RADIO: NICHE OR GHETTO - Niche radio stations can exist, but only if they play to an audience as well as to their strengths, by Eleanor Trickett

Magazines have the niche market sewn up. Look around on the tube - you’ve got someone reading Steam Railway, Poultry World and International Wristwatch. But radio? Well, dig quite deep and you’ve got Premier Christian Radio and Channel Travel Radio. Who? Exactly.

Magazines have the niche market sewn up. Look around on the tube -

you’ve got someone reading Steam Railway, Poultry World and

International Wristwatch. But radio? Well, dig quite deep and you’ve got

Premier Christian Radio and Channel Travel Radio. Who? Exactly.



Though the limited number of radio licences available prevent such

enthusiastic specialism reaching the airwaves, there must be room for

more niche stations.



Ideas pop up all the time: Classic FM beat a showtunes station to its

licence; Xfm beat an application aimed at gay people and now Tariq Ali

is planning Einstein Radio, aimed at intellectuals.



Stations aimed at jazz enthusiasts (Jazz FM), clubbers (Kiss FM) and

bedroom guitarists (Xfm) exist and thrive, so there must be money to be

made. But why have so few taken the plunge?



Bidding for such a licence can be a no-win situation. Radio Authority

licences offering decent coverage pop up notoriously infrequently. When

an operator with a ’safe’ format wins a licence, the authority is

slammed for being boring and predictable, delivering the listener yet

another AOR station.



On the other hand, when a braver decision is made and a more specialist

station wins, heads roll when it turns out that the station has burrowed

itself so far into its own niche that the listeners and advertisers have

long since departed.



Of course, it depends how ’niche’ is defined. A respectable definition

would seem to be a station that chooses to target a small, select group.

A characteristic of niche programming is that it alienates others -

fine, as long as it doesn’t alienate intended listeners as well.



This is a distinction that Viva Radio - later Liberty - didn’t

understand.



As managing director of London News Radio, Nigel Reeve, says: ’If you

target too tight a group, it could become ghetto broadcasting. Did women

want a women’s station? No - they just wanted one that appealed to their

interests. Women aren’t a community.’



Viva Radio could have been described as mainstream, as it targeted

around 50 per cent of all available listeners: women. But it went

horribly wrong.



Viva wasn’t the only station to consider a women-only bias; but it was

the only station to actually put the product to market.



Viva became Liberty, and still listeners stayed away in droves. Next,

rebranding as a kitsch, 70s-style station, failed to save the day.

Though slightly less niche than originally intended - patronising

women’s issues were out and fun was in - its performance has been

disastrous. It’s not an awful station these days, but the damage was

done in its ghetto days.



’Amateur hobbyists’ is how Capital’s group programming director, Richard

Park, describes some of those less mainstream radio operators. And Jazz

FM’s chief executive, Richard Wheatly, admits that the description fits

Jazz FM’s founding team to a tee. ’It was real enthusiasts’ jazz, chosen

by musicians,’ he says. ’There was no coherent programming with

commercial appeal.’



As listening figures disappointed quarter after quarter, a radical

rethink was needed, but the station threw the baby out with the

bathwater when it relaunched as JFM. Wheatly explains: ’It did the worst

thing it could, by going middle-of-the-road.’ Something ’niche’ was

needed. This was when Wheatly came in, changed it back to Jazz FM, and

the figures have risen ever since.



So if stations such as Jazz FM and Kiss FM can largely succeed in a

market dominated by mainstream formats, why aren’t there more stations

like them?



First, the obvious: for a radio station to be truly successful, it has

to make money. And that money is generated by a volume multiplied by

price ratio. So for a small station to make money, it has to charge a

lot of money to its advertisers.



Wheatly explains: ’If you’re not at one end of the spectrum - a huge,

mass-market station like Capital, which drives everyone else out - then

you have to be at the other. You can have a very small station, do it

brilliantly and charge a premium which says ’this is real quality’.’

This also explains why Jazz’s attempt to go mainstream didn’t work.



’You can earn premium status by developing listener loyalty,’ Wheatly

says. ’If you speak to them in the right way, they will pay pounds 13.99

for a Jazz FM-branded CD, because they know it will be great.’



Kiss FM has made a success out of its niche status, though it too had to

manage the change from a hobbyist’s operation (when it was a pirate

station) to a proper business. And not without a bumpy ride. Malcolm

Cox, Emap Radio’s marketing director, explains: ’You have to decide what

level you are going to run at. We could have aimed at 50,000 core

clubbers, but we needed ad revenue, so we aimed at 500,000.’



Capital, which last year bought Xfm, sees the potential of niche

stations.



’Xfm had no focus,’ Park explains. ’It didn’t understand how to target

the listeners. We want to increase its niche nature, appealing to a

block of people who realise that this is for them.’



Capital’s new toy is Fun Radio, a kids’ format with which it has applied

for a number of regional licences. ’TV is super-serving for the

under-16-year-old,’ says Park, ’but there is no radio station that plays

music to suit their attitude.’



When niche stations run into trouble, it is easy to assume that the

whole idea was wrong - Liberty never worked, Jazz FM struggled, as have

Kiss and Xfm. But of these, only Liberty’s proposition seemed flawed.

The other three were created to service the people who enjoy jazz, dance

and indie music - hardly ghetto areas.



The problem these stations had was in the execution of the idea. Too

many stations have broadcast their type of music consistently, without

accounting for how fans listen to it. ’The idea of a pure jazz breakfast

show was difficult, as pure jazz fans are coming home at breakfast,’

quips Wheatly.



’We’re big in the evening, with dinner jazz; listeners are more

dedicated at that time. During the day, you have to find a form of your

core product that will hold listeners for longer.’ And if that means a

touch of mainstreaming until dusk, then - so the argument goes - that

doesn’t mean you are dumbing down the product. Just alienating fewer of

the more casual listeners.