Classic FM set to woo musical youth

Britain’s most popular commercial radio station is rebranding to attract a younger audience. Caroline Parry reports on the channel’s changing face

Classic FM, traditionally an upmarket and mature brand, is re-inventing itself by overhauling programming and launching a digital TV music channel in a bid to attract younger listeners. The revamp comes in the wake of the closure of another classical digital TV station, Digital Classics, after only 12 months. It claimed it was seen off by the advent of BBC4.

As the UK’s most popular national commercial music station, Classic FM, owned by GWR is not short of listeners and, according to the latest Rajar figures, is way ahead of the two other national commercial stations TalkSport and Virgin Radio. But fewer than a third of Classic FM’s 6.7 million listeners are between 15 and 44 years old and just under half – 3.3 million – are aged 55 and over.

Radio buyers claim Classic FM faces a similar problem to that which has beset Radio 2 and The Daily Telegraph. Failing to recruit new, younger customers, their following was getting increasingly elderly.

One radio buyer also points out that Classic FM, which has traditionally appealed to upmarket car brands and financial services advertisers, has become “too expensive”. The station delivers large numbers of listeners on a national basis, but he says it does not deliver the “necessary impact” when it comes to age profile, which is too skewed towards those aged 55 and over, off-putting some planners and advertisers.

Classic FM has already signed up a raft of younger presenters and has sponsored a stage at gay London festival Mardi Gras in an effort to broaden its range of listeners. It is also launching Classic FM TV into a crowded market that includes MTV and EMAP and one in which BSkyB is also hoping to make inroads when it launches three music channels next year.

But it remains to be seen whether Classic FM TV, which will only carry one minute of advertising per hour, will be able to persuade that same 16to 34-year-old market so attractive to advertisers to sample the radio station.

Classic FM will need to be careful that it does not alienate its core audience. Roger Lewis, managing director and director of programming at Classic FM, acknowledges this fact: “We don’t want to alienate listeners so we are taking a gently, gently approach.”

So far, he has revamped Classic FM’s weekend schedule to include shows fronted by Mark Goodier, the former presenter of BBC Radio 1’s Top 40 show; actor, novelist and all-round wit Stephen Fry; and 22-year-old unknown musician Lisa Duncan.

OMD UK head of radio Jonathan Gillespie approves of the strategy, saying that the weekend is the time when people will traditionally flick the dial to try out something new.

Howard Bareham, head of radio at MindShare UK, believes that steps taken by Classic FM will help to change the tone of the station: “It will be a slow-burn process, but perhaps people will start making appointments to listen. None of this will happen overnight.”

He points out that Classic has to raise awareness of this change in strategy to get more listeners and advertisers on board. It also has to ensure that the content of the station and the new TV channel match the brand perception it is working to create.

The strategy appears to be paying off. The latest quarterly Rajar figures to the end of September show Classic has increased the number of listeners in the 15 to 44 age range by 100,000 to 2 million. But one media analyst maintains that unlike Radio 2, which is attracting younger listeners in their droves, Classic FM remains a niche brand. Either people like classical music or they do not, he argues.

Even so, Classic FM is one of the few stations that has reported year-on-year growth in listening figures. According to Rajar, Classic had a 4.2 per cent listening share for the quarter ending September 1999, equivalent to just under 6 million weekly listeners. That has risen to 6.8 million weekly listeners and a 4.5 per cent share for the same quarter in 2002.

It is doing well compared with other national commercial stations such as Virgin Radio, whose weekly audience figure fell from 3.1 million for the quarter ending September 1999 to 2.4 million for the same quarter this year. But Classic trails well behind the UK’s most popular station, Radio Two, which has a reach of 12.4 million weekly listeners.

Classic’s revenue has not been as resilient, falling 16.2 per cent for the year ending March 31, 2002, but recovering for the six months to September 30 with a six per cent rise. Owner GWR, which also has a local radio network, digital radio interests and is a majority shareholder in digital radio umbrella Digital One, reported a &£12m pre-tax loss and flat revenues of &£62.3m for the six months to September 30. GWR attributes these figures to difficult trading in the advertising market, and chairman Ralph Bernard said in November that there would be “no significant upturn in advertising in the foreseeable future”.

GWR’s figures are unlikely to put off future suitors when the Communications Bill, which relaxes rules on foreign ownership, comes into force some time next year. As a national station, Classic FM makes an attractive proposition as it would immediately give scale to a newcomer to the UK radio sector. But Lorna Tilbian at Numis Securities expects the Daily Mail & General Trust, which already owns 29.9 per cent of GWR, to try to acquire the company outright.

Classical music is evolving and thanks to compilations of classical chill-out music and its use in high profile advertising campaigns, it is more fashionable than ever. But whether this trend and the launch of a digital TV channel devoted to classical music will help attract younger listeners to Classic FM remains to be seen.

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