Media Analysis: Forum - Should commercial radio worry about the BBC?/Radio listening is growing but the Beeb is the main beneficiary Alasdair Read investigates.

A good deal of commercial radio’s self-confidence in recent years stems from its highly developed sense of historical inevitability.

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

stems from its highly developed sense of historical inevitability.

This is all tied up in the phrase, ’the commercial radio


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 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 mildly surprised, though, that the share stuck roughly at


And surprise turned to twinges of consternation when the BBC managed to

regain a tiny lead on the Rajar figures a couple of times. The latest

figures, however, have created 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 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 reflected on 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?

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 listeners - but its greatest

growth is against older audiences and they are not the internet users.

Most internet usage tends to occur later in the day so the media that

suffer are evening media.

’At this stage, I don’t see it as a massive reason to 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 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

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

the effects of increased web usage on other media but I remain to be

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


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

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

have been flattering the commercial sector: ’The new audience

measurement system is 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 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, 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 annoy listeners.’

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.’

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



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