Commercial radio must stay united to fight BBC

Now that Radio 1 is fighting back, commercial stations must turn their increased firepower on the old enemy, not each other, says Jonathan Gillespie

Is the phoney war between commercial radio and the BBC over and the real one just beginning?

In the mid-Nineties, commercial radio stations could have broadcast Hungarian stomp music and listeners would have still flocked from the crest-fallen Radio 1. Station controller Matthew Bannister’s remit was to be “innovative and non-derivative”, a task he carried out with zeal – to the point that the station lost half its listeners.

He tore up the cosy unwritten charter that existed between the listener and DJ, introducing a “guess what genre of music is on next” policy. Not surprisingly, listeners became confused and disfranchised, and voted with their dials.

But times have changed. Radio 1 has stopped haemorrhaging listeners and seems to be undergoing a renaissance. The latest Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar) for September reveals it is the only national station to have gained listeners.

It is the third successive quarter that Radio 1 has increased its market share and, as the BBC’s flagship station, reflects the public service broadcaster’s renewed strength.

So why do we care?

Well, the latest Rajar is bad news for commercial radio. National stations have taken a battering, while local performance has been a mixed bag. A large proportion of BBC listeners are out of reach of commercial radio. Radio 4 has little that can touch it and, on the whole, Radio 2 doesn’t have an audience that advertisers want to target.

Radio 3 is an irrelevance in this war, and, while it retains Premier League football matches, Radio 5 Live! can parry Talk Radio’s valiant efforts.

If commercial players cannot boost the overall radio audience, that leaves just Radio 1. If it remains solid, we may see increased cannibalisation among commercial stations. This would be a real concern: no one wants to chase listeners around the dial.

But the new Rajar methodology is settling down, the key 15- to 44-year-old segment is still dominated by commercial radio, and the medium as a whole is increasing its revenue – meaning more money is available to market station brands.

One look at the London market reveals how ferocious the battle is, and how sweet the spoils. If this extra money can be harnessed to attracting BBC listeners, the medium will be able to perpetuate its growing attraction.

To this end, the commercial radio industry has delivered in spades. It has presented a united front, worked hard to make itself accessible and (soon) accountable, and consistently welcomed customers’ views as to how it can improve.

There are few mediums that can claim to have been so adventurous, or to have reaped such rewards. It would be a great shame if commercial radio stations’ artillery of ever-increasing marketing budgets were trained on each other rather than the BBC.

Jonathan Gillespie is director of radio at BMP OMD

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