Evans help us – Radio 1’s big gamble

Matthew Bannister’s new DJ may stop the ratings slide for a while, but the cost looks high.

SBHD: Matthew Bannister’s new DJ may stop the ratings slide for a while, but the cost looks high.

Breakfast radio is big. About half the adult population – 23 million people – listen to the radio in the morning. What they listen to first thing tends to dictate what they listen to for the rest of the day.

Radio accounts for 60 per cent of time spent consuming media at breakfast time, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau. Commercial radio accounts for half of all radio listening up to 9am. But the worry now for many commercial stations after three years of consistently stealing ratings from Radio 1 is: will Chris Evans do to them what his Big Breakfast did to GMTV?

Denise Perry, head of radio at Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, says: “Commercial radio will lose some ratings in the short term because of the hype Evans will generate when he starts. But it is questionable whether it will last.”

Perry believes that the commercial sector could lose out on certain specific audiences, such as young men, to Radio 1. “You also need to consider that, because of the size and importance of morning show audiences, a loss of ten per cent there could amount to more overall,” she says.

Evans’ contract with Radio 1 runs for an initial eight months, which is seen by some to indicate that he is not part of the station’s long-term strategy. He does not like to be committed long-term to projects, and lasted just a few weeks at Virgin 1215, where he briefly hosted the Big Red Mug Show. Few other presenters with strong TV careers have stayed long in radio.

There must also be a question over whether Radio 1 could afford him for longer than eight months. National newspaper speculation puts his likely earnings at anything up to £1m. Radio 1 may be in danger of putting too many of its eggs in one basket just to offset criticism of its new targeting strategy and the decision last year to get rid of a number of ageing DJs.

That strategy is to target the station more closely at 15 to 24-year-olds. True, this targeting has seen the station’s weekly reach fall from 14.2 million in 1993 to 11 million during the last quarter of 1994 (Rajar). The audience for the breakfast show fell 46 per cent between 1992 and 1994. But the station’s audience was in long-term decline before the arrival of controller Matthew Bannister. It was attempting to be all things to all age groups, and losing out on younger audiences as the commercial sector expanded.

Perry believes that Radio 1’s audience decline is related less to its recent programming decisions than to the growth in choice from the commercial sector. “In 1987 there were around 50 commercial stations in the UK, now there are more than 150, a number of them national,” she says.

The growth of the commercial sector and the reinvention of Radio 1 are likely to continue apace after Chris Evans has moved on from Radio 1. Commercial stations may have to fight some of the hype he will generate, but ultimately it looks to be a short-term operation to take the heat off the BBC station and not a serious threat to commercial radio’s audience growth.

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