Media Headliner: Story works Magic in the London radio market

Emap's programming veteran has somehow made the easy-listening station the capital's number two, Ian Darby writes.

The recent Rajar radio audience figures threw up some surprises.

But forget Johnny Vaughan finally gaining listeners, or Jono losing his slot on Heart after some disappointing results - the major shock was seeing Emap's London easy-listening station, Magic 105.4, moving into second place in the London market.

Magic achieved a 6.1 per cent share of listening for the final quarter of 2004, up from 4.5 per cent the year before. This helped it to leapfrog Heart into a close second place, behind 95.8 Capital FM (Capital's share was 6.2 per cent).

The station, which Emap acquired in 1998 as Melody FM, is often characterised by its critics as a cheesy alternative for women over 35. But there's no doubting its success in audience terms and Emap has put a lot of effort into refining the offer. The cheese on offer is more fine Cornish Yarg than common mild Cheddar.

Emap's changes to the station have been spearheaded by the programming veteran Mark Story, the former producer of Chris Tarrant's breakfast show on Capital and the breakfast show on Radio 1. Story, the managing director of programming across all of Emap's radio stations, has been aided and abetted in improving Magic by Richard Park, the ferocious Fame Academy judge, former Capital Radio programme director and consultant to Emap for the past two years.

Story says the audience growth is not some sudden shock. "It has been growing for six or seven surveys in a row, but this is quite a jump up," he admits. "We don't over-market the station in comparison with our competitors; we probably spend a fifth of what Capital or Heart spend, but we're driven by word of mouth."

Advertising, though, has played some part in Magic's growth since its acquisition by Emap (from Mother's over-the-top "baby" launch work to St Luke's more workmanlike first campaign last autumn featuring lookalikes of famous singers). One thing has been consistent throughout the Magic campaigns - all have promoted the "feelgood moments" the station attempts to offer.

Story says he's "very pleased" with the St Luke's work and believes that the growth can continue to make Magic the number-one station in London, maybe not in the next quarter, but some time soon. This is because, Story says, there has been a shift in Magic's audience since 1998 - bringing in younger listeners (15-plus) to complement the over-35 market.

Emap insiders say Magic has improved due to creative tensions between Story, who is renowned for getting the best out of radio talent, and the more aggressive Park. Story agrees that Park brought a more ambitious approach: "He was the guy who came in and had the confidence to say 'it will be number one' (in London)."

And others say that Park's influence can't be underestimated. One former Emap director says: "Richard Park has made the difference to the product; he sorted the music side out - shut the presenters up and let the music speak."

But the evolution in Magic's offering (which has seen it play more music and curb the role of presenters while advancing its music policy to play "younger" acts) began before Park's arrival.

Story had been working as a consultant in Singapore before returning to the UK, where he was lured back into radio as the managing director of Magic. At a lunch with the Emap Performance boss, Tim Schoonmacher, he blurted out that he had a vision for Magic as a "feng shui" station, before having to disappear to the men's room to work out what he really meant.

"Radio in London at the time was all about presenters shouting. There was a lot of that available, so there was a market for a station that didn't do that," he says.

This was the beginning of Magic's "more music, less talk" positioning, with presenters taking a back seat to the music (to the extent that its breakfast-show presenter is often labelled Graham "hardly seen" Dene).

Story, an Irishman, is described by those who have worked with him as an elder statesman of radio. He loves working with other programmers and can now focus on meetings with programme directors and getting the on-air product right, having given up his additional role as the managing director of Magic and Kiss in London.

His colleagues say he's an "ebullient" character and Story's enthusiasms stretch beyond radio (his interests in photography and collecting old clocks, for instance). There were a few raised eyebrows and implied put-downs when Story took on the wider management roles at Magic and Kiss in 1999 (the tone from some observers was patronising,suggesting that he was the ruddy Irish farm boy made good).

Insiders say he did "OK" in this wider role, better than the doubters had suggested. However, there is a feeling that Story can now focus on what he really loves.

And as well as managing the talent, that includes the music. Although some of his tastes are at odds with the old-school cheese of Melody FM (he admits to being an "unreformed U2 fan") they are shaping the future of Magic.

"Magic does now play U2 songs such as With Or Without You, so you could say I'm responsible for putting more U2 on the station," he says, almost guiltily.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 49

Lives: Northwood, north London

Family: I live with my partner, Junke

Describe yourself in three words: Amazingly still here

Most treasured possession: My clocks - I love old clocks

Favourite radio presenter: It used to be Kenny Everett. Now it's a

toss-up between Chris Evans, Steve Penk and Zane Lowe

Favourite song: One by U2

Person you most respect in the industry: Always David Briggs (my first

boss at Capital). Andy Roberts at Emap comes a close second