Welcome to the Absolute frontier

Britain's first new national station in 13 years falls back on old formulas

It's several months since the purchase of Virgin Radio for £53m by the Times of India, or rather its Mumbai-based owner the Times Group. Virgin used to be a comfortable, bloke-rocking, "Hotel California" kind of station. In September, it was audaciously rebranded Absolute Radio, a go-for-broke name if ever there was one.

Absolute is the UK's first new national radio station for 13 years. It's an interesting piece of reverse cultural colonialism that an Indian-owned company should be charged with providing a minutely focus-grouped blend of Oasis and Bon Jovi to the assorted minicab drivers and office skivers who made up Virgin's old demographic. Many elements of Virgin remain intact - the Christian O'Connell breakfast show, for example. Listeners have been promised a more varied playlist, with a guarantee that you won't hear the same song twice between nine and five o'clock. The owners are hoping that these far from revolutionary changes will help to win back Virgin's early listener figures, which reached 3.1 million when it launched 15 years ago.

So what does the brave new world of Absolute Radio sound like? Well, it turns out, very much like the world of normal radio. We are offered the familiar mixture of chat and music, but the jabbering DJs have been cropped right back and the music extended to a long, MOR incantation. It is as if a traditional station has been passed through a process of pasteurisation. This is not radio, but a radio-style product. It could be labelled: "Warning: may still contain traces of radio".

Absolute looks to the digital frontier. It is a rootless, cross-platform station, designed for the PC, the executive elevator and the hotel room television set. Is this the future? "Absolute is a brand that is unapologetic, cheeky and infectious," its chief executive said before its launch. So we get a studied three-chord illusion of variety: Christian at breakfast (he's the cheeky, infectious one); Geoff at drive-time (he's the infectious, cheeky one). And on Friday and Saturday nights the unapologetic one, Absolute "shock jock" Tim Shaw, formerly of the Kerrang! Radio parish.

Being a shock jock must be a terrible business these days. It is a redundant idea. The first ever shock jock might have been shocking. But these days, as all jocks are shock jocks, the only way to be shocking would be to avoid shock altogether and just be a plain old jock.

Shaw, who is self-christened the "Liberator of UK Radio", has yet to grasp this simple truth. Instead, he parades a stock cast of gimps and sidekicks, of yelps and howls and barks. A man called "Pants" is in the studio ("He's actually in his pants!"). Later, the Liberator embarks on a scripted bit about examining the "seam" between his anus and testicles. "I've got some kind of derangement in my head," he shouts. This, you see, is personality. And Absolute has that side of things covered.

In fact, the DJs on Absolute are little more than ghosts in the machine. The overall effect is cold, hard and natureless, like a place with no weather. Virgin provided radio for blokes; this is radio for robots. It's the endlessly repeating "on hold" music in digital limbo.

Antonia Quirke is away

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This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come