Media Forum: Has radio lost its momentum?

Has navel-gazing contributed to radio's recent revenue setbacks?

Even its most enthusiastic cheerleaders will concede that the past couple of weeks have not been the most glorious in the history of commercial radio. First up, a set of lacklustre Rajar audience results that saw the BBC edge ahead (up 0.2 per cent to 54.2 per cent) yet again in terms of its share of listening.

Commercial radio - which, for a decade, had the BBC in its sights and temporarily overtook it in audience share terms - hit a wall a couple of years back and can seemingly find no way to regain momentum. Compare that with a similarly diverse TV market, where the BBC's channels command only a 35 per cent share of the total audience, with absolutely no way back.

That wouldn't be quite so worrying if revenue were forging ahead. The second bit of bad news: it isn't. Last week, GCap (the new group created by the merger of Capital and GWR, which now accounts for 40 per cent of radio revenue) revealed that April is down 17 per cent year on year. Chrysalis has also stated that March and April were down 12.5 per cent.

Chrysalis now expects revenue to be down for the year as a whole and while David Mansfield, the chief executive of GCap, would go no further than admitting that "visibility is limited", he gave little ground for optimism. Worryingly, one of radio's traditional mainstays, the retail sector, was among the underperforming sectors.

Has radio lost its way? Tim McCabe, the head of radio at Vizeum, concedes it has had its fair share of distractions recently. But the media market as a whole is soft, he suggests. He adds:"Retail itself is slow and that is all down to consumer confidence. That's likely to affect all media sectors and the second quarter has been slow. For me, though, it's a situation of the glass being half-full rather than half-empty. I think everyone is more optimistic about the second half of the year."

Howard Bareham, the head of radio at MindShare, agrees that there are all sorts of excuses you could make. The timing of Easter, for instance, combined with a general election. But the medium has to do more to maintain momentum, he suggests: "There is a bit more competition in the media market these days. Everyone has their own version of the Radio Advertising Bureau these days and advertisers and agencies are now experiencing a co-ordinated approach by other media. It would not matter so much if people were spending more money but, at a time when they are actually spending less, it becomes very hard even to retain share. The medium has to realise that it has to keep reinventing itself."

Andy Bolden, the UK advertisement director of GlaxoSmithKline, seconds that. He confesses he has something of a soft spot for the medium and says GSK is likely to use more radio this year than last. He doesn't believe that merger-mania is to blame, but he does concede that the medium is at a crucial stage in its marketing cycle.

He comments: "Some advertisers may take a short-term view. They might trial radio and decide, by the quick-fix measure of sales, that it's not for them. What radio's revenue situation is probably telling us is that there is a greater need for accountability and an understanding of exactly what radio does for you. If they addressed that, then it wouldn't be easy to take radio off a schedule - and the truth is that it remains relatively easy to take off. The RAB has generated a lot of goodwill, but perhaps some advertisers feel they have tried radio now. That's when true accountability becomes important."

That's a view Phil Riley, the chief executive of Chrysalis Radio, will take on board. He comments: "From all the indications I see, revenue is an issue right across the media market. Television, for instance, is facing a tough June. It's driven by economic weakness and we have seen horrendous retail figures. We are in the grip of economic uncertainty and that impacts on marketing expenditure. I know there have been reports indicating that perhaps GCap feels internally it could have done more, but we have not taken our eye off the ball and we have been having a torrid time."

So what's to be done? Chrysalis will continue to have faith in its product and its long-term strategy. But Riley adds: "We have to renew relationships with agencies and look again at why some of our bigger lapsed customers are not spending. Internally, we must look at some of our overheads. But let's not forget that radio delivers a potent audience to advertisers."

YES - Tim McCabe, head of radio, Vizeum

"I don't want it to seem as if I'm attacking GCap. It is investing in the future and is having to embrace dramatic changes to its working culture. But it would be fair to say it has taken its eye off the ball during the merger period."

YES - Howard Bareham, head of radio, MindShare

"There should have been more continuity in the way radio has been sold. Now it has to get on with it. When the market is down you have to stay focused. GCap wants to be seen as heading the charge on behalf of the medium."

MAYBE - Andy Bolden, UK advertisement director, GlaxoSmithKline

"When someone tries something and feels it didn't work, how do you re-engage them? Perhaps the RAB should revisit this. Everyone, no matter their business, has to keep looking at their brand's credibility."

NO - Phil Riley, chief executive, Chrysalis

"We must not lose sight of the fact that radio has shown tremendous growth and it has done that by demonstrating its effectiveness. We should also continue to concentrate on the numbers we deliver - more than 30 million listeners a week."

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