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SMG joins attack on Rajar radio figures

SMG's Virgin Radio refused to accept official listening figures published yesterday which showed a collapse in audience.

But the results for the fourth quarter of last year from Rajar, an industry body, brought good news for Capital Radio, which saw its flagship 95.8 FM regain top spot in the London market, from Chrysalis' Heart station. Elsewhere, Emap's Kiss station in London lost ground, while the figures for GWR were broadly flat.

Virgin Radio's market share in London, where it has an FM licence, collapsed to 1.8 per cent from 2.6 per cent previously, breaking an improving trend seen through the last few quarters. Listening hours dropped 32 per cent from the third quarter, while the number of listeners fell 16 per cent over the period.

The news comes at a difficult time for Virgin's owner, SMG, which is seen as a break-up target. SMG, led by chief executive Andrew Flanagan, has just had to sell off its 28 per cent stake in its rival Scottish Radio Holdings to relieve debt pressure. Analysts said the Rajar figures would dent the value of Virgin Radio.

Callum Spreng, SMG's corporate affairs director, said: "I don't think this [fourth-quarter result] reflects the true performance [of Virgin]. It is contrary to our own independent research and to our ad-hoc feedback."

He pointed out that the line-up of presenters or the music had not changed between the third and fourth quarters of last year. He said that Rajar's sample under-represented the 15-34 age group that was a large part of Virgin Radio's target market.

Capital Radio shares closed up 4 per cent to 548p after the Rajar results showed its market share in London for its 95.8 FM station had recovered to 7.8 per cent, from 7.0 per cent last quarter and, crucially, ahead of Heart once more, which eased back slightly. Heart had dramatically overtaken Capital in the third quarter.

David Mansfield, the Capital chief executive, said: "They [Heart] have had their moment in the sunshine... this is a good way to say goodbye to Chris Tarrant and welcome Johnny Vaughan."

The all-important breakfast show on Capital 95.8 will see star host Chris Tarrant replaced by Mr Vaughan later this year. Richard Menzies-Gow, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, pointed out that 95.8 FM had a long way to go. "It is still well down on its 8.9 per cent share two quarters ago or its 10.3 per cent only six quarters ago," he said.