Grow or stay cool: the dilemma for Choice

Fans of specialist music including hip hop, indie and rock have never had it so good, with commercial radio operators boosting investments in such stations over recent years desparate to tap into a more diverse audiences.

The spotlight has been on guitar-based music stations, such as GCap’s Xfm and EMAP’s Kerrang!, thanks to the resurgence of rock music. However, the growing popularity of urban music means that stations such as Choice and Kiss will find themselves under increasing pressure from mainstream pop stations.

Kiss is already planning a revamp this spring to woo back listeners. A pirate dance specialist before EMAP bought it in 1992, Kiss has suffered from the waning interest in dance music. It has been forced to broaden its range of music which includes urban and R’n’B.

This has prompted a mixed response from listeners. In the Rajar figures for the fourth quarter of 2005, released last week, Kiss reported 1.4 million weekly listeners in London, up five per cent on the previous quarter. However, it is significantly below the station’s 1.7 million peak in the third quarter of 2002.

Kiss marketing director Nick Button says the station’s primary objective is to become “the commercial station for young London”. He adds: “We recognise we have to continually evolve. We need to recommunicate with our listeners and remind them what we stand for.”

Button will not be drawn on specifics, only that Kiss will aim to fit in with the lifestyle of young Londoners, supported by added services such as podcasts and new advertising.

Choice FM, on the other hand, is tightly focused on urban and R’n’B music, and may have to learn lessons from Kiss if it is to continue growing. Head of radio at Mindshare Howard Bareham says: “Choice is small and in touch with its audience. Kiss started out like that, but as it has grown it has had to widen its focus.”

Choice is looking to grow both nationally and in the capital. In last week’s Rajar announcement, it reported 612,000 weekly listeners nationally. It is only the second national figure it has reported, and up from 605,000 in its first quarter. However, its London audience has fallen to 510,000 for this quarter, compared with 602,000 for the second quarter of 2005.

Launched in 1990 and bought by GCap in 2004, Choice does not have an above-the-line spend, preferring a mix of events, merchandise, on-air promotions and competitions.

Choice marketing manager Amba Callender admits that despite its success in London, it needs to increase listeners’ awareness if it is going to grow nationally. She says: “We are in a unique position – as the popularity of urban music grows, so will we.

“We’ll continue to break new artists but as urban becomes more popular other stations will play it.”

The challenge facing Choice is how it can retain its listeners and gain new ones, as well as keeping advertisers happy while retaining its edge. As one radio industry insider points out, Choice is now part of GCap and will need to keep shareholders happy as well as listeners.

He says: “The dilemma is how to grow and stay cool. Ask GCap shareholders if they would rather Choice stayed cool but only made &£100,000 a year, or became uncool and made &£10m, and I think they would go for the latter.”

Caroline Parry

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