The city of Liverpool is about to experience what a commercial radio friend of mine – not prone to exaggeration – has called “the biggest shake-up in Liverpool’s independent radio history”. So it’s bayonets to the ready as the big Bauer Beast at Radio City gets its first real taste of BIG independent competition in its 41 year history, with due respects to Crash FM and Juice FM, of course.

Capital brings its Godzilla-like presence to the Mersey on Monday January 18th with the ambition to devour large chunks of the local commercial market which until now has been largely savoured by Radio City in its various guises. Over the years Radio City and it’s stable of stations have generally performed very strongly, with the occasional flop here and there as at every station.

Capital’s owners Global Radio swallowed plucky Juice FM last year but expect a very different animal when the new station comes on air.

The Capital ‘invasion’ has happened in other parts of the UK – Birmingham, Manchester, Scotland and so on – but the Merseyside example is particularly interesting for me because of the consistently high performance of local radio on Merseyside over the years with both stations among the most successful urban stations in their respective networks for many years, certainly outside of London.

Radio City owners Bauer have prepared for C Day  by launching their new stations now.

They have gone for what my friend calls “vertical integration”….digging deeper into their current market and offering new services. They’ve split the old FM and AM services and instead of Radio City, Magic and CityTalk…voila! You can now get Radio City, Radio City 2, Radio City 3 and CityTalk. As if by magic,four radio stations where there used to be three.

Over the years Capital have been branching out from their base in London and engaging in what could be described as horizontal integration – spreading out to new regions with stations that offer a mixture of local and syndicated output based on the original London model of current and classic hits.

Northern Powerhouse

The strong City brand has been revived of late and in come Radio City (the ‘1’ is understood but not in the brand name) for the teens and 20’s, Radio City 2 (the ‘new’version of Magic) for listeners who like oldies and Radio City 3 ….(the eagle-eyed among you will have observed a numeric theme here..) for ‘erm people who also like the hits but are less enamoured with the classics.

Then there’s CityTalk which is on AM, if you like listening to radio with the constant sound of eggs frying in the background. It’s on DAB along with the others,naturally -and of course they’re all available online, on your phone, via your toaster and hidden in the back of the fridge near that 2 month old pot of hazelnut yoghurt.

“Radio City, 2 & 3″ may not be the most imaginative branding formula devised but when people come round to filling in their RAJAR radio listening forms they may not remember or even be bothered to specify which incarnation of Radio City they listen to : they’ll plump for one of the ‘Radio City’ options and possibly not sweat too much about the numbers.

And that’s maybe what Bauer are banking on for when Capital come on the scene.

In short Bauer are reminding Capital that THEY own the market, THEY’RE the market leader and THEY won’t be giving up the fight that easily.

So they’re getting stuck into the fight now with the new schedules and line-up of well-known local dj’s – Rossie, Darren Proctor, Pete Price, Rick Houghton and all. Building quite rightly on the impressive Radio City legacy, which is very Merseyside-centric (and, incidentally very MALE…but that’s a topic for another day).

It’s as if they’re saying to Capital,” Beat that,la..”

Capital meanwhile will no doubt arrive with a Big Marketing Bang but will it blast out loudly enough to take listeners from City in the notoriously loyal Greater Liverpool/Mersey market? Their target audience is the 15-34 age group and its stations have had a great reach among females (58%), so they probably feel there’s a gap in to aim for in the market.

If you look at the services which City are now offering they look to have the under 65’s music local radio market pretty much covered. So unless Capital get some really TOP presenter talent at breakfast and drive with a strong local identification it might be some time before they start to make headway on Merseyside.

How local is local?

I live outside the city near Runcorn and my teenage kids are regular listeners to Capital North West and Wales in the car on their way to school.

But Cheshire isn’t like Liverpool and Cheshire-ites have no overriding geographic/cultural affinity with Radio City or any other big urban station.

My kids gravitate towards Capital NW&W for its fun/hits format with a style that is inclusive and not part of a geographical club. Like the other Capital stations it’s local between 6-10am weekday mornings and 4-7 evening weekdays with local 12-4 weekends. Capital Liverpool are following a similar format.

I think that in the short-term Capital may well pick up listeners on the outskirts and maybe in some of the posher suburbs but the core City audience is in urban Liverpool and Birkenhead and this is likely to remain the same for some time.

How scouse will Capital’s sound be? Well there will be a handful of local presenters if the other northern stations in their stable are anything to go by  (or ‘vaguely northern’/scouse-lite)  with the station concentrating on THE HITS and celebrity interviews.  Ex-Juicers Anton Powers and Gemma Cutting are pretty well-known locally, and both ‘of the soil’. But for Capital’s target audience scouseness is less of an issue ; maybe it’s more about trying to sound BIGGER than City. We shall see.

Syndication (sharing with other Capital stations) will be the order of the day at off-peak times (like it already is at Radio City and to a lesser extent at BBC Radio Merseyside, for the moment) with more local news bulletins on Capital during the day as compensation for the non-local programmes at non-peak times.

I expect Capital to make inroads in time, maybe 2 years or so : it’s a marathon not a sprint as they say.

Will the new/old kid on the block offer something different? Something ground-breaking? Very,very unlikely.

But it’ll be uber-slick and fun targeting young people, especially females.

Add to all this the question marks over the future direction of BBC Local Radio (announcements in March/April) and we are in for interesting times in scouseradioland.