Radio widens its speech

While the latest figures for speech radio are encouraging, it remains to be seen whether new stations will expand the market or simply compete for share.

SBHD: While the latest figures for speech radio are encouraging, it remains to be seen whether new stations will expand the market or simply compete for share.

Talk may not come cheap – either at Talk Radio, which has bid £3.8m a year for its licence, or the BBC, where the national speech networks have programme budgets that commercial stations can only dream of.

Yet it is still remarkably popular, as the latest Rajar figures show. Despite the flood of new music stations in recent years, speech stations still account for almost a quarter of the nation’s listening.

How far Talk Radio will add to this share, or merely cannibalise existing speech services, remains to be seen, but the Rajar figures are encouraging for both Talk Radio and the “evolving” London Radio (of which, more later).

Inevitably, the bulk of the audience is with the BBC, since until now only London – and one or two other markets – have offered listeners a commercial radio service which is predominantly speech-based.

BBC head of marketing Sue Farr say that in the last Rajar quarter of 1994 the news and sport service Radio 5 Live won more listeners than all three of the national commercial music stations. 5 Live had a weekly reach of 4.76 million, compared with 4.69 million for Classic FM, Atlantic 252’s 4.57m and 3.99m for Virgin 1215.

The BBC drew less attention to 5 Live’s share of listening because by that measure it fared less well than its commercial rivals. Its share of total listening hours was 2.7 per cent, compared with 3.9 per cent for Virgin and Atlantic and 3.2 per cent for Classic.

You would expect listeners to tune in to music stations for longer than they would a news and sport station. But what the BBC management finds encouraging is that 5 Live’s share is growing – up 50 per cent compared with the old Radio 5 – and that it has not been won at the expense of the Corporation’s other speech services. There were fears that the BBC local and regional stations and Radio 4 might all suffer. Instead, the speech radio’s audience share has simply grown.

Radio 4, which had 8.4 million listeners in the latest quarter of 1994, accounted for 10.6 per cent of the nation’s radio listening. The BBC local and regional stations managed to attract 9.65 million listeners or 10.2 per cent of the market. Add in 5 Live’s 2.7 per cent and you arrive at a share of 23.5 per cent for the mainly speech-based stations.

In London, according to the BBC’s analysis of the Rajar figures, the proportion is much the same. Radio 4 has 13 per cent of London’s listening (second only to Capital FM), London News Talk 1152 AM has four per cent, 5 Live 2.9 per cent, London News 93.5 FM two per cent and the BBC’s local station GLR has 1.2 per cent.

What is remarkable is the performance of most of the BBC local services since they were ordered to concentrate on speech programmes three years ago – in place of the traditional 50/50 mix of music and speech. At the time, most stations predicted that their audiences would go down. It was considered a price worth paying to differentiate the BBC’s local radio service from that offered by Independent Local Radio. Not least, it was a riposte to those MPs who suggested that the BBC get out of local radio and leave it to the commercial stations

Far from declining, the BBC’s local and regional stations audience has held firm at 9.5 million listeners a week, with a market share of about ten per cent.

Some stations have performed even better. According to BBC controller of regional broadcasting Mark Byford, Radio Leeds has doubled its weekly reach from 11 per cent to 23 per cent at a time when its speech content has doubled from 50 per cent to 99 per cent.

It’s not hard to guess where Talk Radio hopes to get most of its listeners. Managing director John Aumonier (whose name and title fell off this page two weeks ago – for which, many apologies) says: “Clearly it’s our ambition, like that of any commercial station, to win most of our listeners from the BBC and increase commercial radio’s share of the audience.”

But he does not believe that Talk Radio’s audience will come just from speech stations, nor the BBC.

Fortunately for Aumonier, he has only one station to launch, and not two – which was the fate that befell London Radio’s Rory McLeod last October, drafted in to run the company by new owners, Reuters. After my last column, he chided me for describing the recent changes at London News 97.3FM as a “relaunch”, and confiding to Marketing Week readers that I was confused by the company’s new programme strategy before I’d asked him to explain it.

He has a point. The company’s press release described the London News changes as “evolution” and “fine-tuning”, not a relaunch. Some might feel those terms do not adequately convey the extent of the changes, which included five new presenters, a dozen new programmes, covering business, sport, the arts, politics, media, health and a quiz, and “a significantly higher level of investment, including more current affairs production staff and more journalists”. But the word “relaunch” conjures up impressions of a new advertising campaign, or even a change of name, and of this there is no sign.

McLeod is in no doubt as to his programme strategy, though he concedes it is still evolving and may not be apparent to all listeners. The FM service’s strict and austere “rolling news” format – conceived long before McLeod took over – has gone. “Britain is not yet ready for rolling news. It’s an idea that was ahead of its time, and flawed,” he says.

“London News on FM will continue to evolve into a quality, mainstream and wide-ranging news and current affairs station, with an influx of specialist programmes and high-profile names. We want people to tune to it for a couple of hours at a time. London Newstalk on AM will become, as its slogan says, `original talk radio’ – not news and current affairs – and will continue to use the best TALK presenters in the country.”

In other words, I will tune-in to either station, depending on what each is offering at the time, and simply relish the choice of high-profile presenters on both stations. It’s a similar dilemma to that presented by the BBC when it launched 5 Live alongside Radio 4. But, as the latest Rajar figures show, it is possible for one to prosper without damaging the other.

Whether London Radio can pull off the same trick – and, indeed, whether the BBC can hang on to its speech audience in the face of the new competition from Talk Radio – remains to be seen, and no doubt heard.

Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent

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