Commercial radio in-fighting leaves the BBC’s lead unshaken

The scramble to see which commercial station is winning the battle at breakfast and which is leading the pack in London masks the true state of affairs in commercial radio.

The real battle ground is with the BBC. Nothing illustrates this better than looking at BBC Radio 1’s lead with its Chris Moyles-hosted breakfast show. The latest Rajar figures for the quarter to June 26 show that the programme attracted 300,000 more listeners, giving it 6.3 million. In contrast, Jamie Theakston made a disappointing debut on the Heart 106.2 breakfast show which lost more than 250,000 listeners and failed to make any inroads into Johnny Vaughan’s breakfast spot on 95.8 Capital, which lost 161,000 listeners.

This latest set of figures saw Heart slip to third place and Magic move into second place for the second time since the last quarter of 2004, leaving Capital in the lead. With the commercial players focused on fighting each other, the BBC has managed to maintain its 54 per cent share of national audience. Commercial radio trails behind on 44 per cent.

The BBC has been steadily building its share of the national audience since the third quarter of 2003, while commercial radio has been losing its share since its peak of 49.2 per cent in June 1999. It has hovered around 44 per cent since the third quarter of 2003.

The commercial radio industry agrees that the reason why the BBC is doing so well, in particular Radio 1, is because it has invested in talent and programming. Mark Helm, director of media at radio programming company Sound, says: “Commercial radio stations are not necessarily working towards their market [in terms of targeting types of audience]. The stations need to stop chasing the same audience and invest in programming; the BBC is doing well because that’s what it does.”

The need to develop better and more high-profile programming as well as nurture new talent has been recognised by commercial radio. Following the success in January of UK Radio Aid, a day when commercial radios broadcast the same programming across their networks in aid of the victims of the Asian tsunami, the industry has realised that it has a better chance of taking on the BBC if it acts together.

The Radio Advertising Bureau has been acting as a catalyst for bringing the groups together. Co-operation has already led to the development of three chart shows for urban, adult contemporary and popular music for all commercial networks (MW June 16).

The increased focus on developing ideas has led EMAP managing director of programming Mark Story to boost the broadcaster’s efforts in programme development. He says: “We are strong in the local markets where we’ve spent money bringing back local personalities, but nationally, commercial radio is seen as weak and insipid.”

Where commercial radio is making a dent on the BBC’s performance is in digital radio, increasing its share of listening this quarter, while the BBC experienced a slight decline across its digital-only stations. With digital radio, the commercial sector has managed to offer more choice as it caters for distinct niche audiences nationally, rather than mass audiences in various regions.

In the last quarter, GCap-owned Planet Rock became the most popular digital- only station, with a 0.2 per cent share of total listening for all radio. Ralph Bernard, chairman of GCap, says: “Commercial radio will benefit from digital and keep going up and up.”

But with only 1.5 million DAB sets having been sold and analogue switch-off scheduled for 2012, commercial radio still has its work cut out if it is to dent the BBC.

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