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
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
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
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
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
’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,’
’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.