In the age of streaming and limitless choice, Magic Radio pulls in millions of listeners. What is it that keeps people coming back? By
In March 2018, the rapper Stormzy attended the Global Awards, a ceremony intended to “celebrate the biggest and best-loved stars of music, news and entertainment on one huge night”. The event was organised by Europe’s largest radio company, Global, which owns Capital and LBC, among others.
“I was going to say big up Capital,” Stormzy announced, as he took to the stage to collect the award for best R&B, hip-hop or grime artist. “But big up Magic as well. Magic are my Gs, you know what I mean.”
The statement was a faux pas. The easy listening station Magic Radio is not a Global brand. In fact, it belongs to one of Global’s competitors, Bauer. “Stormzy shouts out Magic FM … at a rival radio company’s awards night,” ran a headline in Metro.
But Stormzy’s love of Magic is sincere and profound – and sometimes it cannot be contained. A year earlier, at the Mercury prize, an interviewer had introduced themselves as a reporter from Magic. “Magic Radio – are you mad?” responded a visibly amused Stormzy. “Before my career’s over, I need to have a song that Magic just play. ’Cos that’s when you know you have a legacy. If your song is just on the Magic playlist, and it sits there for the next 30 years, you have made something special.”
Tune into Magic Radio and you will hear Rio by Duran Duran and Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen and Careless Whisper by George Michael. You will hear Moving on Up by M People and Don’t You Want Me by the Human League and Hello by Adele. And you will hear them over and over again. In the week beginning 20 January, the station played the 1997 Natalie Imbruglia track Torn no less than 10 times.
In the popular imagination, particularly in London, where it began broadcasting under its current name in 1998, Magic Radio is still often referred to as Magic FM. “Magic FM is my life,” said James Corden in 2018. “I genuinely miss it when I’m away.”
Since 2016, the Magic empire has expanded. The main station now broadcasts nationwide on digital radio (it is available on 105.4 FM in London), while five digital-only subsidiaries have appeared: Mellow Magic (lower tempo), Magic Soul (focused on soul and Motown), Magic Chilled (“fresh, laid-back hits,” aimed at a slightly younger audience), and the newest additions to the slate, Magic Workout (high-energy songs for the gym) and Magic at the Musicals (show tunes), both of which launched last year.
In some cases, singers whose hits grace the Magic playlist also end up as presenters. Ronan Keating – who sprang to fame with Irish boyband Boyzone in the early 1990s before releasing future Magic classics such as Life Is a Rollercoaster – has, since 2017, formed half of the Magic breakfast show presenter team, alongside Harriet Scott, formerly of Virgin Radio and Heart. Keating describes Magic’s music as “easy listening” and “MOR”, meaning middle of the road. In its promotional material, Magic describes itself as an “upbeat, optimistic” station that “provides a welcome oasis in our listener’s [sic] busy lives by playing songs that they know and love”. The target audience, says Scott, is “35-plus to 55 women. We’ll take anybody, but that’s who our material is maybe aimed at.”
Magic is hot property. Each week, 4.2 million listeners tune in to one of its stations, according to the latest available figures. That may not be as many as its immediate commercial rival, Smooth (5.75 million listeners and counting, across several regional and national stations), nor the most comparable BBC station, Radio 2 (14.18 million each week), but since Magic moved beyond its London origins, it has proved capable of rattling its bigger rivals. “The powers-that-be at Radio 2 are obsessed with Magic FM and the appeal it has to the middle-aged women,” reported the Radio Times in 2018. “Magic’s music policy doesn’t pretend to be particularly forward-looking. ‘More of the songs you love,’ is the station’s promise, and they deliver, from George Michael to Lionel Richie.”
Looking back on the tectonic changes that have hit the music and media landscape in the past two decades, it seems a minor miracle that Magic, and music radio in general, still manages to pull in millions of listeners each week. Smartphones and streaming mean that anyone can instantly find just about any song ever recorded. And where, once upon a time, a favourite DJ might have been the person to introduce a listener to their new favourite song, nowadays streaming services such as Spotify can serve up endless personalised recommendations, based on your previous listening taste.
