Who is winning the radio war

Some say that radio is in the ascendant while others claim people are turning off. Meg Carter looks at the true picture

Is radio listening in decline or not? The answer depends on who you ask. Ask the BBC and the response is yes. “Overall radio listening is flat; year-on-year it’s definitely down,” says BBC Radio head of marketing and publicity Sue Farr. Talk to commercial radio and you get a very different answer.

“All the signs indicate radio listening is actually on the increase,” insists Justin Sampson, strategic planner at Radio Advertising Bureau. While the latest Rajar audience figures published last week show 300,000 fewer listeners tuned in to any radio in the third quarter compared to the second quarter of 1995, a year-on-year comparison shows a 374,000 rise.

Depending on how you look at it, both the BBC and commercial radio are right: the actual number of UK radio listeners is on the increase after falling off 18 months ago. But the total number of hours spent listening to radio has decreased.

This preoccupation with the size of the total market overshadowed the performance of individual stations at last week’s presentation of the Rajar listening data. This is perhaps a reflection of the stability of the radio listening markets in recent months.

Rajar data for the third quarter of 1995 showed commercial radio’s share of total listening constant at 50.1 per cent. Sampson claims that the news for commercial radio is actually more inspiring than that. He says commercial radio attracted an extra 874,000 listeners over the past year compared with BBC Radio’s additional 101,000 adults.

National stations continue to fare especially well:

Talk Radio UK audiences continue to rise and now stand at 2.3 million. Share of listening has risen from 1.4 per cent to 1.7 per cent

Virgin Radio audiences have risen to 4.3 million (Virgin 1215 and Virgin London combined) with an increase in share of listening from 3.2 to 3.3 per cent

Atlantic 252’s audience rose to 4.6 million, making it the largest commercial station, closely followed by Classic FM at 4.5 million which has enjoyed a four per cent increase in ABC1 listening hours to more than 16 million

In London, Capital Radio’s performance remains strong. 95.8 Capital FM remains number one with approximately 1 million more listeners than its nearest rival – Radio 4. 1548AM Capital Gold overtook Radio 2 in London for the first time under Rajar.

New local London stations fared poorly. Viva! 963AM’s first quarterly survey shows it has an audience of only 121,000 – well below its launch predictions, although its parent company, Golden Rose Communications, claims subsequent weekly listening data indicates improved figures.

London Christian radio station Premier fared better with 210,000 but this was still below expectations. Slightly better still was Country 1035 whose listening audience now stands at 313,000.

Premier confirmed at the weekend plans to cut costs and raise new funds from the existing list of “supporters” who have so far donated money to the running of the station. Cuts to programming are definitely not on the agenda, the station insists. A new autumn programme schedule is now being launched with a greater emphasis on sharper news and discussion with more youth output in the evening.

Back at the BBC the message is clear: increased competition is not building the market. But new commercial stations are not the only ones struggling. Recent growth enjoyed by Radio 1 thanks to the arrival of breakfast DJ Chris Evans appears to be slipping. Evans’ show lost 100,000 listeners between quarter two and quarter three – a fall of two per cent of the total audience.

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