Measuring radio from scratch rejuvenates the ratings battle

So, the £500,000 spent by the radio industry in upgrading the Rajar research system was worth it. Millions of missing listeners have been rediscovered ­ and the fear that radio seemed to be losing its appeal in this ever-fragmenting media age

So, the £500,000 spent by the radio industry in upgrading the Rajar research system was worth it. Millions of missing listeners have been rediscovered ­ and the fear that radio seemed to be losing its appeal in this ever-fragmenting media age was shown to be wrong.

Unfortunately for commercial radio, the new system ­ on its first outing, at least ­ seems to benefit the BBC more than their stations.

Though 89 per cent of adults were found to be listening to radio in the first three months of this year (compared with 85 per cent under the old system) and though each one reported listening for more than 22 hours a week on average (three hours more than previously recorded), the BBC took the larger share of listening ­ 50.3 per cent, compared with commercial radio’s 47.5 per cent.

This was the BBC’s best performance for more than two years, and though the commercial stations actually had more listeners ­ a 66 per cent weekly reach, compared with the BBC’s 64 per cent ­ and also gained 3 million extra listeners a week, there was no disguising some commercial stations’ disappointment at the Rajar press conference.

“This is Year Zero”, we were told by Rajar, the BBC and the Radio Advertising Bureau. No station should be reported as having increased its listening and no broadcaster should make any such claim in its press release ­ though it was permissible to explain that overall radio listening was higher than had previously been thought. In particular, no station should claim it had achieved “record” figures ­ even though many of them had. And so the best part of an afternoon was spent ­ for the best possible motives ­ in counting angels on pinheads.

The BBC agreed to reprint its press release after Rajar took issue with the original headline “BBC Radio takes the lead over commercial radio”. Even though the release explained that the figures were compiled under a new method “which precludes any trend analysis with previous figures”, the word “takes” was deemed to imply a comparison with previous figures. So the wording was altered to read “BBC Radio leads commercial radio.”

Yet the commercial stations’ releases were littered with implied comparisons ­ on the grounds, presumably, that most hacks couldn’t give a stuff about research methods and would have too little space to explain it all anyway.

Virgin Radio took a refreshingly straightforward approach in its release headed simply, if questionably, “Virgin Radio ­ Best Figures In The World Ever”. It went on to state: “Virgin Radio break all records with its highest national and London listening figures everä Chris Evans accelerates his lead over Zoe Ball in London with his biggest audience ever…”

Classic FM had genuine reason for celebration, hitting 6 million listeners and a share of 4.3 per cent. It announced “record listening figures” with listening hours having “risen to 40.8 million”. Like Virgin, it did not mention that the research method had changed.

Fortunately for the BBC, neither The Guardian nor The Independent were at the press conference. So they were far less squeamish about trumpeting BBC Radio 4’s audience gains, in terms that suggested that the network, the Today programme and controller James Boyle were on a high. Both papers explained that the figures came from a “more accurate” way of measuring audiences ­ and explained, quite legitimately, the implications for Radio 4 of being seen to have a higher audience.

Not being at the press conference, however, they missed Kelvin MacKenzie’s contribution to the debate. As discussion began on why the BBC now had a larger audience share than commercial radio, the Talk Radio boss leaped in on his favourite theme of the moment, shouting from the floor: “There was more cross-promotion on BBC TV of clapped-out BBC radio stations than ever before ­ it’s a scandal, it’s totally anti-competitive and it’s going to have to be stoppedä” This sentiment was noisily endorsed by several of the other commercial stations. Bravely, BBC Radio’s marketing manager Vanessa Griffiths retorted that as a public service broadcaster the BBC had a duty to make sure licence-payers knew of all the high-quality programmes being offered to them.

Inevitably, the question of whether the new research method had a bearing on the BBC’s success was also raised. Broadcast’s ratings guru William Phillips asked whether there was an inherent bias in the new system that would favour the BBC. As well as Radio 4’s success, Radio 5 Live recorded 5.8 million listeners a week and a 4.3 per cent share and the BBC local and “national/regional” stations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland scored very highly. Did the new research system ­ measuring individuals rather than households and using simpler “personalised” diaries ­ favour speech over music?

Justin Sampson, the Radio Advertising Bureau’s research expert, already has a theory based on the early results. He said: “Our feeling is the new methods are better at picking up lighter listening occasions, and that may benefit programme-led rather than programming-led stations.”

Stations with “built” programmes like Radio 4 may do proportionately better under the system than longer, presenter-based music programming. Phillips suggested this might be why Classic FM also performed well ­ arguing that it appeals to many traditionally “BBC” listeners, who tune in for particular programmes.

But Rajar director Peter Jenkins says that, as yet, he has discerned no consistent trend towards speech, or in any other direction.

What’s certain is that the next set of figures will be studied even more intensively. With comparisons no longer deemed odious, normal service can be resumed in the ratings battle.

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