The breakfast show is most stations' big money maker, but is the lack of balanced schedules undermining radio, Glen Mutel asks.

The breakfast show is the most important slot on a radio station's schedule. Everyone knows that. Especially since the Chris's, Evans and Tarrant, went out of their way to prove the fact.

Virgin Radio's early dependence on Evans was startling, as was the void created by his trademark noisy departure. Over the past one-and-a-half years, the station has used four presenters and three formats trying to replace him.

Capital Radio Group eventually persuaded Tarrant to see out the last year of his contract in the breakfast chair at its flagship station. However, his public procrastinations had an unsettling effect, both on listeners and advertisers.

So why does the behaviour of presenters such as Tarrant and Evans have so strong a bearing on the fortunes of radio stations? Why is it so important to get the morning show right?

Traditional wisdom states that if you can get a listener's attention at breakfast, they'll be yours for the rest of the day. This is why stations strive to fill the morning slot with their hottest talent. This is why advertisers are charged a premium for this slot. And this is why the stock market gets twitchy when the morning show doesn't work out.

But the Tarrant affair also highlighted how dangerous it can be to rely too heavily on the services of one employee. If Tarrant had left 95.8 Capital FM, who would have replaced him? How badly would audience share and, therefore, revenues have suffered in the process?

Emap's broadcast sales director, Tim Bleakly, believes every station should have a succession plan. "Having just one star who will deliver at breakfast and not developing a transition is commercial suicide, particularly if your sales strategy and policy has been based on that talent and what they deliver," he says.

But surely it's much easier for a station to find a successor if it has a schedule full of talented DJs and entertaining shows? Some stations will happily load their midday, afternoon and evening schedules with niche programming or endless music sweeps. They then wonder why they've no-one equipped to step up and deal with the busy aesthetics and high production values of the morning show.

"The balance in the afternoons has got to move away from 'ten songs in a row' radio," Mark Story, the Kiss and Magic managing director, says. "We have got to make our stations entertaining all the time."

Story, who is also the Emap managing director for radio, cut his teeth on breakfast shows, having worked with Tarrant on his first show for Capital in 1987. "The entertaining breakfast and continual music model just isn't good enough any more," he says.

Chris Bennett, the sales director of the Capital Radio Group, shares the belief that more effort should be put into schedules as a whole. He believes radio advertising will only feature more heavily in the marketing mix if stations improve their offering across the board.

"Advertisers are looking to become more targeted," he says. "But in the same way they still want to advertise on TV during James Bond films and Coronation Street, they still want to advertise on radio during the breakfast show. It's our peak product. That said, radio is no longer a 2 per cent medium. It's worth 6 per cent of display and we want to get that up to about 8 or 10 per cent, and you're not going to do that with just a strong breakfast show. Many advertisers will say, 'great breakfast show, but it's no good to me because you've got nothing else to offer'."

Another possible threat to the dominance of the breakfast show is digital radio. The ease of station surfing using a digital set may see an end to the days when listeners stay locked to one station from morning to night.

The head of radio at MediaVest, Mark Helm, is not convinced. "Digital radio may aid promiscuity in terms of radio listening, but that is so far off at the moment," he says. "I don't think that it's anything we currently need to concern ourselves with. Besides which, if you look at pre-sets in cars, people have eight or ten, but only tend to use three or four of them. Listeners tend to be quite loyal to a station, considering the portfolio that's available to them."

Helm still sees the breakfast show as must-have airtime for advertisers.

"I looked into what percentage of audience I would lose on a station if I only bought the breakfast," he says. "The answer was only 20 per cent." However, he does acknowledge that morning shows may not be the ideal platform for every product. For example, video rental companies would be much better served advertising on a drive-time show.

Breakfast shows are also not ideal for every type of marketing strategy.

Markettiers4dc specialises in brokering radio sponsorships and promotions, and its marketing manager, Simon Saunders, feels breakfast shows don't always serve his needs as well as they could. "There tends to be a hell of a lot going on during breakfast shows," he says. "Therefore, stations don't tend to spend a lot of time on competitions during them. Outside of the breakfast slot, presenters don't get to see much of the promotional spend. However, they do tend to give you better treatment for promotions and competitions than their breakfast show colleagues."

The importance of the breakfast show isn't as clear cut as it seems.

Not every station relies on it for the lion's share of its revenue. For smaller stations, such as Jazz FM or talkSPORT in its early days, it's often prudent to compete during other time slots, where big rivals are weaker.

Nevertheless, the morning show is still the big money maker and the best means with which to pull in a loyal following. While this remains the case, radio groups can be forgiven for making breakfast their priority.

However, if they do so at the expense of their entire schedule, they do so at their own risk.