Media Forum: Has GCap turned the corner?

Is the digital-based rescue plan remotely relevant? Alasdair Reid reports.

It has been another week of highly mixed signals from GCap. First, the good news - the irrepressibly upbeat Fru Hazlitt, GCap London's new managing director, has given us a glimpse of her plans to breathe new life into Capital Radio.

There was lots of digital-era box- ticking here - talk of investment in interactive platforms, customisable content, online communities and music-recommendation tools. There was an obscurely worded admission that some of the music Capital has been playing has been rubbish and a commitment to put more marketing commitment behind its stronger properties (starting with its evening DJ Bam Bam).

Can Hazlitt pull it off? Well, she'll have more opportunities than GCap's commercial director, Duncan George, who last week said the time was right to "move on and explore new opportunities".

George, it will be remembered, masterminded the last radical manoeuvre designed to turn Capital Radio's fortunes around - the "no more than two ads in a row" strategy that saw ad inventory rationed in the belief that this would do wonders for listening figures.

Yet GCap's figures for the year to 31 March revealed the group's revenues were down 9 per cent to £200 million. Profits were down too, from £22.2 million to £14.4 million. Though, given the company's troubles, perhaps investors should be grateful for any profit all.

The profit it has seen is down to a campaign of cost-cutting by the chief executive, Ralph Bernard - who recently declared that the group had made "significant strategic progress" during the past year and has effectively turned the corner.

Does the market agree? Lorna Tilbian, a media analyst at Numis, is sceptical. She admits the cost-cutting has been effective, but is far from convinced by the new investment strategy, which will see funds committed to extending the group's most successful brands across digital platforms. She's particularly bemused by the launch of a digital-only station called The Jazz, which, alongside Classic FM, Xfm and Planet Rock, will become a focus for the new strategy.

She adds: "We would prefer to see GCap focus on restoring its core brands to industry-standard levels of profitability rather than embarking on investment in new brands and ancillary revenues."

Simon Thompson, the chief marketing officer at lastminute.com, doesn't think the judgment can be quite that simple, however. He says: "My first thought with GCap is that its stations reach many millions of listeners each week. So, although some of the criticism is deserved, we shouldn't forget this potential power in terms of reach. I also think they should be given credit for extending the Xfm franchise. It has some powerful brands. On the other hand, you can't get away from the fact that Capital Radio is continuing to be a problem child."

You can say that again, Chris Locke, the UK trading director at Starcom, asserts. He can't see any prospect of a corner being turned. In fact, he argues that GCap people haven't the faintest notion of where a corner might be. He says: "Hazlitt will buy them time, like (Michael) Grade at ITV. But she needs to find a curve in a straight road pretty quick. The problem is that, although GCap is about a lot more than Capital Radio, for a lot of media people it starts and stops there."

But Zoe Schmid, the head of radio at Vizeum, is prepared to be more indulgent. She agrees that the London market is of vital importance - but she believes that Hazlitt is the right person to turn it around. She concludes: "It's partly because of her genuine passion for radio and heritage with Capital, as well as her ability to re-energise the editorial and commercial teams as she did at Virgin Radio, but most importantly it's because of the digital experience, gained at Yahoo!, that she can offer GCap. Radio is in an exciting position in the digital age with its new distribution avenues online and the opportunities available to generate new revenue streams."

NO - Lorna Tilbian, media analyst, Numis

"I don't think it has turned a corner - that's why we have it down as a 'sell'. The (new digital investments) do not appear to us an appropriate targeting of the group's resources."

MAYBE - Simon Thompson, chief marketing officer, lastminute.com

"The reality check is the Rajar figures, and Capital Radio's were down year on year again. You can argue it has realised it has problems here, but it needs to address them sooner rather than later."

NO - Chris Locke, UK trading director, Starcom

"The steering wheel has come off. So they're on a straight road, going backwards fast, wearing a blindfold, with no steering wheel. That ain't 'turning a corner', that's heading for a crash."

MAYBE - Zoe Schmid, head of radio, Vizeum

"In audience terms, Capital Radio has taken a couple of steps forward recently. Exciting opportunities exist for GCap and it probably has the right person at the helm to exploit them. It must, however, get over some of the basic obstacles the business faces."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.