Almost two months after its Valentine's Day introduction, ratings data for U.K. Talk Radio, Britain's first national talk radio station, indicates the format is struggling for the nation's hearts and media buyers' affection.
Talk radio has swept the U.S., making famous such chatter hosts as political conservative Rush Limbaugh and "shock jock" Howard Stern. But the format is virtually unheard of in the U.K., and its reception there will be crucial because Britian is often an international testing ground.
According to the first audience figures from Radio Joint Audience Research, which will release the official data in May, only 1.7 million listeners are tuning into the station each week compared with the expected 3 million.
The station lost its first sales director, Alec Kenny, in a mid-March "management dispute," and is already being forced to reconsider its programming format.
"Talk Radio is currently fraught with problems," said Steve Hyde, broadcast director at Zenith Media.
"It is a dangerous station to advertise on at the moment because of the unpredictable [program quality]. The breakfast shows are dreadful; it is very disappointing."
The station's management argues that the initial ratings figures are misleading because they cover only the first two weeks of the format's startup. The real test, they said, will be at the end of July when the first full quarterly figures are published.
"As a buyer, I am looking for new opportunities," said Mr. Hyde. "But the uncertainty has made advertisers prickly about placing ads."
Current advertisers include British Gas, House of Fraser Stores, Continental Airlines, the National Lottery and Buena Vista International.
Tracy Dollimore, U.K. Radio's sales controller, believes the network's format will eventually attract all kinds of advertisers, including those who have never used radio before.
"Music radio can be used for background sounds. However, the talk radio format gets the listener involved. This guarantees that advertisers are heard," said Ms. Dollimore.
Industry figures indicate radio ad spending has increased every year since 1991. Radio spending rose 19% to $340 million last year.
Early this year the station used a TV, print and poster campaign by Foote, Cone & Belding to raise awareness. A more targeted campaign to promote individual programs begins later this month.
The 24-hour station targets 25- to 44-year-olds, featuring discussions on topics ranging from politics to entertainment.
The standard of its relatively tame programming is criticized by media buyers as uneven.
"I'm not surprised nor am I unduly worried that [Talk Radio] has not got it quite right yet. But Talk Radio needs a big push," said David Fletcher, director-radio at CIA Media Network.
The patter is hardly groundbreaking. One recent morning program, interrupted by a short news bulletin and one commercial in the hour, asked listeners to call in with their idea of heaven.
"Mine is to lie in a large comfortable bed in which I eat endless supplies of chocolate all day, served by a Chippendale" male stripper, said one housewife.
Caesar the Geezer, who presents a program between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., is the closest Talk Radio gets to a shock jock. He gained notoriety among broadcast authorities with forthright views on a London station, KISS-FM.
But he's no Howard Stern, the U.S. talk show host known for crazy antics, frankly sexual chatter and often tasteless but crudely funny humor.
"Caesar's not trying to be like Howard Stern. He happens to be a good show biz act," said John Aumonier, Talk Radio's managing director. Even Caesar, however, has failed to bring in listeners.
Mr. Aumonier, believing that talk radio only needs some time to catch on, is confident of reaching 4.5 million listeners a week or 9% of the population by yearend. "Advertisers are aware there's a market for it," he said.
Talk Radio's majority shareholder is London's Media Ventures International, with 51%; U.S. radio network Emmis Broadcasting, Indianapolis, and CanWest, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, media group, each hold 24.5%. All are talk radio veterans in their respective markets.
Later this month, Mr. Kenny will be replaced by David Lees the former sales director at regional network Metro Radio Group, Newcastle.
Even Mr. Kenny, despite his acrimonious departure believes Talk Radio will succeed. "Because it is new to listeners, it will take time to establish what talk radio means. But being the first will give the station a tremendous advantage."