The new wave of London listeners

With a greater selection of radio stations on air, will London audiences grow or fragment?

Publication of the latest Rajar radio audience figures last Friday throws into relief a core concern for broadcasters and advertisers alike: can greater listener choice increase the amount of all radio listening or merely fragment it further?

According to BBC radio head of marketing and publicity Sue Farr, at the end of the second Rajar quarter, some Londoners can now listen to as many as 28 stations. “Yet despite all this activity, there is no underlying growth in total listening,” she says.

Analysis of the London market shows that Capital Radio remains market leader with a 19.2 per cent share of listening followed by Radio 4 with 12.4 per cent, Radio 2 with 9.6 per cent and Radio 1 with 6.1 per cent. The top three commercial stations after Capital are Melody (5.1 per cent), Virgin (AM and FM combined account for 4.2 per cent) and Kiss 100 (3.5 per cent).

“There is only a small amount of audience growth evident this quarter and no growth year on year,” Farr adds. “In such a competitive market it is inevitable that only the most powerful, distinctive brands will survive.”

With BBC radio stations dominating three of the top four slots, the implication of her words is clear. However, commercial radio appears undeterred by her suggested threat. For a start, Virgin’s performance in London is widely hailed a success – it now has 1.2 million London listeners boosting the total, national audience to 4.2 million.

While Capital remains well ahead, Virgin is having an impact, Virgin Radio managing director John Pearson insists. “Capital’s listening hours are down,” he claims. “We have undoubtedly benefited as a lot of Capital listeners are placing Virgin as their second choice.”

Commercial speech radio has also made gains. After a rocky start, Talk Radio UK increased its audience nationally by more than half a million listeners – it now reaches more than 2 million each week, latest Rajar figures show. In London, TRUK – and Classic FM – each achieved a 2.5 per cent listening share, ahead of London News 97.3 FM (1.3 per cent) and GLR (one per cent).

Radio Advertising Bureau head of strategic planning Justin Sampson insists growth enjoyed by commercial radio as a whole – it has finally overtaken BBC radio to achieve just over 50 per cent of all radio listening – is set to continue. In London alone, commercial radio listening rose from 57.5 per cent to 60 per cent of all radio listening in the past two quarters, while all radio listening rose by two per cent – “growth apparently driven by commercial stations”, adds Sampson.

To prove its point, the RAB compared London commercial radio’s share of listening in 1993 with the same stations’ share in 1995 – excluding any new service which has since come on air. Share rose from 38.9 per cent to 43.7 per cent over this time. “There seems to be no cannibalisation of existing audiences,” Sampson concludes.

It will take at least another three months, if not six, before the impact of women’s station Viva, Christian station Premier and soft rock service Heart, which launches next month, confirms this is a continuing trend.v

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