Media: Forum - Does the BBC pose a threat to commercial radio?/Commercial radio logged another solid performance on the latest Rajar audience figures. That, however, may not be good enough. Total radio listening is growing - but all the growth is going to

A good deal of commercial radio’s self-confidence in recent years stems from its own highly developed sense of historical inevitability. The big picture is all tied up in the industry’s reassuring, mantra-like phrase, ’the commercial radio generation’. The belief has always been that it was no use expecting much from the wireless generation that grew up with Tommy Handley on the Home Service; and that those who were won back by the BBC from Radios Caroline and London when Radio 1 launched were probably a lost cause too.

A good deal of commercial radio’s self-confidence in recent years

stems from its own highly developed sense of historical inevitability.

The big picture is all tied up in the industry’s reassuring, mantra-like

phrase, ’the commercial radio generation’. The belief has always been

that it was no use expecting much from the wireless generation that grew

up with Tommy Handley on the Home Service; and that those who were won

back by the BBC from Radios Caroline and London when Radio 1 launched

were probably a lost cause too.



The commercial radio generation - those for whom commercial radio was an

unquestioned part of the media furniture - grew up in the 70s. The

theory was that as the years passed, this generation would come to

represent the majority and that commercial audiences could only grow. So

no-one was all that surprised when commercial radio’s audience share

eclipsed the BBC’s in the mid-90s.



They were perhaps mildly surprised, though, that the share split stuck

roughly at evens. And surprise turned to twinges of consternation when

the BBC managed to regain a hair’s breadth lead on the Rajar figures a

couple of times. The latest figures, though, have surely created far

deeper psychological scars. Not only has the BBC stayed ahead for two

reporting periods in a row but it has opened up a significant lead -

51.3 per cent as against 46.7 per cent for the commercial sector.



This at a time when the indicators were looking good. For instance, a

recent study by Continental Research indicates that internet use is good

news for the medium. When people start going online they listen to 11

per cent more radio than they did before they got wired up. And yes,

growth in listening is indeed reflected in the Rajar figures - the

problem is that all of this growth has gone to the BBC.



How worried should commercial radio be about these latest figures? Does

it need to find a new vision of its place in history? Justin Sampson,

the managing director of the Radio Advertising Bureau, cautions against

reading too much into one set of figures. He still believes that time

and technology is on the commercial sector’s side: ’This does seem to be

an odd set of results. Commercial radio hasn’t declined at all, the BBC

has just gained listening - but its greatest growth is against older

audiences and they are almost certainly not the internet users. I

suspect that the majority of internet usage tends to be later in the day

so the media that suffer are evening media.



’At this stage, I don’t see it as a massive reason for worry. Long term,

the internet has to be seen as an opportunity for radio, not just

because people listen to radio while they use the internet but because

you can get an increasing number of stations online too. That potential

will increase as more people get broadband (cable) access.’



However, some buyers think that the medium must now confront some

fundamental problems. Mike Hope-Milne, the head of radio at MediaCom

TMB, comments: ’When the last figures came out, I argued that there were

no grounds for panic. Admittedly, commercial radio hasn’t been losing

listening hours but now I really think it’s time for the sector to sit

up and take notice.



Five or six years ago, the BBC was resting on its laurels. Now I think

that commercial radio has been guilty of doing that. I have seen reports

on the effects of increased internet usage on other media but I remain

to be convinced that there is a direct causal effect when it comes to

radio audience figures.’



Hope-Milne would go even further. The Rajar figures are only the second

set under a new methodology - and he thinks that the previous system

might have been flattering the commercial sector: ’I suspect that what

we are seeing is the new audience measurement system settling down and

we are at last seeing the reality of the radio audience situation.

Perhaps in the past commercial radio’s apparent lead might have been a

bit artificial.



One of the first things that some stations should do is to look at their

advertising minutage policies. Some, like Classic FM and the Chrysalis

stations, are strict.



Some aren’t. Listeners first went to commercial radio because they

played what they wanted to hear. Too many commercials could be making

people tune out and return to the BBC.’



Is that fair? Have some commercial stations started shooting themselves

in the foot? Paul Brown, the chief executive of the Commercial Radio

Companies Association, certainly thinks so. ’Radio stations do impose

commercial limitations but I acknowledge that sometimes they are tempted

to do favours for some of their advertising clients. In the long run,

those may not turn out to be doing the advertisers any favours at all.

Of course, stations want to help out their customers, some of whom have

very strong views on inventory and availability. But there are no

advertisers without listeners and people are very careful about anything

that might make listeners fed up.’



But maybe, he suggests, advertisers should also reassess their

priorities: ’What we do as an industry is largely driven by our

advertising customers and they are not interested, crudely, in listeners

over 45 years old. But that is where all the demographic growth is in

this country. Perhaps there should be more of an attempt to persuade

advertisers that older audiences are interesting too.’



And Sally Oldham, the managing director of Capital Radio, is optimistic

that growth is still within the industry’s grasp. She states: ’Despite

some of the alarmist comments we’ve heard recently, I certainly don’t

think this is life-threatening. I also think it’s too early to jump to

conclusions, particularly about the effects of the new Rajar

methodology.



But it does emphasise our need as an industry to have a coherent

strategy, particularly when it comes to the Government and the spectrum

audit. We are still expected to deliver audiences on AM frequencies,

which is a thankless task especially with the 16- to 34-year-old

audience. The FM spectrum is clearly the one for growth.’



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