Commercial radio looks well enough as it hits 30th year

I'm only guessing, but having an irate Kelvin MacKenzie breathing cold fury down your neck can't be pleasant, writes Ian Darby.

Much of The Wireless Group chief executive's bile of late has been aimed at the radio measurement body, Rajar. It might be a coincidence, but its managing director, Jane O'Hara, is quitting in December to go off sailing in the Atlantic.

However, the antipathy doesn't seem personal and O'Hara's explanation, that she is leaving in good time to allow a successor to conduct the next series of tests on electronic measurement systems and to allow them to get their feet under the table before the Rajar contract goes out to tender, rings true.

It's easy to understand MacKenzie's frustration but a local spat about audience figures shouldn't be allowed to spoil commercial radio's 30th anniversary.

Baleful, and premature, stories about Capital's demise have given the impression recently that commercial radio is on its knees. True enough, Capital expects revenues to be down 4% for the 12 months to 30 September and its rival GWR has warned the City that revenues for Classic FM have dipped 10%.

But there are reasons for optimism for commercial radio. Chrysalis' investment in LBC and Heart in London have been noteworthy, offering advertisers a serious alternative to the likes of Capital. Emap's capture of the West Midlands licence with its Kerrang! proposal generated genuine excitement in a region synonymous with the sounds of Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne and Slade.

The general quality of programming is rising, giving advertisers more of a reason to associate themselves with radio brands. Evidence lies with John Smith's massive commitment to TalkSPORT, via its breakfast show sponsorship, and McDonald's support for Virgin Radio.

Even the raw figures give cause for hope amid the surface gloom. The Radio Advertising Bureau's figures show that adspend on commercial radio for the April to June quarter grew by 3.3% to £144m. Much of this growth was from FMCG advertisers, a triumph for the work the RAB and its members have put in.

Most exciting of all is the emergence of national digital platforms. Owners such as Emap and Capital have already generated national audiences of 2.8m for Magic and 634,000 for Xfm.

It will be interesting to see how this will effect consolidation post-Communications Act. If Emap can take its own brands and build audiences in the millions for very little outlay, then why spend millions buying up rivals? On the flipside, are newcomers to the sector going to want to pay a premium for companies growing so rapidly on the back of these new platforms?

Meanwhile, we can look forward to rock returning home to Brum and Johnny Vaughan starting on Capital.

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