And, four months after launch, Classic FM is close behind, winning more than 4.2 million adult listeners weekly - twice the audience share of BBC Radio 3.
Classic and Atlantic are neck and neck in attracting adults, but the youth-oriented Irish station pulls ahead to more than 5 million when 900,000 under 15-year-olds are included. Classic has 400,000 under-15 listeners.
The findings come from the publication yesterday of data from Rajar - Radio Joint Audience Research - the first time commercial and BBC stations have agreed to a joint audience measurement system.
The figures for the fourth quarter of 1992 offer good news for the BBC, showing that in spite of the onslaught of new commercial stations, it retains a handsome lead in reach: more than 32 million listeners over the course of a week, compared with 24 million for commercial services.
BBC radio wins nearly 60 per cent of all listeners, against less than 40 per cent for commercial radio. BBC Radio 1 attracts 16 million listeners a week, followed by Radio 2 (more than 10 million) and Radio 4 (nearly 9 million).
The audience of independent local radio is smaller than expected, which industry observers put down to methodological differences from the previous Jicrar system. Brian West, of the Association of Independent Radio Contractors, has asked for the new figures to be reviewed.
But there are signs that BBC radio is not immune to the growing range of commercial radio, particularly national services such as Atlantic 252 and Classic FM. And Richard Branson's Virgin group launches a new national rock station in April, which will broadcast on Radio 3's old medium wave frequency.
Classic FM's figure is far in excess of what it promised advertisers at its launch last September - 2.8 million listeners a week. Its listeners tune in on average for 5.8 hours a week, compared with 4.7 hours for Radio 3 listeners.
The success of Atlantic 252, which broadcasts on unfashionable long wave, is all the more notable as it covers in effect only 66 per cent of the UK population. Travis Baxter, managing director, believes that 65 per cent of his listeners have come from Radio 1 and 25 per cent from independent local radio.
Nigel Reeve, Classic FM's sales director, estimated that 12 per cent of Radio 2 listeners are now listening to his station, with 10 per cent each from Radio 4, Radio 2 and Radio 1.
Radio 3, which some experts predicted would be hit by a classical rival, may have contributed 10 per cent of its listeners.
(Graphic omitted)Reuse content