The latest Rajar figures cement the belief that the golden age of Capital Radio is well and truly over after the station recorded its lowest-ever audience share. With agencies arguing that its 'no more than two ads' in a row strategy is 'fundamentally flawed', Capital's image risks becoming as tarnished as the love life of its former breakfast DJ, Chris Tarrant.
Five years ago, Capital had 2.76m listeners in London, representing a 10.2% market share. However, Rajar reports that the station's audience slumped to 1.52m - 4.1% of the market - in the second quarter of the year, putting it in fourth place behind Magic 105.4, Heart 106.2 and Kiss.
Despite spending £3m on a high-profile ad campaign and overhauling its music policy, the station has failed to stop the rot. Its critics say Capital is suffering from an 'identity crisis' and has not recovered from the exit of Tarrant, who was once credited with bringing in 15% of the station's ad revenues.
It has been three years since he quit Capital's breakfast show, but Tarrant's shadow looms large at station, with rivals claiming that his successor, Johnny Vaughan, is not female friendly and has alienated core listeners.
The key to Tarrant's success was that he built a loyal fan base that spanned audience demographics, according to Simon Blackburn, head of radio at Media Planning Group (MPG). 'The current top DJs, such as Vaughan and [Heart breakfast-show host] Jamie Theakston, are much more polarising; they are Marmite DJs - audiences either love them or hate them,' he says. This more edgy approach is all part of the new Capital, which could be described as less Britney Spears and more The Kooks.
Capital's detractors point to the fact that the stations that are doing well, namely Heart, Magic and Kiss, have a clear identity and distinct target audience. Emap Radio managing director of programming Mark Story, who was Tarrant's first producer at Capital, says stations must make their offering clear so as not to confuse listeners.
'When Tarrant was at his peak, he could be number one in the 25- to 44-year-old age group, but now it is very difficult in music terms to offer something coherent [to everyone in this bracket],' he explains. In short, it is no longer possible for Capital to be all things to all people, and in trying to do so, the station has alienated substantial chunks of its potential audience.
Dirk Anthony, programming director at Capital's owner, GCap, agrees that Tarrant's show was broadcast in a 'different world'. 'The fact is that there is no single answer for Capital; it's a huge and powerful brand in transition that is focused on contemporary music for 18- to 35-year-olds,' he adds.
However, Anthony believes that Capital remains the 'music taste-maker' in London and claims that rivals such as Heart are favoured by older listeners.
Matthew Landeman, head of radio at media agency Carat, argues that the London station has failed to adapt to fragmentation. 'Not only is there a greater number of stations in the market, but a greater number of ways to listen, such as through mobile phones, computers and digital TVs,' he says.
The situation means that while advertisers could struggle to reach a mass market through a single radio station, they can improve targeting by using specialist digital broadcasters.
As well as the increase in the number of stations serving London, the BBC's strong performance - Radio 1 grew its audience over the year to 10.87m - is piling the pressure on commercial stations, according to Cathy Lowe, head of radio at agency PHD.
In response, Capital has not only revamped its marketing and content, but has also heavily trailed its 'never more than two ads in a row' policy. Critics say the initiative was simply an attempt to claw back the premium that the station can no longer justify through its listening figures. Some agencies, meanwhile, predict that the strategy could cost the station dearly, and predict it will be sidelined, pointing out that the policy is no longer trailed on-air.
But the BBC's strong performance supports Capital's view that ads are not for everyone, argues MPG's Blackburn. 'With digital radio, it is much easier to flick through stations, and we know people skip ads, particularly if they are in the car. So reducing ad breaks would appear to be a good move from a station-output point of view.' However, he does admit 'that it just isn't showing in Capital's results'.
GCap's Anthony insists that limiting ad breaks was never intended as a programming strategy. 'There is no question it is a sales strategy, and it's a move that's been well supported by the industry,' he says.
He also claims that because a strong Capital equates to a strong commercial radio market, the industry wants it to succeed. 'It is a process of regeneration, and we have a committed team.'
Despite its woes, the Capital brand is still viewed by many as the most high-profile radio station in London, and while the latest Rajar figures are clearly disappointing for the station, its management is keen to promote the fact that it is a product in transition. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether advertisers have the necessary patience to stick with the brand.