Commercial radio grasps at digital straws

The BBC has consolidated its position as the leading broadcaster in UK national radio. It reported a record of 33.46 million listeners per week in last week’s Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar) figures for the first quarter of this year, and took a 56% share of the total radio audience. There is no doubt that, when it comes to analogue radio, the BBC is king.

But the commercial radio industry claims to be indifferent about the widening gap between it and its public service rival. Some senior commercial radio industry figures claim that they gave up worrying about the BBC a long time ago and say it is only journalists who make it an issue. Others point out that commercial radio has a larger share of 15to 44-year-olds – the key age range for advertisers – at 53%, and that 71% of Londoners listen to a commercial station every week, against 59% for the BBC.

But, as is always the case with Rajar, it is a matter of how the figures are interpreted. Commercial radio may have a higher share of the key age demographic for advertisers, but revenue fell by 5% last year. It may have a higher share of listening in London, but the most listened to stations in the capital are the BBC’s Radio Four and Two.

Commercial radio hits back, pointing out that the BBC has a higher share of listening in the 55-plus age group, who can listen for longer because many of them are retired. This is an area where commercial radio is more limited, with Guardian Media Group Radio’s Smooth network only recently moving to attract an older audience.

Phil Riley, chief executive at Chrysalis Radio, says it would be nice if the industry was in a position where it was not “beaten over the head” with the BBC’s figures, but he adds: “When Rajar comes out, what I really want to know is how we are doing against our competitors in commercial radio, not the BBC. I am more concerned about whether I have got inventory to sell to clients.” 

Digital future
The industry’s collective shrugging off of the BBC is also fuelled by its hope for the digital future. As managing director for programming at EMAP, Mark Story points out the spectrum allocation will be more even in digital broadcasting. “Judging the industry on pure analogue broadcasting is missing the point,” he explains. “There will also be the battle of downloads, podcasting and personalised radio.” 

The digital audience is growing, a point that both the BBC and commercial radio agree on and benefit from. Figures show that 58% of UK households now have access to digital services. Commercial radio has a 55% share of all digital hours and EMAP-owned The Hits is now the biggest digital-only service in the UK, with a weekly reach of 1.7 million listeners. This quarter also saw the BBC add over a percentage point to its share and increase its listening hours to more than 13 million.

Analogue retentive
Andrew Harrison, chief executive of commercial radio industry body RadioCentre, says that commercial will “lead on digital”, which means that, in future, the share of listening will even out. He adds/ “The difficulty for us is to continue to manage an analogue model where audiences are in decline, while investing in digital to encourage advertisers to try it even before there is critical mass.” 

But Howard Bareham, head of radio at Mindshare, believes the industry does still obsess about share and with good reason. He says: “The more listeners you have, the more money you can make.” 

Bareham adds that radio companies have to invest in their services, not only to compete against the BBC, but also to ensure that they dominate digital listening in the future. “Growing audiences against the BBC means investing in good content, so listeners engage with the station in new ways,” he says.

The second digital multiplex, which will be awarded in July, is also expected to give commercial digital listening a boost. The two bidders, Channel 4 and its consortium and National Grid Wireless, both claim that will bring new services that offer content not currently available to listeners.

While commercial radio may be indifferent to the success of its long-term rival on analogue, the tables will only turn when a bulk of listeners move to digital.

Caroline Parry


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