“There you go. Why don’t you put your name to that?” It was the height of British Airways’ Dirty Tricks campaign against Virgin Atlantic. I was sat on BA’s flagship Concorde plane flying to New York, trying to convince a DJ to join my radio station. Had I lost the plot? If the DJ had been anybody other than Chris Evans, I would have to answer yes.
In 1997 I saw an opportunity to get Chris to Virgin Radio. I knew he could turn us from a promising upstart to market leaders. I met up with him over a drink and we talked through a deal. It all seemed to be going well, when Chris got up to leave. “Sorry mate, I’ve got a flight to catch.” “I’ll come with you,” I said. “Really? It’s a BA flight. Concorde to New York.”
As I found myself in the back of a cab racing towards Heathrow, I realised how much I really wanted to do the deal. The BA staff gave me plenty of sideways glances as I got onto the plane, but were perfectly friendly and professional. I sat down next to Chris, picked up a menu and began writing out the finer details of my pitch. I was making edits, crossing them out and adding extras for a good half an hour, and by the end of it the world’s scruffiest contract offer had materialised on the back of the menu. There was a gap just waiting for Chris to write his signature. I put the pen in his hand. He looked at me with that cheeky grin, tilted his glasses up, and turned me down.
It wasn’t a wasted journey though. We kept in touch and before the year was out I signed Ginger Radio, his company, to present our breakfast show four days a week. Chris became a regular host, even working extra days and taking the show’s breathless anarchy up a notch or 11. The Times put it well, saying Chris had “elevated inanity almost to an art form”. He had clearly found a station that felt like home.
Within a matter of weeks he turned up at my Holland Park house and made an offer to buy the whole station. Audience figures were continuing to climb to new record highs, the business was making plenty of money, and we were having a great time doing it. But an offer of £83 million was too good to turn down. We shook hands. In 2000 Chris sold Virgin Radio on again, to SMG.
Our brand remained on the station and Chris continued as our top DJ. He went onto host hugely successful shows on BBC TV and Radio 2, building the largest UK audience for his breakfast show. We had a great chat on his BBC Radio 2 show last year, and I look forward to the next one back on Virgin Radio UK with Chris in the chair.