All this makes it hard not to wonder why, when you can just listen to what you want to listen to, would you want to listen to a radio station that may play songs you don’t like, punctuated by adverts for Great Western Railway and Mr Kipling, traffic updates about the M25, and, in between the songs, chitchat of dubious interest? (“American houses have a lot of bathrooms. I don’t know why. Do they have weak bladders or something?” mused Nick Snaith, host of Magic’s mid-morning show.) What, in short, makes Magic magic?
There is some data to suggest that in troubled times, consumers turn to music radio for comfort. “I saw some research on avoidance of news,” says David Lloyd, a former executive at Virgin and the BBC who now works as a radio consultant, “and one of the key things was: ‘I feel I can’t do anything about it’. And it’s that powerlessness that drives listeners to seek a bit of solace in formats like Magic.”
Magic does carry news, but in its own way. In one week last autumn, when Brexit was dominating the wider headlines, the 8am news bulletin on the main station led on consecutive days with a plan to stop serious criminals being released from prison halfway through their sentences, Meghan Markle commencing legal action against the Mail on Sunday, Dina Asher-Smith’s silver medal at the World Athletic Championships in Doha, and Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s heptathlon gold at the same event. (Brexit news did follow later in the bulletins.) In general, Magic does not cover sport, but makes exceptions “when a sporting event captures the nation’s attention”, a spokesperson told me.
Alongside the desire to escape the grim headlines, the expanding reach of Magic is testament to the power of musical nostalgia; the extraordinary emotional hold that the songs we hear when we are young have on us when we are older. Everyone loves the music they grew up with, says Matt Deegan, the creative director at Folder Media, a radio consultancy. “Particularly 11 to 19. It’s the time you when discover yourself as a person, you go out for the first time, dancing, nightclubs.” When we switch on Magic, we are looking for memories. We are looking for sounds that trigger the feeling: “This was the song where I … ” Listeners, says Magic’s director of music, James Curran, are “coming for the warmth, the nostalgia of those songs that they love”.
“If you drill right down, the ultimate drive to any radio station listening is mood,” says Lloyd. “Magic is very definitely a mood listen,” he adds. “It’s very consistent. You turn it on and there’s that sort of nectar; you know, you’re not going to have a nasty shock. It’s always going to be a comforting, consistent sound.”
One of Magic’s most dependable moods is Abba. “You know, there aren’t that many stations that would play Abba,” noted Curran. “If you think of all our main competitors, Heart doesn’t play them; Capital doesn’t play them. Radio 1 doesn’t play them. Smooth will only play downtempo Abba. So they will play The Winner Takes it All, they might play Knowing Me, Knowing You or Fernando or Chiquitita. But no, they won’t play Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) or Dancing Queen, or Mamma Mia. So all those songs are covered by the Magic database.” On Magic, you can expect to hear Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia about four times a week.
Even if you have heard a song a thousand times, there is something special about hearing it on the radio. “It’s a different experience when a song plays for you on the radio,” says the chart analyst and pop critic Chris Molanphy. “That combination of comfort and the occasional surprise, and you just sitting back and experiencing it passively, that’s still an experience that people want to have.” People have been predicting the death of radio since the 50s, but as Molanphy pointed out, “it continues to survive like a bacterium; it’s still alive, even in the 2020s”.
The origins of Magic Radio run back to July 1990, when Lord James Hanson – a corporate raider who acquired the nickname Lord Moneybags and was once engaged to Audrey Hepburn – launched a London station called Melody. It was inspired by easy listening stations Hanson had come across during his time in the US, where stations were based around a particular sound – something that took off in the US much earlier than it did in the UK. In 1998, Melody was sold to a magazine publishing company, which rebranded it as Magic 105.4. Ten years later, the station was acquired by the media conglomerate Bauer, which also publishes magazines such as Grazia, Empire and TV Choice.
Today, Magic broadcasts from Bauer Radio’s headquarters in Soho. Bauer seemingly has a station for every age range. For 15- to 34-year-olds, there is Kiss. For “reluctant adults” between the ages of 25 and 54, there is Absolute. And for less reluctant adults, there is Magic. “The type of music we play, the type of presentation that we do, the topics that the breakfast show or another show might pick, the way we interview guests, all that sort of stuff, is trying to make this feel effortless, but also feel like a very warm and welcoming place,” Tony Moorey, the group content director for Magic and Absolute, told me. In the office, a screensaver on a desktop computer showed a whale surfacing in front of forests and snow-capped peaks. Mood-wise, very Magic.
