MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT - Can Vaughan be as big for Capital as Tarrant was?

Johnny Vaughan has some very profitable shoes to fill at Capital FM.

Any who doubt that the "Smashy and Nicey" era of Fluff Freeman and the Hairy Cornflake is well and truly over should examine Capital FM's decision to hire Johnny Vaughan to host its London breakfast show.

Vaughan, the former public schoolboy and convicted drug dealer reinvented as London cheeky chappie, is very much in the vanguard of modern broadcasting.

Capital could have opted for the safe, cosy tones of the internal favourite, Neil Fox, to replace Chris Tarrant. Instead, it bit the bullet and opted for a presenter who is a relative radio novice but possesses an irreverent style that wowed breakfast audiences during his time on the Channel 4 show The Big Breakfast.

The selection of Vaughan, 37, on a three-year contract beginning next spring, could be viewed as a gamble in light of his flop TV chat show, Johnny Vaughan Tonight, and mixed reviews for his sitcom, 'Orrible. His radio experience has been brief stints at the BBC's GLR and Five Live stations but in his debut on the new Five Live show Fighting Talk last Saturday he was funny, assured and well-suited to live radio.

But is he still a hot property? Keith Pringle, the managing director of 95.8 Capital FM, says: "He's the perfect replacement - a funny guy, spontaneously funny and he can react to any situation. Nothing fazes him and he appeals to both men and women. Women find him hunky and men think he's a bit of a bloke."

Pringle, who recently replaced Andria Vidler as the head of the London station, is trying to re-affirm Capital's young adult focus, removing elements of the schedule that are in danger of seeing it labelled a "kids' station". At core, this will mean a focus on 25- to 34-year-olds as a way of shaping programming for the wider audience of 15- to 44-year-olds.

The appointment of Tarrant's replacement was vital to Capital. His show is the highest-rating London breakfast show with 1.6 million adult listeners.

Its closest commercial rival is Heart with 858,000 listeners but Kiss has captured an impressive chunk of the commercially important under-25 audience among its 761,000 listeners.

Mark Helm, the head of radio at Starcom MediaVest, says: "It's a brave move for two reasons. It's bound to piss off Foxy, who was the heir apparent, and secondly let's not forget that Vaughan is a convicted drug dealer.

Some clients have long memories and are precious about their brand associations. I'm not personally, and he's never hidden this so at least there are unlikely to be any other skeletons lurking."

Others dismiss Helm's suggestion, arguing that if drug associations came into it half of the staff at London radio stations would be damaged goods.

Overall, Helm feels that Vaughan will deliver: "He's definitely a cheeky chappie and I would like to see him bounce off another presenter. I feel he's quite visual in his approach, which isn't great for radio, but he's bright, sharp and definitely London."

While Tarrant's breakfast show has proved a commercial success and, according to media agencies, accounts for around 40 per cent of Capital FM's commercial impacts in London, critics have argued that it has become too reliant on an older audience. Some 52 per cent are over 35 at a time when Pringle is focusing on 24- to 35-year-olds.

Tim McCabe, the connections director at Vizeum, says: "Vaughan will be good for the station - he has London appeal, is local and a household name, which is important as radio is not so much about music as personality in the morning. I think he'll appeal to a younger audience, which will help as Capital tries to be more focused on 25- to 34-year-olds."

"Tarrant has an older following: he's the Cliff Richard of radio. Within a couple of Rajar periods we'll see some changes in the audience and I think Capital will be sticking some serious money behind it to give it a really good push," McCabe adds.

So do Capital's rivals feel threatened? Heart is its closest breakfast competitor in tone and audience terms. Francis Currie, Heart's programme director, says: "I think it's a really bold move by Capital, which has been stuck for some time in trying to replace Tarrant. It now faces the challenge of converting it into a hit for audiences."

Currie predicts that there will be a significant churn of Tarrant's loyal over-35 listeners who will look at other alternatives as well as considering Vaughan's show. He argues that Heart is in a good place to pick up any dissatisfied customers: "We've been very consistent. Obviously Emma Forbes left the show but breakfast tends to be about personalities and the show, above the usual targeted news and traffic information, is driven by chemistry between Jono (Coleman) and Harriet (Scott) and interaction with listeners."

Heart has done well in recent times, boasting an increase of 171,000 listeners in the past year (a 25 per cent rise). But should it and other rivals be worried that Vaughan will halt such growth?

"It will be interesting to see what effect this will have on Pete and Geoff on Virgin. They have a similar irreverent approach to Vaughan so Virgin has to watch out," McCabe argues.

McCabe also wonders if the Kiss audience will be under threat but concludes that its key strength is in the 16 to 24 audience rather than the 25 to 34 market that Vaughan may well prove a hit with.

Helm argues Heart's consistently good performance is a real challenge to Vaughan's prospects but says: "As soon as Vaughan starts, I think you'll seem some serious advertising from Capital's rivals. Kiss had a better Rajar last period, so Capital is up against strong competition with strong identities. The problem Capital has suffered is trying to be a catchall to all audiences from 15- to 45-year-olds and having to fight on all sides."

Overall, it seems that Capital has pulled off a masterstroke that it must convert into ratings success. "Vaughan might do for Capital what Jonathan Ross has done for Radio Two," McCabe concludes.

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