Mark Browning has steered Heart 106.2 clear of rival Capital through a change of personnel and a clear understanding of his target Londoners.
Mark Browning has steered Heart 106.2 clear of rival Capital through a change of personnel and a clear understanding of his target Londoners.

As faults go it's a fairly minor one, but the worst thing anyone can think to say about Heart 106.2 programme director Mark Browning is that he is sometimes a bit grumpy.

"He is someone who is occasionally quite grumpy, but he does laugh about it himself," says Browning's boss, Heart 106.2 managing director Barnaby Dawe.

But grumpy was the last word anyone would have used to describe Browning last week when the latest round of the quarterly radio audience and listening figures were released.

The London station, owned by radio group Chrysalis, jumped from third place in the London commercial market, to first, with 106,000 more listeners than its nearest rival, the traditionally dominant GCap station Capital 95.8, in the three months from June to September.

The station's reach of 1.9 million listeners, up 14.9% on the previous quarter, and 5.6% on this time last year, gave it a 6.4% share of total listening time in London each week. It marked the first time the station had become number one in both reach and share, and was a "career highlight" says Browning.

In the crucial battle for breakfast listening there was more good news for the station. Jamie Theakston, who had come in for a battering in the last round of results, is now within spitting distance of Johnny Vaughan on Capital 95.8. The gap is down to a mere 10,000 listeners in the morning.

Theakston believes Browning should take full credit for the turnaround. "He is very passionate," says the DJ. "He's driving it all really. He has a very clear understanding of our listeners. And now we're reaping the benefit of that."

Browning himself reveals that he has been playing a waiting game. "The decisions that I have made here have been in the light of things I knew were going to happen. I wanted to watch and wait until the market leaders did something and then move pretty quickly. We're the Chelsea of the radio industry. Rather than being reactive we're proactive."

It's no surprise to learn that Browning has a degree in sports psychology. His career has always been in radio, beginning with hospital radio, although he trained as a teacher. He launched FM 102 The Bear where he was head of news and then became managing director of Kent station Neptune Radio (now part of the KM FM group).

The 33-year-old has now been with Heart for four years, moving from deputy programme controller to his current role earlier this year. Browning insists the station has not "moved younger" in the four years since he joined, but has focused more tightly on its target 25 to 44-year-old, female-skewed audience, tailoring the presenters, music and promotions to increase the station's appeal to those listeners.

Those four years haven't been without controversy, namely when long-time stalwarts of the station were told to make way for a younger group of presenters, including Theakston and former Radio 1 DJ Emma B. "There's no animosity," says DJ Pat Sharp who was one of the casualties in the changing of the guard. "When Heart didn't renew my contract I'd been there for eight years and they were thinking of changing the station. If you look at the DJs now they're all early thirtysomething people. I'm in my 40s."

Indeed, Sharp is full of praise for Browning. "He's a people person. He's very good at making you go away and think about things. He doesn't force you to change, he just makes you think that he might be talking along the right lines."

Unfortunately, axed breakfast show host Jono Coleman wasn't so magnanimous about the situation, publicly lambasting his former bosses when he pulled in an extra 224,000 listeners in his last Rajar survey. "I can understand why [he did that] because he is a performer who needs to look after his own interests," says Browning. "He plays a game in the press that I don't." But the two have since had a laugh about the situation, he adds.

Dawe says Browning can be dogged in the pursuit of what he thinks is right for the station. "It almost seems as if he would do that to the detriment of all else. But he manages to bring everyone along with him. He's willing to listen to other people and discuss things. He can be quite hot-headed at times, but that's just about the passion for what he is doing."

KM FM group content manager Spencer Cork, who worked with Browning at Neptune FM, says he worked incredibly hard on very tight budgets. "In the first year we got a bronze Sony Award for station of the year. For a station that was only 12 months old that was quite an achievement and it was entirely his doing really."

Browning believes the key to Heart's success is being more defined in its targeting of thirtysomething Londoners. "The single thing is about having a very close relationship with my listeners, understanding the cycle of their work and their lifestyle. I believe we are doing that better than our competitors."

Key to that is the development of the breakfast show, still only six months old. "Jamie's show is at 60% or 70% of its potential and it's already nearly number one. The next thing is to put some clear air between us and our competitors," he says, adding: "I don't think we'll get back to the old Capital degree of dominance. We will see three or four stations vying for dominance for a while, but I think this station will pull clear of the pack. That's not going to happen in the next 12 months, but it might happen over the next three years."