Twelve days ago in The Play Room, a fashionable Soho cabaret club with charcoal-coloured walls and zebra-print furniture, the big shots of the commercial radio industry gathered beneath the chandeliers for a power summit.
Virgin, Magic, Heart, Kiss, Galaxy, Capital, Classic and talkSPORT were all in the house. Howard Pearce of Smooth FM was on the decks, Toby Anstis of Heart FM was master of ceremonies and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, turned up to give some words of support to the 300 guests.
The event, called New Year, New Radio, had been convened by the RadioCentre, a body newly formed to fight the corner of the combined commercial sector. Some might have called it a crisis meeting but certainly not RadioCentre's chief executive, Andrew Harrison, who told the audience: "The doom-mongers are out there but radio survives, or rather, it thrives."
Then last Thursday, just eight days later, came the publication of the official annual listening figures for 2006, the Rajars. The stats revealed that the BBC had once again trounced its opposition, taking a whopping 54.4 per cent of listening share, thanks to the successes of such broadcasting giants as Steve Wright, (audience: 6.5 million) and Terry Wogan (audience: a whisker off 8 million).
After a brief revival last summer, commercial radio is once again under the cosh, a huge 11.2 percentage points adrift of its licence fee-funded rival. Commercial radio, unlike the BBC, is battling to convince media agencies not to take their advertising money to the internet. So does it have a viable future?
In a series of interviews with "The Independent Media Weekly" last week, the senior figures in the sector argued that not only would commercial radio survive, but it would, within a few short years, be beating the BBC.
For starters, they say, it is a simple matter of demographics. "In the 50-90 age group the BBC have more people. The contribution to the BBC of people over 50 in terms of the amount of time they listen - because they have got time to listen - is far greater," says Mark Story, the group MD of programming at Emap Radio (which has Magic and Kiss in its stable). "But commercial radio has to be commercial and has to appeal to the 15-44 age group. In that area, whichever way you slice and dice it, commercial radio is dominant."
What is more, says Phil Riley, the chief executive of Chrysalis Radio (Heart, Galaxy, LBC), the idea that today's teenagers, obsessed with computer gaming and social networking websites, are turning away from traditional media, is clearly not true of radio. "We have still got a very good lead [over the BBC] in the 15-24 age group. That's particularly encouraging because one of the things we are battling against in perception terms is the idea that radio has lost its relevance because of the burgeoning importance of online. These Rajars show that 90 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds are still listening to the radio every week, and a huge proportion are listening to commercial radio and for a huge amount of time, compared to the time they are spending online. It's incumbent on us to emphasise to advertisers and clients that video didn't kill the radio star and neither will online."
Part of the problem with perception of commercial radio, say its senior figures, is that it only came into legal existence in 1973, and those now in late middle-age have never really engaged with it. So they start the day with Wogan or the Today programme and never stray beyond the formidable range of audio offerings overseen by BBC head of radio, Jenny Abramsky. But that is not so true of younger Britons.
"We've actually got 60 per cent share of all listening amongst listeners under the age of 45," says Steve Orchard, the group operations director of GCap Media (Capital, Classic, Xfm, Choice). There's a whole generation of listeners for whom commercial radio is much more relevant than the BBC."
This underlying trend, says Orchard, is why Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas decided to "desert the over-65s and bring in fundamentally Radio 1 deejays", and why Radio 1 head Andy Parfitt concentrates on playing more mainstream "pop music". Orchard says: "It's all about Radio 1 and Radio 2 moving over to the mainstream commercial heartland and moving out of their public remit."
The drubbing the BBC has given the commercial sector over the past decade has left deep bruising and resentment which, in spite of the possible signs of demographic-led changes, has clearly not gone away.
When Mark Thompson fought his long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with the Treasury for an above-inflation hike in the BBC licence fee, the commercial radio bosses allied themselves to Gordon Brown and hampered the BBC director general at every possible opportunity.
"There's only one justification for using public money to fund broadcasters and that is to fill holes in the market that cannot be catered for by commercial broadcasters," says Orchard. "When you look at the niche markets, the BBC is not covering jazz or popular classics or children's radio or any local radio that has any appeal at all to people under 50. They are spending hundreds of millions of pounds in creating two gigantic mainstream pop stations in Radio 1 and Radio 2."
He says BBC radio is "obsessed with driving market share" and says that historical innovations such as digital technology and the splitting of AM/FM frequencies have all been introduced by the commercial sector.
