Emap needs to rein in Kiss FM without limitingits appeal

Back in June, Ofcom gave Emap a very public, and very hard, kicking relating to several breaches of its codes during 2005. The offender was the Kiss FM breakfast show. One breach involved a debate on the sex industry, aired at 8.30am, in which callers discussed a prostitute "getting rogered by three blokes" but refusing to take "£50 extra for anal".

Too blue for a family audience, according to Ofcom, which went on to conclude that there was a "total inability" among Emap management to impose the correct controls on the show. Ofcom also said that Emap Radio "had little control or sight of local management and was not seeing warning signs until it was too late".

The result? A £175,000 fine, a record for a commercial radio company in the UK. Now Emap, which it would be safe to assume is skating on thin ice with the regulator, has announced a revamp of the Kiss FM network.

Some of this is linked to a geographical expansion of the brand (Emap's Vibe stations in Bristol and East Anglia will be branded Kiss) but the Ofcom debacle also highlighted the need for Emap management to take greater control of Kiss.

Critics of Emap say that the company has under- invested in Kiss for the past three years, neglecting the programming and music policy of the station as well as general standards of taste and decency. Not that the audience figures support such criticisms - Kiss 100's latest Rajar results in London showed its reach had risen 6.8 per cent year on year to 1.5 million.

Yet the challenge for Emap, as with all owners of youth brands, is to invest in and progress the Kiss brand while preserving its reputation among its core audience of late teens.

The company's priority seems to be a greater emphasis on multichannel outlets for the brand - Kiss TV and its website. There will also be greater numbers of Kiss-branded CDs and events. As for the core radio offer, there is no detail yet on new presenters but we're promised new weekday and weekend shows from September. Andy Roberts, the respected programme director who returned to the station in May, has promised a more "upbeat and optimistic" approach. This might gel with the vision of Bill Griffin, the network's managing director and the former head of marketing at Channel 4, who, according to some, is searching for the "blend of commerciality and cool" that Channel 4 aims for with its T4 strand.

But Emap must be careful not to sanitise Kiss beneath the marketing jargon. Its next moves with the Kiss network will be vital if it is to preserve a young, mass audience for advertisers. Little in the past 18 months suggests it is capable of doing this, but the relaunch has come better late than never.

ian.darby@haynet.com.