In the Magic studio early last year, I watched Tom Price, an actor and standup, present the weekend breakfast show. Price was accompanied by the producer Adam Herringshaw, who goes by the name Adam K professionally. Herringshaw, then 38, was wearing a backwards baseball cap and red high-top trainers. (Before Magic, he worked at Kiss, but moved, he explained jokingly, when the bosses felt Price needed ‘reining in’; he has since left the Bauer group altogether.)
Just after 8am, Tina Turner’s 1984 track What’s Love Got to Do With It? was playing. The show had been on air for two hours. It had begun with Two Hearts by Phil Collins, passed through Hero by Enrique Iglesias, and Greatest Day by Take That. The newest songs were two 2011 tracks: Adele’s Someone Like You and Christina Perri’s Jar of Hearts.
As Tina Turner played, Herringshaw spoke to a caller off-air to prime him for an interview. A theme for the show was “things you have accidentally broken”. The phone call remains a key tool for the Magic model of broadcasting. Phone-ins create a feedback loop, or at least the impression of a feedback loop, between presenter and audience, fostering a feeling of companionship. (“Your radio gives you something that your streaming list can’t,” Curran told me. “You’ve got a connection there.”)
Price went live: “Loads of text messages coming in, for things that you have accidentally broken. Hello to Carol from Norfolk. ‘Hi Tom. Many years ago I was at my nan’s house. I went to use her bathroom. As I stood up to flush the chain, my wristwatch fell off into the pan.’”
Later, off air, Price and Herringshaw gave their read on the appeal of Magic. Price argued that the station transcends its target listener base. “Every time I’ve told people I work on Magic, when I first started especially, no matter who I told – people our age, or people who are 20 – go: ‘I fucking love Magic,’” he said.
Listeners love the Magic canon – from Queen’s Somebody to Love to I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) by Whitney Houston – but their sense of what should go into it is imperfect. On the School Disco feature, a part of Price’s show during which the audience can request records, someone often asks for Saturday Night by Whigfield.
“We can’t play it,” said Herringshaw.
“It’s maddening,” said Price. “Too cheesy.”
“There are other songs that we kind of make a view on,” Curran told me later. “It’s like – that is just a bit too cheesy for where we want to go.”
There is an art to curating musical nostalgia: one wrong move and the mood is lost. Not long ago, Price played Chesney Hawkes’ earnest power pop classic The One and Only. But he said he had to “build up a head of steam,” before unleashing it, referencing the song over a period of time, hyping it up, before finally pressing play.
“It’s cheesy,” Price told me. “But it’s good.”
Herringshaw agreed, just about: “Once a year, for like two minutes, maybe it’s not the worst thing.”
In 2015, a brand consultant named Charlotte Melford, received a call asking whether she would help Magic better understand its audience. Rather than the kind of clinical environment in which a focus group is observed through a one-way mirror, Magic wanted something more organic. “They called me,” Melford remembered, “and said: ‘We need to go meet them, experience them, and actually get under the skin.’”
Melford sensed that the executives at Magic thought listeners viewed the station as “a guilty secret – something they felt a little bit apologetic about listening to.” Beyond that, they didn’t seem to know much about their audience. At the time marketing research concentrated on millennials and older people. But, Melford said, the audience in between – the core demographic for Magic – was under-researched.
Melford set up WhatsApp groups for listeners to discuss the station. She also went into listeners’ homes, hosting six dinner parties in London, Leeds and Birmingham. For Seb Clark, Magic’s marketing manager, the experience was surreal. “I was sitting in someone’s living room, watching them eat,” he said. “She was probing. But it wasn’t just all about radio; it was their lifestyles.”
One assumption of the research had been that people turn to Magic not because they care much about the music, but because they want to feel warm and cosy. But what Melford discovered was that listeners genuinely loved the songs Magic lined up, and weren’t afraid to say so. “We’d radically underestimated the sense of personal confidence,” Melford said.
