Is Tarrant toast in breakfast battle?

Capital FM is struggling in the breakfast ratings, seen as a key barometer of a radio station’s health. Caroline Parry taps the glass and sees ‘changeable’

The radio industry, more than most, knows the importance of a good breakfast. The hours when the nation is getting ready for work or school are the peak listening time, and as such the breakfast show is considered the cornerstone of a station’s output, embodying its values and beliefs. If that show is not right then the whole station will suffer as a result.

During Chris Evans’ and Zoë Ball’s stints on Radio 1 (and Evans’ controversial tenure at Virgin), the battle to be the number one breakfast show was played out across the pages of the tabloids. Since then, as presenters have come and gone, breakfast has slipped from the headlines, but the battle between rivals is as bitter as ever.

In recent months, media pundits have been preoccupied with Capital Radio’s breakfast show, presented by Chris Tarrant. The show lost almost 500,000 listeners in 2002, according to Rajar. Tarrant’s future on the show, which he has presented for 15 years, will be decided this November when his contract comes to an end. BBC Radio 2 star Jonathan Ross is the latest presenter to join a growing list of possible replacements for Tarrant being discussed within the industry.

A restructure at the station, which resulted in the departure of FM Network managing director Andria Vidler early last week (MW last week), added to speculation about the breakfast show. But, to the surprise of many, the Rajar figures for the quarter to June 22 – published last Thursday – revealed that the show’s

audience had in fact grown by 77,000 on the previous quarter (which itself saw a rise of 86,000), to 1.57 million. The increase is all the more interesting as, for more than half of the latest quarter, Neil Fox was standing in for Tarrant, who was on holiday.

Keith Pringle, former group programme director and now, since the restructure, managing director of 95.8 Capital FM, describes the figures as “encouraging”. He attributes the audience growth to the introduction of a new breakfast show format.

“When we revitalised the show, we knew that Chris would be on holiday for significant periods of time. We have tried to create a format that Neil Fox can just slot into,” he explains. “New presenters often bring new features or a different tone to a show, but we have now created a consistent format.”

Pringle adds that his role, which was created as part of the restructure, is to ensure consistency throughout the station’s programming and marketing strategy. Group operations director Paul Davies will also be taking a greater operational role at the London station in a bid to win listeners back to the entire schedule, not just to breakfast.

There is still work to do to over come the long-term decline in the breakfast show’s listenership. As recently as last June, Tarrant had an audience of 1.7 million, and industry insiders believe that his departure is inevitable.

The BBC faces similar problems over Radio 1’s breakfast show, presented by Sara Cox. The show lost 500,000 listeners during the last quarter, leaving it with an audience of 5.4 million. The health of a breakfast show is seen by the industry as indicative of the general state of the station, and Radio 1’s audience as a whole has slumped to its lowest-ever level: 9.8 million, down from 10.5 million at the same time last year.

Radio 1’s and Capital FM’s lost breakfast-time listeners have defected to rivals including Chrysalis Radio’s Heart 106.2, EMAP’s Kiss 100 and Virgin Radio, although all three reported period-on-period losses in listenership for the latest quarter. Overall, national breakfast listenership is static, at about 14 million.

Heart 106.2’s breakfast show, now presented by Jono Coleman and Harriet Scott following the defection of Emma Forbes to Capital, had 25 per cent more listeners – 858,000 – in the latest quarter compared with the same period last year to listeners. But compared with the previous quarter, the show’s audience fell by three per cent, from 884,000. Kiss’s breakfast show, presented by Bam Bam, saw its audience fall by 84,000, to 761,000, in the same period, despite having risen by 50,000 over the previous nine months. The new Virgin breakfast show saw a ten per cent rise in listeners in the first quarter of 2003, but its audience declined in the latest quarter to 543,000 -Âdown on last year’s 628,000

Because breakfast is the barometer for a station’s general state of health, the slot’s performance is crucial when it comes to driving advertising revenues. There is also a perception that, if listeners tune in for breakfast, they will stay with the station for the rest of the day if they have time to listen for longer. A successful breakfast show can also attract key sponsors, such as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which signed up with Capital in January.

Industry observers agree that a consistent format is a crucial factor in the success of any breakfast show when allied to a strong presenter and the right music policy.

But Mark Story, managing director of EMAP’s dance platforms and former producer of the Capital breakfast show, says that pressure to get the right formula has led to content becoming bland and presenters having to stifle their own personalities.

Classic FM managing director Roger Lewis, on the other hand, believes that the mainstream stations, as opposed to innovative niche digital stations, will always be a major destination for listeners keen to get the standard fare of news, weather and time-checks at breakfast time.

If this view is correct, the future looks hopeful for Capital, which badly needs to build on the last quarter’s growth in audience for its breakfast show – with or without Tarrant.

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