese baby-radios, twiddles with it for a bit and then gives up. 'I've never really got the hang of these things.'