PROFILE: Roberts Radio

‘I’m constantly surprised by how we punch above our weight’

Iconic British audio brand Roberts Radio is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year with the launch of a turntable – the RT100. Chief executive Owen Watters tells Sean Hannam why the brand has endured and where it’s heading in the future…

To celebrate its 85th birthday, Roberts Radio has launched a turntable – the RT100 – and, in true Roberts style, the brand has put its own spin on it.

The £250 product oozes retro chic, but also features USB connectivity, so users can rip their records into digital files.

“We wanted to build a turntable with specifications that we knew would resonate with consumers – it’s about having a broad appeal across a wide cross-section of the market,” says chief executive, Owen Watters.

“There has been a vinyl revival in the past two or three years – we contemplated whether we should or shouldn’t get involved and said we’d only do it if we could get the product proposition right. The RT100 can be connected to a multi-room system.

“GQ named it one of the 10 coolest things in the world – the nice thing about the Roberts brand is that I’m constantly surprised by how we’re able to punch above our weight – the RT100 is a perfect example.”

Q: Congratulations on Roberts’s 85th birthday. How does it feel?
Owen Watters:
It’s a huge milestone – when you think that the business has been around for that long, it’s very humbling that we’re still here. You have to consider all the effort and blood, sweat and toil that a lot of people have given to the brand over the years. I’m very proud to be involved and humbled at the work that a lot of people have done.

Roberts RT100 turntable
Roberts RT100 turntable

If you consider what’s changed in those 85 years, the market’s unrecognisable from what it was back in 1932. We’ve gone through world wars and the introduction of the internet – the business and technology environments have changed massively. Roberts has ridden that wave and continued to be relevant, which I think is an incredible achievement.

Q: Roberts was founded in 1932 by Harry Roberts and Leslie Bidmead. It was acquired by the Glen Dimplex Group in 1994, which secured its future. Why has the brand endured and why are so many people passionate about it?
I think it comes down to our brand values – we’re still very ‘traditional’ in terms of our mind-set. I don’t mean we’re old-fashioned, but we still do things the right way. We don’t cut corners and we’ve never chased market share – we’re not about shifting boxes. There is a genuine passion for this business from the people who work in it. We treat our customers as we would like to be treated – I know that sounds clichéd, but that’s genuinely how we go to work.

Q: You’ve worked at Roberts for 12 years. How have you seen the business change in that time?
It’s changed a lot – the channels of distribution have changed. In those 12 years, e-tail has become a legitimate and significant channel and the social media explosion has happened. We’ve had to rethink how we go to market and how we engage with consumers and our customers. That’s been quite a fundamental shift.

Q: The brand is synonymous with its classic Revival retro radio – and you’ve just launched a new take on it, the Revival Uno, which is a smaller version of its older sister, the RD60. You’ve also announced the Revival RD70 model, with Bluetooth and a full colour screen. Is it a challenge to educate consumers that you do sell other types of audio products – not just retro radios?
It is, but I wouldn’t change that for the world. The Revival is iconic and it defines us to a point – that’s where our trust and our real equity is.

Our ongoing challenge is how we broaden the portfolio to not just our existing customers, but also to attract new ones. Lots of the work that we’re doing on social media is not just focused on the Revival, but on our connected speaker and smart radio ranges.

Roberts Revival RD70
Roberts Revival RD70

Q: The connected and smart audio message seems to be replacing the multi-room theme…
Multi-room, as a term, is not resonating with consumers. Connected speakers and connected audio are. We’ve been pioneering smart audio for the past two years.

There’s no question that in the next couple of years, you’ll see more and more brands getting involved in that whole Artificial Intelligence (AI) movement. It’s been on our radar for a little while and we’ve got products that are on our development roadmap.

Every few years, you’ll see true innovation in a sector – technologies that define a category – and I do think that AI is exactly that. It’s not just voice control – that’s only one very public part of the smart home.

The reality is, whether we like it or not, we’re all starting to engage with the smart home by stealth – whether it’s your central heating control or an app to control your audio device. It’s starting to happen.

We need to get to the stage where there is one common platform so that the smart home becomes simple. I think the biggest challenge is that you have different proprietary formats from different brands – at some point that needs to converge and become one platform that allows Mr and Mrs Average to embrace the smart home.

The strongest will survive – there are some very big powerhouses out there that are pushing their own proprietary technologies and that makes it slightly more difficult for smaller brands as to which horse they back. We have to either take a calculated risk and back one, or back several. I think Roberts will back several. We clearly have a view as to which one we think will gain traction, but, ultimately, the market will dictate that.

Q: Where do you see the future opportunities for Roberts?
Smart radio is very much at the heart of our R&D and our investment. Having said all of that, there is still a place for traditional, portable DAB radio – we still think that’s a market that has life in the UK and lots of opportunities outside of the UK. We’re looking to push the boundaries of audio – it’s what we know and love and it’s what we’re passionate about.