In September 2016, Melford delivered her findings in a document titled “Magic – Introducing the Luminaries – living life in full colour and rewriting the rule book”. It is aimed at potential advertisers, but it is strangely revealing. The “Luminaries”, as Melford branded the audience, are indeed “living life in full colour”. (This page in the report is yellow, blue, red and purple.) The study aims to convey that Magic’s listeners are vivacious and sociable, enjoy music and have money to spend. (The words of the listeners themselves occasionally suggest a slightly different reality. “We regularly head to bed at 9pm, open our laptop and watch a box set together,” says one 38-year-old woman.) There are, apparently, 9,979,000 Luminaries in the UK, of whom 5,728,000 are reached by Bauer radio stations.
Melford is conscious that her research, conducted in 2015 and 2016, reflected a less fraught world: it was pre-Brexit, pre-Trump. But it had an impact on how the station sounds today. Until Melford’s study, Magic had focused more on the 60s, 70s and 80s; now, in its relentless pursuit of listeners between the ages of 35 and 55, Magic’s playlist moved its focus to the 80s, followed by the 90s. (That decision matches up with research by the American data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, which suggests that “strongest adult musical preferences” set in at 13 for women and 14 for men.)
On a Saturday night in February last year, queues of Luminaries snaked outside the Eventim Apollo in west London for Magic Soul, one of the live events the station organises. The hosts were Angie Greaves – an afternoon show presenter, who has since defected to arch-rivals Smooth – and Lemar, a singer who came to fame on the BBC talent show Fame Academy. The lineup included Gabrielle and Tommy Blaize, “the voice of Strictly Come Dancing”. Towards the end, Gwen Dickey, the lead singer of Rose Royce, who injured her spinal cord in 2010, was carried on stage and performed seated, flanked by energetic dancers.
At the interval, the audience crowded around the bar. “It takes us back to a time when we were younger, when we had fun, we loved the music, we were out,” Suzanne Hirst, a woman in her 50s, told me as we queued for drinks. “It takes me back to a time where it made me happy.”
The foundation of Magic’s success is its playlist, which runs to about 650 songs for the main station. That figure includes songs that only play on the evening ‘Mellow’ show – the daytime playlist is about 400 songs. Stations that concentrate on new music tend to have smaller playlists – Magic executives say Capital plays about 250 songs on extensive rotation, or possibly even fewer. Global, Capital’s owner, would not confirm that figure, sternly stating: “We never comment on editorial decisions.”
Among contemporary music, Adele and Ed Sheeran are firmly established Magic favourites. Curran points to these artists as properties who could pass “the festival test” – if you’re a rock festival, could you put them on? It’s music that can work in any context. “No disrespect to One Direction – but could I put them on at a rock festival? No,” Curran said.
On a Wednesday morning in September, I attended a monthly playlist meeting for Magic Chilled, which aims at a slightly younger audience than the other branches of Magic. Each month, Chilled will add about five new songs to its playlist. The first order of duty at the meeting was to assess the previous month’s new tracks: Lover by Taylor Swift, Beautiful People by Ed Sheeran (ft Khalid), two versions of the Freya Ridings song Castles (one acoustic, the other not), How Do You Sleep? by Sam Smith, and Señorita by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello. The question was which of these would stay on the playlist and which would not, and what would replace them. In attendance were Curran and Brogan Hubber, a 25-year-old producer who also presents shows on Magic Soul.
Magic presenters, with a few exceptions, do not get to pick their music. That is largely Curran’s domain and he has, in a way, been preparing for this role for most of his life. As a child in Edinburgh, Curran would listen to the Top 40 on Radio 1 on Sunday afternoons and write down the charts in order to discover their secrets. He would study how singles moved up or down, who was doing particularly well, or what genres were taking off. “I loved the statistical side of it,” he told me.
Curran’s starting point for thinking about what music to schedule for Magic is the target audience – that, after all, is the demographic that the stations must deliver to potential advertisers. These days, Curran has a gut sense of what will appeal. Partly that stems from experience, but he also pays very careful attention to all the data he can get his hands on: official chart positions, midweek chart positions, airplay charts, iTunes downloads, numbers from Shazam (the app that identifies songs by listening to just a snippet), and the results of music library research, where listeners are asked to rate short clips of songs online. Above all, Curran and Brogan wanted to assess if the tracks were on their way up or down, and by extension, whether they should stay or go. In the end, the Sheeran and Ridings songs were axed, Smith survived, and Dermot Kennedy’s new track Outnumbered was added to the playlist.
