Power of commercial radio as a public service

Red Dragon FM sparked a burst of petrol panic buying last week, which proves the power of commercial radio as an effective communicator

Last week, Red Dragon FM was under investigation by the Radio Authority for causing an outbreak of petrol panic buying. Within minutes of the presenter’s remarks about possible blockades, motorists had pulled off the roads and were sitting in lengthy queues. By the following morning, panic had swept along the M4 to the Home Counties.

The radio station was cleared of scaremongering because listeners were told the rumours had not been substantiated, but what does this incident tell us? The English will believe any old rubbish just for the chance to queue? Not quite, I think it shows explicitly the power of commercial radio as an effective communicator.

The value of commercial radio as a wealth creator is well understood – it was the fastest growing sector of the Nineties in the display advertising market and has shown double-digit growth year on year. Our value as broadcasters, or in other words, what attracts listeners to commercial radio, is less well understood. If I had a pound for every time some “bright spark” said: “I don’t listen to commercial radio myself but my children do,” I’d have a few quid. Eighty per cent of UK local listening is captured by stations which play ads and yet “bright spark” won’t admit to listening. The reason probably lies in a combination of Melvyn Bragg’s “high art versus low art” snobbery and the possibility that the key to our success is not clear to “bright spark”. We think it is the bits in-between tracks that secures listeners. Sure, music or genre is core to listeners’ choice but stations must distinguish themselves from their competitors.

We believe commercial radio is one of the most important methods whereby distinct communities learn about themselves. This can be a geographical community (Capital) or a community of interest (Classic FM, TalkSport) or both (Choice FM, Galaxy). Earlier this year, CRCA set out to see if this claim is true.

Over an eight-week period, every UK commercial radio station calculated how many minutes of airtime they spend on public service output. The results show that we spend 1.54 million minutes a year giving information on events – which equates to about two hours per station per week. Of that, we spend 1 million minutes a year on charity and 5.6 million minutes on news and travel information. Outside broadcasts amount to another million minutes a year.

When we compare this figure to the 970 minutes of paid-for advertising broadcast on a station each week, we can calculate that commercial radio’s public service output is worth about &£376m a year. But, hey, we wouldn’t dream of charging for it.

These figures prove our track record of offering a service of genuine value to listeners. Whether this service is a revision helpline or a broadcast from a live gig, we are a reflection to our listeners of what is unique about places where people live or the communities with whom they identify. And we now have the figures to prove it.

Nick Irvine is the public affairs manager for the Commercial Radio Companies Association

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