There is, it turns out, such a thing as too much bad attitude. the story of four-year-old Virgin Radio offers a cautionary tale about the capacity of even the most renegade organization to absorb self-inflicted punishment. In the spirit of bad-boy chairman Richard Branson's hot-air balloon flights, almost two years ago London-based Virgin Radio embraced a high-flying — if short-lived — technique for publicly addressing the staff's toughest questions. It crashed when it inspired too many of them.
Every six weeks the division's staffers would gather in the Zoo, a communal lounge plastered with rock posters, for a "Dumb, Dirty & Dangerous" (DD&D) meeting. The idea: employees would anonymously submit their most "dangerous" questions on slips of paper. During DD&D, Virgin's own shock jocks Russ and Jono would shoot 50 questions in rapid succession for the attending managers to answer: Why don't we get paid the same rates as other radio stations?
Why can't we do more rockumentaries and specialized programs?
Why do we have these old, boring DJs?
Branson himself sat in on one DD&D in which managers broke the news that there'd be no annual bonuses that year despite the $2.6 million in reported profits. The benevolent chairman impulsively offered to pony up some extra cash, to the staff's hooting delight.
Not every meeting went as smoothly. As the staff pushed the envelope to find out just how dumb and dirty they could get, the questions got too dangerous: "Don't you think it would be a good idea to send the management team to a training course?" It turns out that question — and many more like it — never made it to DD& D. Virgin Radio spokesperson Russell Millard reports that managers began screening questions before the meeting to discard the ones they considered too dirty. "The whole thing became a farce," he says.
The resulting morale fiasco marked the demise of DD&D and the introduction of mediated focus groups to do damage control. Still, the "danger" lives on. Earlier this year Virgin Radio merged with Capitol Radio in a $105 million deal; now staffers are putting their attitude exactly where they want it: on the air.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.