Switch on to Jesus

In its first year, the Christian station Premier has failed to be a testament to the popularity of religious radio.

"Please give thanks for the team that founded Premier," reads the special prayer card sent out to listeners of Premier Radio, the UK's first Christian radio station. "Please pray for the financial resources to enable Premier to realise its aims. And please pray for the smooth operation of our technical equipment."

Unfortunately for Premier, which celebrated its first birthday last week, those prayers have, so far, fallen on deaf celestial ears.

For a year now, the station has been feeding its special blend of melodic music, praise and worship programming to God-fearing London listeners. But it has not been easy. There have been mass redundancies, a troublesome AM frequency, a costly relaunch, the exit of its founding father, and the sort of slump in audience that might make the average bishop kick in a stained-glass window.

The station launched amid much pomp and ceremony on Saturday, 10 June 1995. It was - and still is - the nation's first dedicated commercial Christian radio medium. The programming output was to be an expensive 60 per cent speech and 40 per cent music, and its mission was not to ram Christianity down people's throats but to be "a station for the caring Nineties, standing for good, positive values". There were to be no manic, happy-clappy preachers, no pleas for cash and no saccharine sentimentality.

Premier launched with an enviably comfortable supply of start-up cash, partly generated by lavish donations from 12,000 sympathetic individuals. In addition, it boasted a blue-chip list of patrons, ranging from Kriss Akabusi to Paul Boateng MP, Cardinal Basil Hume and Sir Cliff Richard OBE.

But it wasn't enough. By November it had become painfully apparent that Premier's original business plan had been too ambitious. Its audience was not growing fast enough, the station's backers had blown too much cash on the launch, and its costs were too high. The remedy was to axe the workforce by 50 per cent, making 25 staff redundant, and to go back to the Radio Authority for a new licence, redrafted to favour the cheaper combination of more music and less speech. In the process it also lost its launch chief executive, the visionary Peter Meadows.

Official listening figures for Premier's performance signal the sort of trouble the station has been in. Its own early estimates claimed the station had around 250,000 listeners in the first few weeks, but by its first full quarter, the number had officially tumbled 16 per cent to 210,000. That dropped to 196,000 over the September to December 1995 period, and the latest data from Rajar, for January to March 1996, shows a 44 per cent slump, with the station only pulling weekly audiences of 109,000. A comparison with rival specialist London stations such as Jazz FM and Melody, which currently command 600,000 and 800,000 listeners respectively, prove that this has not been a cheerful inaugural year.

David Heron, Premier's managing director, puts on a brave face. "Every radio station evolves rapidly from launch. I am convinced the concept of a dedicated Christian radio station is not flawed, but I admit we haven't proven that yet. Until we reach the 250,000 mark we won't," he says.

It is hoped that the next set of listening figures will paint a cheerier picture. On 15 April, armed with its adjusted licence, Premier launched a new programming mix, based on the findings of a study carried out earlier this year among 70,000 listeners and potential listeners in London. The resulting look offers a far stronger Christian identity with more Christian comment, news and worship.

But the management, eagerly awaiting Rajar results to be released in July, will have to pray for a dramatic upturn to convince a rather stubborn and unimpressed public, and an indifferent advertising and media-buying community, not yet convinced of the buying power of the God pound.

David Fletcher, a Christian who is also head of radio at CIA MediaNetwork, the UK's fifth biggest radio-airtime buyer, comments: "I've never booked any of my clients' ads on Premier, and here I am, head of radio, and a Christian, and in London. It is simply too small. There is little that makes it stand out as a must-have on media schedules."

Rupert Garrett, head of radio at BBJ Media Services, adds: "I have never used it. If people like Cliff Richard and prayer, the last thing they want is a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad."

The station's head of sales, Diane Gault, refutes this, maintaining that Premier is a valid medium which offers a desirable, high-income audience. According to Rajar, as many as 71 per cent of Premier's audience fall into the ABC1 demographic grouping, and the age of the average listener is between 35 and 44.

But as Garrett wryly observes: "It may have a high ABC1 percentage, but a high percentage of bugger-all is not that compelling."

There is a broader problem. Premier has to convince its advertising public that it is even worth trying to identify a Christian consumer.

A recent NOP poll showed that 71 per cent of the UK population believe in some form of God, although only 15 per cent go to a church or temple. Within London, around 1 million people attend church, with another 1 million saying they have a faith although are not actively involved.

As Heron himself says, more people attend church than go to football matches. There are, therefore, many potentially interested listeners. "Christians are a broad group," explains Gault. "Their ability to consume products is like anyone's, therefore any advertiser is a potential advertiser."

Christians, Gault adds, are simply consumers with a conscience. They support various political parties, drive cars and drink wine - they just tend to be discriminating about the environment, about poverty and are against advertising they view as exploitative.

A spokesman for the Church of England adds: "You cannot define a Christian consumer. Christians are spread throughout the population. They come in all shapes and sizes."

Gault claims that around 25 per cent of Premier's first-year revenue has been raised through advertising, half of which could be classed as "Christian", such as Christian bookstores and record companies.

Francis Goodwin, a member of Christians in Media - a group of media folk who strive to further the cause of the Christian faith - remains convinced of the validity of a dedicated Christian radio station - with one crucial proviso: "Premier has no right to exist. No one will feel less of a Christian or guilty for not listening to it - it has got to earn its listenership," he says.

Perhaps the station's relaunch will generate the much-needed audience. Its backers certainly hope so, for they will need more than prayers to survive.

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