Media: Spotlight - Rajar headlines obscure flat and mature market

Is commercial radio living up to its sense of historical destiny, Alasdair Reid asks

It was inevitable, really, that 95.8 Capital FM would capture most of the Rajar headlines this time around. Even if Chris Tarrant's "swansong" had turned in poor audience figures, it would have been news - but everyone was banking on him going out with a bang (or some other suitably final but swan-like noise) and he didn't disappoint.

Especially pleased were those with a penchant for weak puns - because Capital's Tarrant-assisted audience recovery over the fourth quarter meant that Heart, Capital's main commercial rival in the metropolis, was beaten back into second place and was therefore, wait for it, heartbroken.

For the record, Capital's share in the London market rose a fraction to 7.9 per cent while Heart fell steeply to a 5.8 per cent share.

It's a sobering task absorbing the blizzard of press releases that blows up on Rajar results day. It has become one of the most aggressively blissed-out days in the media calendar, with absolutely everybody on the media owner side bursting with incredibly cymbal-sizzling good news.

Even if their total audiences are actually down, you can guarantee that any given station will be doing terribly well against "key" or "elusive" or "crucial" audience demographics - however narrowly defined.

Which is fair enough, you might argue - this, after all, is the sector of showbiz with the largest and most fixed smile. But, while it's possible to admire irrepressible optimism, some observers are beginning to suspect that commercial radio is reading from a very old script indeed.

Throughout most of the 90s, the big picture in the commercial radio medium was all about inexorable audience growth. Yes, there was initial concern when the medium hit an apparent sticking point (in the latest Rajar figures, commercial radio's share of listening was 45.5 per cent compared with the BBC's total of 52.6 per cent - and that breakdown has been more or less the same for the past few years now) but it wasn't long before the business came up with a slightly tweaked version of the big picture.

As digital kicked in, the media owners argued, the medium would regain its momentum and it would begin once again making vigorous inroads into BBC territory.

That's why, in a generally flat (Tarrant aside) set of Rajar figures, so much attention is being paid to the figures for digital listening.

And the story here, it has to be said, isn't great. So much so, in fact, that some commentators are willing to question the medium's inflated sense of its own historical destiny.

But they'd be downright wrong, Peter Cory, the media planning director of the Radio Advertising Bureau, argues. "The existing analogue stations are continuing to experience growth, there are more licences on the way and technological advances are making radio more accessible. Everything is going in the right direction," he insists.

But others don't share his robust optimism. They point, in particular, to the fact that figures for Emap's digital-only stations, such as Q and Smash Hits, have dipped slightly, leading some analysts to suspect that their previous figures were artificially high. People may have been tuning in to the TV station versions of the brands but recollecting wrongly that they had been listening to the radio stations.

If that's true, then it's damning of the whole Rajar system on many levels - and there are those who continue to argue that false recollection is endemic right across the board in what is, after all, a very low-tech diary data-gathering system.

But, at the very least, Jonathan Gillespie, OMD's director of radio, argues, we have to question the notion that more stations - on whatever platform - automatically means more audiences for the commercial sector.

He states: "The older independent local radio stations, which were set up to cover the mass market, are probably having a tough time of it in a market where, if you have the right gadgets there's a surfeit of supply available to you."

In other words, we may be seeing increased fragmentation of a flat and maturing market. However, Howard Bareham, the head of radio at MindShare, says it's "too early" to draw conclusions about digital and its contribution to the big picture. Derek Manns, the head of radio at Starcom Media-Vest, is more critical.

He comments: "Sometimes the media owners themselves seem to lack complete confidence in digital and there are still some media owners who are neither investing in it nor selling it. Digital is still stuttering. That will be especially disappointing to Emap - which is making the investment - because it has actively been promoting the availability of its brands on digital TV platforms."

Meanwhile, the medium's big story will continue to be about breakfast time and the battle of the "personalities" - and, perhaps unfortunately for a medium that has increasingly sold itself as a national advertising opportunity, the focus will continue to be on the London market.

Some would argue that, actually, the medium should pay even more attention to what goes on in the London market - because, in the capital, more choice really does translate into more commercial audience. In London, commercial radio takes a share of around 60 per cent.

That, though, is because in London there are bags of different formats - genuine diversity. That's something that the big groups have failed to roll out across the rest of the country - to their enduring cost, some critics say.

You can bet, though, that in three months' time the Rajar story will again be about the London market contemplating its navel: Jono at Heart, Chris Moyles (who does disproportionately well in London) at Radio 1, and Nick Ferrari on LBC (who has just doubled his audience) and that new boy, that lovable Cockney card at Capital.

"It's a story, isn't it?" Gillespie says. "It was a story when Heart caught up with Capital in the first place and it's a story when it drops back again. So, yes, the story next time around will be how well Johnny Vaughan is doing in replacing Tarrant."


Station First quarter 2004

(2003 first quarter)

95.8 Capital FM 7.9% (8.1)

Heart 106.2 5.8% (6.2)

Magic 105.4 4.6% (3.6)

Kiss 100 4.2% (4.1)

LBC 97.3 3.4% (1.8)

Source: Rajar

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