Media Forum: Does radio need reviving?

Should commercial radio do more to freshen up its act, Alasdair Reid asks.

Radio revolution was in the air last week. Sort of. A slightly warm, beige and emotionally fuzzy revolution. At Radio 2, we had, at long last, after an eternity of hype designed to remind us that we were indeed witnessing one of the epoch-making moments in the history of mankind, Chris Evans taking over from Terry Wogan on the breakfast shift.

Meanwhile, over at the true, pure and unreconstructed home of revolution (96.2 Revolution, serving the Greater Oldham area), the station proprietor (and formerly Virgin Radio's on-air controversialist-in-chief) Steve Penk was complaining bitterly about the above.

He even went so far as to write an angry letter to the BBC Trust insisting that he was appalled at the "sheer scale of unfair cross-promotion" perpetrated by the BBC in support of Evans' accession.

And it's true that the Evans commercials have been wall to wall across the BBC's TV channels. His mug has been as hard to avoid as was David Tennant's over Christmas. So he, Penk, clearly has a point.

But, really. Have two of the medium's enfants terribles come to this? Not so much two bald men fighting over a comb - more like two former hipsters fighting over custody of a cardigan. Or a cardigan-wearing audience at any rate.

It's a salutary reminder that mainstream radio is terribly middle-of-the road and, dare we say it, rather staid. And any suspicion of stuffiness was surely underlined by the news that Johnny Vaughan and Lisa Snowdon have just signed up for another two years on Capital Breakfast. The commercial medium's headline talent line-up (Vaughan and Snowdon, Magic's Neil Fox MD, Heart's Jamie Theakston, Christian O'Connell on Absolute Radio) has seemingly been set in stone for donkey's years.

Has the Evans era kicked off with a realisation that the medium is, in on-air terms at least, rather tired? No, not really, Mark Cross, the communications planning director at COI, states. But he says we all have to wait to assess the impact of Evans not just on raw listening levels but on audience profiles.

He says: "Generally speaking, we want a strong commercial sector with strong brands and audiences - and as an advertiser, we need to explore ways of unlocking the value of the relationships stations have with their listeners. So, of course, we support any initiative to invest in brands and talent in the commercial sector. But it will be interesting to see the extent to which Evans retains the Wogan audience. If he doesn't, therein lies an opportunity for commercial radio to strengthen its offering. You don't need to do that by making single, high-profile signings of presenters. I think it's about strength in depth and having the right talent in the right places rather than about one individual."

But Dominic Woolfe, Starcom's head of radio, thinks that the situation is more urgent than that. He explains: "Evans is a huge threat. I hope the sector is ready. Obviously, it needs a blend - and there will always be a place for proven talent like Johnny and Lisa. But the medium needs new talent too. It has to be a long-term game - and now that radio is owned by private companies, there has been an expectation that there's every opportunity to do that. More, certainly, than when radio was owned by PLCs."

And maybe it's true, Tom Drummond, Initiative's head of radio, argues, that the commercial sector is perhaps not making the most of its current assets. It's a finely balanced situation, he reckons: "Commercial radio has some very big names - it's just that we sometimes forget that. Theakston, Fox and Vaughan are all household names. And we shouldn't assume that everything's going brilliantly at the BBC. Yes, it's making much of Evans - but don't forget it has just lost Jonathan Ross. And Evans might be a brilliant DJ, but is he right for that audience? If they don't stay with him, where will they go? The BBC will be under pressure this year - and it no longer has the ability to hand out blank cheques. That has to be an opportunity for commercial radio. It's just that it hasn't been as aggressive as it might have been."

However, Howard Bareham, the head of radio at Mindshare, isn't quite in agreement with that analysis. He concludes: "If commercial stations had taken Evans and the launch of his new show on directly, that would almost inevitably involve negative copy - and I'm not sure they'd have been wise to do that. I think they're right to keep plying their own wares. Radio 2 has always been a threat - and the BBC has always had more opportunities to promote it across all platforms. I don't think that has changed much with the arrival of Evans."

MAYBE - Mark Cross, communications planning director, COI

"We'll have to see how Chris Evans does. If Evans begins pulling in a younger audience, it might demand a greater response from the likes of Heart and the Big City Network."

YES - Dominic Woolfe, head of radio, Starcom

"Commercial radio's talent line-up is looking a bit tired. And Evans is a real threat. I think the commercial sector has to respond but it doesn't have megabucks - so I'd suggest a big grass-roots talent hunt."

MAYBE - Tom Drummond, head of radio, Initiative

"Perhaps commercial radio shouldn't sit back and complain about the BBC but instead make up its mind to go for it. Because it's also true there are some brands that are not as well-known as they should be."

NO - Howard Bareham, head of radio, Mindshare

"People forget that it's almost always established artists that drive audiences. Commercial radio would be more open to criticism if it chopped and changed too much. Nor do I think it's at all fair to imply that commercial radio has been on the back foot as regards Evans."

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