For Molanphy, the chart historian, this kind of curation remains essential to the success of music radio. “By and large, streaming is still a very active medium,” he told me. One of the attractions of music radio is that it is more passive. When someone else is picking the hits, you have “something comforting and familiar, yet with some element of surprise”, Molanphy said. “There’s a ‘lean-back’ aspect to radio that is hard to replicate with digital media, and I suspect that is the reason why terrestrial radio holds on.”
The heart of Magic, and the show that is closest to the old, pre-Luminaries, lower-tempo days, remains Mellow Magic, presented by Lynn Parsons from 8pm to midnight every weeknight. One evening last year, I watched Parsons, a radio veteran who has worked across BBC and commercial stations, present the show. She is small and blond, and stands up behind her microphone as she speaks, a trick her first ever manager in radio insisted on. “As a presenter, you’re a bit of an actor,” Parsons said off air. Another of her broadcasting tricks – taking off her security pass to avoid on-air rattle – misfired one night not long after she had started on the show. She left the studio to go the lavatory and could not get back in.
“So after 10 seconds of silence, an emergency tape kicks in, which starts with Beat It by Michael Jackson, which is not very mellow,” she said. “And I was running up and down those stairs. It went through Abba’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) and all these really fast songs. And I was just thinking: ‘What am I gonna do?’ I can’t get through any door without a pass.” Eventually, after 20 long minutes, Parsons was able to borrow a pass from a cleaner and get back into the studio.
On Mellow Magic you are sure to encounter a lot of saxophone, a lot of crooning, and, in the words of one fan on Twitter, “banger after banger”. On the night I visited, Parsons played Anything for You by Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine; Crazy for You by Madonna; Because of You by Kelly Clarkson and Missing You by John Waite.
If one of the qualities that the station offers is companionship, then Mellow Magic provides it in its purest form. “What are you up to right now? Are you working? Are you playing? Are you just drifting off under the duvet? Whatever brings your ears our way, you’re very welcome here,” Parsons tells listeners. In between the music, the show is a gentle stream of names and very low-drama anecdotes. “We have Mark the courier … Mark the courier, great to hear from you!” Many songs get a dedication. “A little bit of Abba for Emily Curtis. Have a peaceful night and a good weekend won’t you?” Solace is offered to listeners still at work. “Super cold out there. Really super.”
Parsons told me about night owls who tune in: “It’s cabs, but also paramedics, the AA, Green Flag, all the people that are in their vehicles waiting for call outs.” A typical bit of Parsons patter, from a recent show: “It’s Friday evening. So good to have your company. If you’re working for the emergency services tonight, thank you so much for all you do. We really appreciate you being there.”
Parsons asks listeners to email her their “whispers and windows”. The former are a mellow version of shoutouts (“Dave in Rayleigh in Essex. You wanted a whisper out for Joanne, who you’ll be marrying soon. She’s the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen, and I love these songs. Dave in Rayleigh in Essex, thank you.”), the latter are photographs from listeners. Parsons posts them on her own channels, and Magic will occasionally retweet. Social media is a big part of the show. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are Magic’s “big three”, says Ian Bridgeman, who runs social media strategy for the station. Facebook is the most important, Twitter less and less so. “For our audience it’s still a bit impenetrable,” Bridgeman said. “It’s now quite an aggressive place to be; it’s a very politically charged place to be.”
Parsons constantly encourages listeners to get in touch. Occasionally, this has unintended consequences. Within a few weeks of Parsons starting at Magic, one obsessive listener began leaving threatening comments on Twitter and Facebook. The station contacted the police, who warned the stalker off. These days, following advice from her employers, Parsons responds to messages that seem a little bit too keen or intense with the sign-off “Strong Hug”. She explained: “They just wanted to make sure there was a real proper cut-off, after the stalker.” (Parsons made clear she had stalkers at other stations; the phenomenon was not unique to Magic.)
Still, for most listeners, Mellow Magic is a place of comfort and solace. Earlier this month, listeners tuning in at 8pm were greeted with a classic Parsons welcome. “I’m Lynn Parsons, here until midnight, with gorgeous laid-back songs. Whatever sort of day you’ve had, the evening is going to be so much better. That’s a promise.” Then she played Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler, and for a little while at least, everything was so much better.
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