Why radio has local authority

Contrary to a popular belief in the advertising business, small and large radio stations are seen in a very similar light by most listeners.

People working in advertising perceive small local commercial radio stations as somehow a bit naff, and hold them in low regard. The hypothesis seems to be that the larger the station, the better. So national stations such as Classic FM would be good; small local stations not so good.

Linked to this is a second hypothesis that the BBC is somehow higher status than commercial. So by this thinking, small local commercial radio is about as low as you can get.

There are structural reasons which have encouraged these perceptions. For a start, local radio stations tend to be unheard-of outside their transmission area, and hence they can feel like nonentities to people in the London-based advertising business. Another reason, of course, is that BBC radio had a 50-year headstart on commercial radio, which is enough time for any media brand to become widely loved and valued. So what is the reality behind these perceptions and hypotheses?

To find out, the Radio Advertising Bureau commissioned a survey among listeners. They were asked to rate radio stations according to a number of different criteria (see box).

The findings make interesting reading. The scores for national, regional and local stations are remarkably similar across many criteria. A tendentious researcher might claim there are significant distinctions here between the different sorts of commercial station, but the bigger conclusion is the similarity between the scores.

Chart one shows the extent to which listeners agree their station is “authoritative”. Not surprisingly, BBC speech radio comes out top (Radios 4 and 5) – but by nothing like the margin many people might expect. Also, that authority seems to come from the stations themselves rather than as any kind of halo effect from their status as BBC stations – the BBC music stations don’t share it.

Chart two shows scores for “It’s a station for people like me”. This is the chart which might most surprise people in the advertising business. Listeners to smaller stations clearly don’t feel the station is for someone else. As any media planner will tell you, this identification is extremely important for advertisers, as it brings a “for me” mindset, which is invaluable.

The final chart shows scores for “Overall Opinion”, which appears to prove that radio listeners value their chosen station – whichever kind of station that is.

There seems to be a ready parallel between admen’s views on commercial radio and daytime TV. Many people working in advertising never watch daytime TV except when they are at home ill.

Many consumers, on the other hand, have a positive daily relationship with the programmes – something that advertisers can exploit to good effect.

The fuller findings of this survey are available in the “John Banks Study” which is published this month by the RAB (and can be accessed at RAB Online). This takes the findings of the survey and compares them with the perceptions of people working in advertising. It reveals ad people misunderstand the relationship between listener and station, which is likely to affect the tone of voice with which they use radio airtime to speak to the listener.


The survey had to reflect the structure of commercial radio: so there were findings for all the main types of station. This included national stations (for instance Talk, Classic, Virgin), regional stations (such as Century, Scot FM, Heart), larger local stations (such as Metro, BRMB), and smaller local services.

In addition, to assess the BBC/commercial hypothesis, the survey included the national BBC services – music-based (Radio 1 and 2) and speech-based (Radio 4 and 5). It was based on a sample of 200 interviews for each type of station – 50 per cent were with people for whom it was the station they listened to most: loyalists. The other 50 per cent with people who listened less often.

The first part of the questionnaire covered aspects of programming: ratings for entertainment, presenters, music policy and so on.

The second covered more emotional aspects: was their station fun, authoritative, trustworthy and so on.

For the final part listeners were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements about the emotional role of the station: would they miss it if it was taken off-air? How happy would they be if it was the only station available? and so on.

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