Radio’s hectic schedule shows no sign of slowing

From the Hutton Inquiry to the battle for breakfast supremacy, radio has enjoyed a headline-making 2003

Though 2003 was an eventful year for radio, the next few months could be even more hectic. It was the year in which digital radio finally reached full speed, Capital lost its crown as London’s unchallenged market leader, and the Today programme once again showed that it’s often radio, not television, that creates the biggest political waves. The repercussions of all three will be played out publicly very soon.

Next month, Lord Hutton will give his verdict on the events that followed Andrew Gilligan’s Today broadcast. His report will have huge ramifications, both for the BBC and the Government. The BBC has already beefed up its complaints and compliance procedures in anticipation. Capital too – or rather its flagship station, 95.8 Capital FM – has already introduced changes to halt the slide which led to Heart 106.2 overtaking its share of the London audience (though Capital still has more listeners). After 30 years as the biggest station in London, that’s a huge psychological blow, even though its group performance – with stations all over the country – is better. Can it recover quickly or will it find, like Radio 1, that once you lose market leadership, it’s hard to turn things round?

Capital’s new managing director, Keith Pringle, has jettisoned the dated American station sound and introduced more non-stop music, even re-recording the intros of 350 songs on its playlist so promos can be played over them, leaving no gaps between records. But the highest-profile change is still to come – the arrival of Johnny Vaughan as Chris Tarrant’s replacement on the breakfast show.

Vaughan was chosen because of his record at Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast, where Chris Evans also made his name. Pringle hopes Vaughan can do for Capital what Jonathan Ross has done for Radio 2 – change the station’s image so people are not embarrassed to say that they listen to it.

Pringle says: “Jonathan Ross’s show is not just music, and that will be true of Johnny – we’re looking at the content at the moment. He’s very good behind the microphone, he’s intelligent, quick on his feet and very good with people.” Pringle acknowledges that this was also said of Vaughan before he moved to the BBC, where he has struggled, but thinks that there are lessons to be learned from this.

“On Johnny Vaughan Tonight on BBC3, Johnny was at his best when he was bouncing off other people. Radio’s a more intimate medium and he’ll be fantastic with callers.”

Pringle won’t reveal when Vaughan is starting, so as not to alert his competitors. He says: “It will be the spring, which in this country could be any time between February and November.” And with Chris Moyles taking over the Radio 1 breakfast show from Sara Cox in the New Year, the stage is set for the biggest breakfast show battle since Chris Evans went head on with Zoë Ball, to the delight of the tabloids.

The resultant stream of front pages gave radio a huge boost. Vaughan doesn’t have Evans’ unlimited capacity for creating headlines – for which Capital will probably be grateful – but with Heart, Virgin, Capital and Radio 1 all heavily marketing their breakfast shows, the spring will be intense, whenever it comes.

But before then, there should be a “digital radio Christmas”. An array of new DAB receivers have been launched to take advantage of the many new stations, and finally the manufacturers seem to have sufficient stocks not to sell out. For the first time, Dixons and Currys have been intensively promoting DAB sets on television and in the press, and the culture secretary Tessa Jowell is not the only person who is hoping for one in her stocking.

The growing success of Freeview has also given radio a big boost, building on the pioneering work of Sky Digital in establishing that you don’t have to be mad to listen to radio on your television.

But one of the most far-reaching radio developments this year – radio on demand – has received less attention than it deserves. The BBC Radio Player is a breakthrough, allowing listeners to hear radio programmes at a time of their choosing, via the internet. It was launched 18 months ago, but it has developed strongly this year and has really taken off in recent weeks – there are now more than 1.5 million requests a week for programmes to be downloaded.

The most demanded programme is Radio 4’s The Archers, with 100,000 requests a week. Then come two Radio 4 comedies; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, with 50,000, and Dead Ringers, with 40,000 , followed by three Radio 1 shows – The Essential Mix, the Essential Selection and Judge Jules.

The Radio Player is like a video or SkyPlus, but for the radio. However, there is a difference – you don’t have to decide in advance what you want to record. It’s all sitting there in the BBCi server, waiting to be accessed at any time during the week after transmission. So if you’ve missed an interview by John Humphrys or an edition of Jonathan Ross, you can catch up.

As a BBC employee, I hesitate to blow Radio Player’s trumpet, but it has been glowingly endorsed by MediaGuardian.co.uk, which says: “If the excellent BBC Radio Player wasn’t the most innovative product of last year, we’d love to know what was.”

It will certainly change the way many people listen to the radio.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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