Media Forum: Is Capital Radio back on track?

Will Capital's management and programming changes work, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's probably unfair the way everyone obsesses about Capital Radio.

There are other radio stations in London, after all - and London isn't the only city or region to have a vibrant commercial radio culture. Come to that, there's more to life than breakfast and radio is bigger than Johnny Vaughan.

So the scrutiny that Capital is subjected to is uncalled for - though the truth is that GCap Media wouldn't have it any other way. The attention merely underlines the continuing resonance of the brand, which remains a flagship for the industry despite the fact that it's no longer number one in audience terms.

In recent weeks, there's been a slight departure from the usual form, however. True, Vaughan has been in the press, telling those who'd listen that he has finally emerged from the shadow cast by Chris Tarrant, his predecessor in the breakfast-show slot, but the bigger buzz was this time about changes on the management floor.

Two weeks ago, the board decided that a little freshening up was in order and they invited the long-term managing director, Keith Pringle, to walk the plank. The programming director, Nik Goodman, walked with him.

Last week, it was revealed they will be replaced by Scott Muller, currently the programme director of the Daily Mail & General Trust-owned Nova 969 in Sydney - a station that has pioneered the "never more than two ads in a row" policy now being used by Capital.

Duncan George, the commercial director of GCap Media, says radical surgery had become almost inevitable at Capital - over five years its listening hours and share of listening have more or less halved. In London, the BBC's gains have been almost identical. So the nature of the task ahead is clear. "Some of our commercial rivals (in London) have done well, which is good for commercial radio as a whole but equally it's not good that the BBC has been performing as it has," he points out.

Capital's own research has indicated that its five-year audience decline can be at least partially reversed. There's no sense, for instance, that it believes its lot in life is merely to manage decline - a situation helped by the fact that there has been no new analogue competition in recent years.

Audience feedback shows many lapsed listeners feel Capital still retains something of its iconic status. That shouldn't be underestimated, George argues. "Our focus groups demonstrated that people still feel very strongly about Capital but have become disappointed and disaffected. In particular, they think it feels like less of a particularly London station than it once did. That's one of the presentation issues that has been addressed."

But can the advertising industry be confident that Capital is heading in the right direction?

Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, is not at all convinced by the heritage argument. He says: "The problem perhaps is that all heritage stations have been losing share. And it's a broader phenomenon - heritage media brands, in general, are under pressure, but the recent staff changes have to be good news. On the programming side, Capital is going from current chart stuff to Rick Astley within three songs. In comparison, Heart, Magic and Kiss have a far clearer music policy. A one-shoe-fits-all policy won't work. You can't please both 15-year-olds and 44-year-olds. It will take time but that can be addressed."

But Jeremy Found, COI's head of media, takes a more cautious line. And tellingly, he reveals that Capital's performance no longer gives rise to the sorts of anxieties that it may have done not so long ago. But he refuses to be drawn either on the wisdom of the senior management changes or the need for a new programming policy. He says: "It's obviously something they felt they needed to address but as always with programming changes it will take more than two Rajar audience research reports before we will be able to judge their impact."

George Howard, the joint head of radio at OMD UK, agrees. "Even the smartest changes will need to be given time in order for wandering listeners to return to the station," he says. He believes it can be turned around but only if the station's new management makes enough brave programming decisions.

"Change was required and cutting minutage was indeed a bold move. However, reduced advertising alone will not bring back departed listeners," he concludes.

YES - Duncan George, commercial director, GCap Media

"The initial response we've had from our focus groups is positive, though that will take a number of quarters to start showing on Rajar. We'll soon be in a position to publish research on our policy of having shorter ad breaks. I'm confident it will show that it's more effective from an advertising point of view."

YES - Jonathan Barrowman, head of radio, Initiative

"I think the advertising policy will eventually bear fruit though its ironic they are currently creating clutter with those announcements that they are reducing clutter. They should just shut up and get on with it. But yes, Capital Radio London is moving in the right direction."

MAYBE - Jeremy Found, head of media, COI

"From a listening point of view there is a noticeable difference on Capital, with its (never more than two ads in a row) advertising policy. But we really need to wait on research findings, especially as regards recall, before we can judge. It's the same with programming changes - we will only be able to judge by the audience figures."

MAYBE - George Howard, joint head of radio, OMD UK

"Capital has addressed its programming with presenter and playlist changes - though many key presenters remain (unchanged) and I question whether enough has been done to distinguish the station from the competition. They can turn things around, and I hope they do - but they need to continue making brave programming decisions."

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