"What I can see in the BBC is hugely inflated presenter fees. We are not competing for that talent, they've priced us out of the market. It's purely about the suits at the BBC losing their sense of perspective completely. We have given up on that; we grow our own talent in the commercial sector."
Richard Park, programme director of Magic 105.4 in London, and one of the figures most responsible for making Capital a major player in the Eighties and Nineties, is concerned by what he sees as another BBC abuse of its position. "I think the BBC's ability to advertise its terrestrial radio broadcasts on its terrestrial television - what I would call soulless adverts - takes cross-promotion too far. If they should be cross-promoting anything it should be the new BBC digital services to move us forward into a digital era."
He says the BBC is deliberately not doing this because it knows that in the digital era "the numbers will completely change". Park argues that commercial radio offerings - unlike the more generalist BBC stations - have been honed to appeal to very specific markets, a policy that translates well to the digital environment, where consumers expect to get what they want, when they want it.
Andrew Harrison of RadioCentre, speaking last week, says that the analogue playing field has been uneven, with four BBC national FM stations and only Classic from the commercial world. That will change with digital switch-over when commercial radio will be given two-thirds of the spectrum. "Suddenly from a 4:1 disadvantage we will have a 2:1 advantage. The opportunity is can we develop a strong national offering to take on the BBC while retaining all our local strengths," he says.
Virgin Radio, in fact, has already taken advantage of the changing landscape to become the most listened-to radio station in the world online.
One of Britain's most carefully researched British commercial radio propositions is Heart, which has established itself as the leading commercial station in London. Barnaby Dawe, the network's managing director, sees Heart as a "brand" rather than just a radio station. He likes to refer to listeners as "consumers" and says "we have a relationship that goes beyond just the programming and the presenters and the music - this is borne out by the focus groups that we carry out all the time."
Dawe wants to "roll this brand out beyond radio" using the Heart website to create "communities of interest" among the 3.1 million Heart "consumers" and provide them with "products and services". He has already secured a franchise within Selfridge's stores to sell Heart hula hoops, capitalising on a fitness trend that has been promoted by the radio station, which is skewed to thirtysomething women and aims to give a feelgood factor in a pressured world. "For mums with kids we might do a partnership with Mothercare," he says.
These are areas where the BBC cannot go. Scott Taunton, the managing director of UTV Radio, which owns talkSPORT, the only one of the three national commercial analogue stations to increase its audience year-on-year, says that there are also many interesting on-air places where the public broadcaster would not dare to venture. Such as giving a presenting job to George Galloway.
"For us to have George Galloway having a show three days a week and taking a pro-Arab view, you couldn't possibly have that on the BBC and yet it makes fascinating radio," he says. "What makes great commercial talk radio are those extremes where you evoke an emotion, whether of support or almost hatred, which provides a compelling reason to listen. There's a lot of stuff that the BBC can't really do because it needs to be seen as a complete picture of impartiality all the time."
The station also gives a platform for Jon Gaunt, the columnist on The Sun who previously broadcast for BBC London and BBC Coventry & Warwickshire. Taunton suggests that Gaunt "wasn't necessarily given the freedom to be as right-wing as he is on talkSPORT."
Another offering that would never appear on the BBC, he claims, is Keith Arthur's 6am-8am weekend show Fisherman's Blues. "There are 200,000 people who listen to this fishing show, some of them are out fishing and they call in," says Taunton, slightly incredulous.
So what other commercial radio gems might we be missing out on?
Darren Henley, the managing director of Classic FM, chooses to highlight Tony Robinson's Friendly Guide to Music, in which the ubiquitous presenter goes on a "witty, insightful and educational" journey, which you suspect might be considered not quite the thing for Radio 3. Henley also employs ITN newsreader Katie Derham, who presents The LSO Sunday Concerts for two hours a week, countering the notion that commercial radio has no interest in live classical music. In the mornings at 8.10am and at 3.45pm, Classic FM puts on a School Run show for children that want something different from the pop charts.
Virgin Radio programme director, Paul Jackson, identifies former Madness singer Suggs's Afternoon Tea show as one of his favourites in the schedule. Phil Riley says that the London media bias means that Wes Butters's presenting efforts on Galaxy in Manchester are not always recognised and he points out that superstar DJ Roger Sanchez supplies a regular show broadcast on Galaxy stations, which are also in Birmingham, Yorkshire and the North-east.
