Radio 1 DJ-turned serial entrepreneur Bruno Brookes has no illusions about the task he has set himself. His company, Immedia Broadcasting, which provides tailored satellite radio stations for shops and convenience stores, was one of only two media companies to float on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) last year, raising £3.77 million along the way.
‘At the time, the media sector was flat on its bum. There’d been precious little investment for a company like ours. I worked very hard to bring in people who shared the vision,’ he recalls. Among those seduced by the famed Brookes enthusiasm was serial investor Mark Horrocks, who currently owns a ten per cent stake.
At the time it floated, the group was loss-making, and almost a year on, it is still finding the commercial landscape challenging. Its maiden half-year results in July hardly set the market alight, with losses growing from £236,660 to £250,563. Sales climbed just 10 per cent to £1.13 million.
Another problem has been the share price, which has slumped from 110p to the current 74p. But this kind of environment is the type of setting in which Brookes believes he can prosper, given his experience, his contacts and his determination to learn the most from his past commercial mistakes.
Brookes started working at the age of 17 – not in radio – but at his father’s car wash, for a meagre £12 a week. It was a dreadfully dreary line of work and and a million miles away from his first love of radio. Ever the opportunist, he claims he conned his way into BBC radio, convincing the producer of BBC Radio Stoke to give him a three-minute slot on job opportunities for teenagers.
‘I said I could go out and find 20 jobs for teenagers, even though the producer said that was ridiculous. My father created two straight away, but the principle of the idea was what mattered – the slot gave me an opportunity to be heard and a year later I was hosting the programme,’ grins Brookes.
From there he finally graduated to Radio 1 and thence to the coveted Sunday chart show slot. When his DJ’ing days came to an end (the BBC mercilessly culled its ‘Smashy and Nicey’ DJ crew in the mid-90s) it was reported that he vowed never to DJ again. Instead he moved into business mode. In 1995 he established Bruno Brookes Media and Entertainment (BBME), which spawned five ventures in areas such as broadcast training, artist management and design (none of which exist today).
‘At the time, I wanted to identify how I could use my expertise and contacts for others in the radio industry and I mushroomed a number of lifestyle businesses. One of the ventures was Radio and Television School, where we trained 4,000 people over five years,’ he says with pride.
Tripped up by technology
Then the internet came along and Brookes spotted a gap for live radio streamed over the web. Storm Digital Broadcast (later renamed Immedia Broadcasting) was created and Storm Radio launched in 2000, providing internet radio for the likes of Freeserve and Newsoftheworld.com.
‘Storm was initially a project but it sprung up at such a rate that we decided to channel all the resources from BBME into it,’ explains Brookes.
A year later, Storm had axed its DJs and support staff after being hit by the downturn in the economy. But Brookes still pressed ahead with the launch of a second (automated) radio station called the Spirit, which aimed to focus on new music and unsigned acts. The prolonged, relentless media downturn was severe though and in March 2002 the plug was pulled on Storm, largely because of a lack of acceptable data on the number of listeners that could be turned into advertising revenue – and the slow uptake of broadband.
Says Brookes, ruefully, ‘Storm Radio did ok, but like anything at that time on the internet, it was ahead of its game. BT said broadband technology was just around the corner! If it were launched now commercially, it would have a much better chance than it did two years ago. It can be launched again – in fact we are talking to one of the largest internet players, who has millions of subscribers.’
Undeterred by the demise of Storm, Brookes, who claims never to have made the same mistake twice, is now seizing upon the growing trend for retailers to use their own in-store radio programmes to promote the shop and its products. But this time, he’s choosing his technology carefully, exploiting satellite. ‘It’s important to use a tried and tested method. We need to prove we can deliver to a mass audience.’
Immedia operates two business models: one is the free-to-retailer stations, where the radio station is broadcast free of charge for the retailer, with Immedia retaining the advertising revenue. Its other model is subscription-based, where the retailer is charged an annual subscription fee, the retailer sells airtime on the station and Immedia receives a proportion of airtime revenue.
Immedia initially targeted the convenience store sector, with Newsagents Radio (now rebranded to Impulse Live). The company has since signed a contract to provide pharmacy chain Lloyds with a self-branded radio network in more than a thousand of its stores. But Brookes is now gunning for the big boys, having attracted the likes of Dixons and Iceland.
‘One of the biggest frustrations has been dealing with big corporations. They move at a different pace and our schedule is never as high on their agendas as it is on ours. But the workforce has begun to realise that communication is its lifeblood – if it’s not doing this it can fall down. For that reason, bigger companies are taking our product much more seriously,’ he believes.
Earlier this year Immedia launched in Norway via Vitus Apotek, the Norwegian subsidiary of German pharmaceutical company Celesio, and Brookes is also planning to target Italy, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
‘Norway is one of those wintry places – satellite dishes get blown everywhere so we have built the infrastructure underground. We have plans to deliver the service through mobile phones and a range of other channels,’ he explains.
Convincing a sceptical market
Technology is not the only barrier that Brookes will have to overcome in the coming months. The in-store advertising industry has had its fair share of downs, with the likes of StickyFM, UK Broadcast and FTV (which broadcast advertisements on petrol forecourts) all biting the dust in recent years. Moreover, larger players, such as Tesco, have recently rolled out in-store television systems. But Brookes seems undaunted by the prospect.
‘In-store radio has had a bad name for 15 years – “muzak with message” and “buy one, get one free offers.” We’re always providing fresh content – nothing is pre-recorded or on a loop. It’s live and people can interact. Media buyers are starting to understand the medium more. It’s about how to reach your audience in as many ways as possible.’