Business Analysis: Magic ingredient adds spice to radio wars

Emap's bland station closes the generation gap - and Capital's lead in London market
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Could the closing of the "generation gap" explain the astonishing success of Emap's Magic radio station in London? Do we really now listen to the same music as our parents? The answer seems to be yes.

Magic was the runaway winner among the commercial players in the Rajar audience figures released yesterday for the last quarter of 2004.

Magic 105.4, a London FM station, plays "easy listening" tracks (think Ronan Keating, Abba or Aretha Franklin) that would not offend anyone who's not too picky about their music. It has very little chatter and no "star DJs" providing inane banter. Crucially, this offering seems to appeal across the age range and its listeners are almost split evenly between male and female listeners.

Mark Story, Emap's head of programming, says: "This is the radio station that acknowledges the generation gap is over."

Magic had its best-ever showing in the London market that advertisers love. Indeed, it was London that had most of the surprises in the Rajar figures. Shooting from a third-quarter market share of 4.8 per cent to 6.1 per cent, Magic came within 0.1 per cent of matching Capital Radio's 95.8FM, the market leader among commercial stations since its launch in the 1970s.

Mr Story says the difference in tastes between the liberated baby-boom generation and their children is narrower than in previous generations. That means there are people of a huge range of ages happy to hear the same music, a social phenomenon that Magic has tapped into. Almost one-third of the station's listeners are under 34, while more than a quarter are over 55. Rebellion through music seems pointless for younger people today, so they listen to the same stuff as their parents.

"The children have realised their parents had sex, smoked dope and they have founds records in their dad's collection that they like. Those children can't shock parents who are growing old disgracefully," says Mr Story.

While stations like Virgin, which plays "classic rock", and 95.8, which plays "pop music", seek to a appeal to a particular segment of the population, what they have missed, according to Mr Story, is the fact that British society no longer breaks down in this neat way.

Critics of Magic charge that this leads to an insipid middle ground - the station is unkindly dubbed "Tragic" by some - but what does this matter if it works?

We must see if Magic can sustain or grow its market over the next few quarters. Also in Emap's favour is the fact that it has another big station in London Kiss 100 FM, which plays dance music and recorded a 3.9 per cent market share.

If the Magic team were dancing in their studios yesterday, the blues must have been playing at Chrysalis, which was forced to put out a profits warning after its listening figures deteriorated rapidly. Total share, nationally, fell from 9.7 per cent to 9.0 per cent, with weekly reach and listening hours down at all its stations apart from its Galaxy brand and the LBC talk station in London.

In 2003, Heart in London briefly overtook 95.8, recording a 7.2 per cent market share. It has been retrenching ever since and yesterday it was pushed firmly into third place, with 5.3 per cent of listeners.

Heart is focused more narrowly than Magic, honing in on thirtysomething women, with an edgier mix of current and classic tracks.

Richard Huntingford, the chief executive of Chrysalis, admits the Rajar results were "disappointing" and that this may have been due to Heart's determination to outgun 95.8. Analysts say Heart has been chasing 95.8's younger listeners.

Mr Huntingford says: "95.8 and Heart have been so busy fighting each other, perhaps we have allowed Magic to creep up on the inside rails."

The importance of the Rajar figures was well illustrated by Chrysalis. All stations charge advertisers for the number of listeners they can offer. Analysts had been looking for 3 per cent revenue growth this year. Now, Chrysalis said, they must expect a 3 per cent fall. City profit forecasts for 2005 were immediately cut some 25 per cent and the company's shares crashed 7 per cent.

Capital had a good third quarter for 95.8 destroyed by the very poor 6.2 per cent share recorded yesterday - the station was comfortably in double figures just a few years ago. And it now knows that it must fight Heart and Magic for the top slot.

However, Capital was relieved that Johnny Vaughan - the presenter of its breakfast show since April and provider of a huge chunk of the station's ad revenues - showed that he can grow audiences for the first time. The show remains comfortably ahead of rivals in London at breakfast time - the most lucrative time of the day. SMG's Virgin station is still bringing up the rear in London.

Capital Radio group held its national share steady. Its merger partner, GWR, saw its national showing slip but its flagship Classic FM - which, like Magic, has broad appeal - recorded a bounce in its national share, from 4.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent.

With the major radio companies going through a frenetic phase of consolidation, and with everything to play for in the London market, investors must stay tuned for further developments.