Heart's Dawe naturally points to breakfast team Jamie Theakston and Harriet Scott, who are piling on listeners in the capital, but also recommends Emma B's late afternoon show ("she sums up our listeners, she's a young mum but she likes to go out").
Capital 95.8's Orchard knows he has a tough job restoring the tattered image of his once all-conquering station, a task that he says will require a long-term approach, based on re-establishing its reputation for playing contemporary hits. "The big job we have to do is shift people's perceptions of the Capital brand," he says, claiming that Johnny Vaughan is still "the most talented breakfast presenter in the market" and celebrating the fact that Radio 1's Chris Moyles is struggling to build his audience in London.
Mark Story admits that commercial radio as a whole has made major mistakes in the past. "There was a regrettable period in the Eighties where it went into '10 songs in a row' radio. Having had some wonderful presenters prior to that we had a whole generation that didn't get to do more than 'time and temperature' radio. Which is crap."
Now he cites great shows by Mike Toolan and Justin Morehouse on Key 103 in Manchester, Gina McKie on Clyde 1 in Glasgow, John Bishop on Radio City in Liverpool and Ugly Phil's breakfast programme on Kerrang! in Birmingham.
Park's finest wares includeMellow Magic (8pm-midnight, seven nights a week), presented by Angie Greaves and Danny Pietroni, which is the leading night-time show of any kind in London. Shows such as this, he is convinced, will help restore commercial radio to pre-eminence over the BBC. Asked to put a date on that, the former headmaster of the BBC's own reality television show Fame Academy has a ready reply: "Round about Olympic Games time".
COMMERCIAL RADIO'S BIGGEST STARS
Words by Sophie Morris
Laverne's London breakfast show pulls in far fewer listeners - 270,000 - than her competitors at Heart, Virgin and Capital, but her TV work ensures she enjoys a prominent profile. She is a regular presenter on BBC2's The Culture Show and presents many live music events for the BBC. The 28-year-old first tasted fame as the front woman of rock band Kenickie.
Wise-cracking Vaughan, 40, discovered he'd lost the London breakfast crown to Jamie Theakston and Harriet Scott days after signing a three-year contract with Capital. Yet he put on 31,000 listeners in the last quarter of 2006, taking him up to 813,000, and has helped to stabilise Capital's London market share. The station is in third place behind Heart and Magic.
Jamie Theakston and Harriet Scott
With 948,000 listeners, Theakston and Scott are the capital's most popular breakfast presenters. Theakston, 36, is into his second year as host, and previously presented The O-Zone, Live and Kicking and The Priory on television. Scott, 33, co-hosted Heart's breakfast show with Jono Coleman from 2003 (and won a Sony award). She joined after four years at Virgin.
ITV news presenter and presenter of the channel's Lunchtime News and London Tonight with Alastair Stewart. After four years at the BBC, she joined ITN in 1998 and became the UK's youngest-ever news presenter at 27. She grew up in a family of classical musicians and sees her Sunday show on Classic FM as "my little window of happy calmness in my professional life".
From Baldrick to Time Team to Classic FM: Robinson turned his accessible touch to classical music last autumn and presents The Friendly Guide to Music every Sunday afternoon. The 60-year-old broadcasting veteran aims to demystify classical music. His down-to-earth approach to Brahms and Bach makes easy listening and he has brought fans with him to the station.
O'Connell, 33, has been in Virgin's breakfast seat for a year. He inherited a robust show from Pete Mitchell and Geoff Lloyd and has maintained breakfast figures at 1.2 million. He cut his teeth at Xfm and BBC Five Live. He was such a fixture at Xfm that the breakfast audience slumped by 20 per cent when he left. He is loved for his repartee, celebrity fans and huge giveaways.
The controversial MP for Bethnal Green and Bow developed a taste for the spotlight after his appearance in last year's Celebrity Big Brother and launched his "mother of all talk shows" on the nation last March. The 52-year-old begins every broadcast by playing the theme from the Top Cat cartoon show and pulls in more listeners than even TalkSport's Football First.
The 36-year-old Emma B got her first taste of radio aged seven in a BBC Radio Oxford drama. After work at Radio Caroline and on magazines, she joined Radio 1 in 1998 presenting various slots, including the much-feted Sunday Surgery with Dr Mark Hamilton, which won four Sony gongs. She joined Heart in August 2005 and now presents its London drivetime show.