Number one goes niche

Commercial radio is launching two specialist top 40s to stem a decline in chart audiences. Gemma Charles reports.

Spending Sunday evening lying on a bed with the radio tuned to Radio 1's Chart Show is a fond memory for many. But the days of the singles chart ruling the airwaves have long gone, partly due to the proliferation of rival shows on radio and TV, and partly due to the constant revolution of number ones, which has diminished the chart's glamour.

However, the companies behind leading commercial chart hit40uk have decided there is room for not one, but two, additional charts.

Hit40uk is already backed by GCap and Chrysalis and will add Emap Radio to the list this autumn when it launches the charts. It will broadcast an AC Chart for older listeners and a Fresh 40 chart based on urban music.

The two will join the flagship hit40uk countdown, sponsored by Woolworths.

With broadcast chart shows floundering and the singles market in freefall, success is hardly guaranteed. The launches also run the risk of cheapening the charts further by creating even more number ones.

Countering critics
Hit40uk has enlisted TV's Melanie Sykes and Heart 106.2's Nick Snaith to give the AC Chart some sex appeal. It will air across 54 adult contemporary stations, including the Heart, Real Radio and Century networks.

Aimed at 25- to 44-year-olds, the chart will be complied by the Official Chart Company (OCC) from airplay statistics, album and single sales, online downloads and music DVD sales to reflect the many ways music can now be purchased, and moving the concept of the chart beyond one dominated by singles purchased by teenage girls.

The Fresh 40, meanwhile, will air on 13 stations, focusing on R'n'B, hip hop and dance music. In common with the hit40uk, it will reflect a combination of sales and airplay. It is estimated that the charts will reach a combined audience of more than 1.5m.

Helen Keable, head of radio at Manning Gottlieb OMD, describes the move as positive. 'The chart offering is so diverse now, why shouldn't our charts reflect this?' she asks.

She says the new chart shows will give advertisers a chance to target niche audiences. 'Hit40uk has been successful, but has almost talked itself off some schedules by being too broad,' she explains.

Chris Young, national radio promoter of Virgin Records' V2 Music label, is in favour of charts featuring different music genres, which he points out has been done in the US for years. However, he argues that the record industry remains solely interested in the OCC findings used by Radio 1 because of its methodology. This is based on downloads and sales, not airtime.

'One mainstream national chart is the best way forward because it keeps things simple,' he says. 'When you have lots of different charts, it confuses people.'

Evidence to suggest there is enough interest to support two more charts is scarce. The fortunes of Top of the Pops, axed from BBC One and placed in a graveyard Sunday slot on BBC Two, have been well-documented. But over on ITV1, CD:UK is also struggling.

Following presenter Cat Deeley's departure in March, the show has experimented with guest presenters, including a disastrous appearance by Big Brother winner Anthony Hutton. Ratings have plunged and ITV is hoping a revamp and a new presenting team of former Hear'Say singer Myleene Klass and Xfm's Lauren Laverne will increase viewing figures.

On radio, Emap's extension of its Smash Hits brand into a chart format has also disappointed and the company is pulling the plug on the show.

It will replace the slot with either the hit40uk or the new shows, depending on the station's audience.

Listener slump
John McGeough, group sales director of GCap Media, which is responsible for hit40uk's airtime sales and commercial partnerships, claims the new charts and Emap's move to the hit40uk fold will reverse the downward trend, which has seen the commercial chart's listening figures fall by almost 600,000.

McGeough, a former TV buyer, argues that chart shows on radio are still relevant to listeners, despite the dire performances of their TV counterparts, because of the medium's more natural affinity with music and its younger audience profile. 'If you ever look at the listening figures on a Sunday (on programmes) where the charts exist, there is a spike in listening,' he says. 'Charts are the heartland of radio.'

There is still immense cultural interest in knowing what is popular, adds McGeough, citing the headlines created when artists as diverse as Elvis, Oasis and Crazy Frog have reached the top spot.

However, Richard Jacobs, head of radio at MediaCom, believes the new charts may face too many problems. He welcomes the idea of the Fresh 40, but questions whether the older audiences targeted by the AC Chart are really interested in which records and artists are going up or down.

Jacobs maintains that it is 'very difficult' to predict whether the charts will hit the mark. 'I'm sure when the people at Emap came up with the Smash Hits chart they were giving high-fives and saying it would be a success,' he says. 'But it proved not to be.'

The rest of the industry will look on with interest to see whether high-fives are justified this time.

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