VMR: Virgin Megastores Radio & My Part in It (Part 1)

VMR: Virgin Megastores Radio & My Part in It (Part 1)

This blog came to being after a post I saw on a forum enquiring into what became of HMV Radio, the in-store station for the chain of UK based HMV record shops.

One of the posts mentioned Virgin Megastores Radio, the equivalent, and I would stop short at saying rival, service produced by Virgin Retail for their store outlets. In the early part of my freelance career, resulting from me being made redundant from a studio installation company, I gained the station as a client.


Before reminiscing about my time there I must state, in opposition to the detractors, that these in-store stations were in no-way simply playing at the medium: An article I found in The Guardian, whilst doing my research, put it succinctly that the business stakes where just too high for it to be a amateur vanity-type project. The service was there to promote the store merchandise and to encourage you, the shopper, to part with your money. To that end they strove and, indeed, those in-store stations that still operate, strive, to be as professional as possible. As a result in-store stations have given many a presenter a showcase into the industry and enabled them to make a living from it. Some becoming major names, as you will read.

In the UK, Virgin Megastores Radio, VMR for short, was based at the flagship Oxford Street Megastore in London. The store was at the Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street on the same side, but at the opposite end to the Oxford Circus located Topshop, home to the almost legendary Radio Topshop.

VMR’s studio facilities consisting of two near-identical studios based in a semi-circular glass-walled pod overlooking the sales floor. It provided a service to that store and the rest of the UK chain via a satellite delivered service. Initially the service could be picked up on a standard analogue satellite receiver but was later moved to an encrypted closed-distribution service.
In the 1990s I was the station engineer and provided maintenance, studio refurbishment and outside broadcast effort on a contract basis. I wasn’t in at the start so I still don’t know who created the studios originally.

The Studios
The equipment in each studio was near-identical and of a professional standard, consisting of:
• An Alice Soundtech Series A mixing desk,
• Beyer Dynamic M201 microphones on angle-poise arms (3 in Studio 1 and 2 in Studio 2)
• 2 x Denon DN-C630 CD players
• 3 x Denon DN900 series MD based recorders and players
• A Sony DAT machine
• A Sonifex DY-02 tele-balance unit (TBU)
• Hi-Fi style speakers and amplifier and Beyer DT100 headphones for monitoring.

VMR OA Std 3

A View of Studio 1 at VMR:
Equipped with an Alice desk, Denon CD and MD players
The DAT machine TBU and Kilstream CoDec are in the left-hand rack 
In addition, the larger studio 1 was equipped with a pair of Technics SL1200 Mk2 turntables and Pioneer DJ mixer for DJ sets and an APTX based ISDN CoDec for outside contributions.

Later on, a simple (by late 1990s standards) PC based playout system was installed to play adverts and jingles.

As built, Studio 2 had to slave to Studio 1, i.e. its output had to run through the desk of Studio 1. This was limiting the operation of the facilities, so one of the projects I delivered was to allow either studio to feed the main output and for Studio 2 to feed the Oxford Street store independently. This sometimes happened when the Oxford Street store was hosting a product launch event.

Although the studios were wired for stereo, the output to the satellite was in mono, the feed to the satellite distribution being mono’d before carriage on a BT supplied kilo-stream line to the uplink in London’s Docklands.

I was never involved in the signal once it left the studios, the in-store back-ground music amps and speakers and the receivers that fed them being the responsibility of the shop maintenance departments.

The music played was predominately chart based and on CD, the presenters or management staff literally going on to the shop floor to select it, although there was a PC based system in the studio to account for stock availability whilst it was off the sales floor. Vinyl was on the wane in the 1990s, but sometimes a DJ session on the turntables was broadcast.

In writing this one of the strap-line jingles has just popped into my head: “The programme is brought to you, city-to-city, without the use of telephone connections”

VMR OA Std 4

A further view of Studio 1 at VMR: Note the glass-walled pod and the CRT monitors. 

I apologise in advance if I have got some of my dates wrong but if you were involved in VMR, or recall listening to it, please drop me a line.

More on my time at VMR soon.

Iain Betson