When commercial radio ’overtook’ the BBC five years ago, the
widespread assumption was that this was another marker in the inexorable
rise of the commercial medium. This wasn’t just about overtaking, it was
supposedly about ’preparing to supersede’. Whereas, in fact, it turned
out to be overtaking as in the tortoise and the hare rather than as in
the internal combustion engine replacing horse power.
This has to be worrying for the commercial radio industry - an industry
whose brand proposition, its defining characteristic, has been dynamic
With the advent of national stations like Classic FM and Virgin, it
reached parity with the BBC in terms of presence on the dial.
Now we’d see if the commercial sector’s innovation, creativity, flair
and sheer drive and desire - much vaunted by many observers and
theorists at the time - would begin to tell.
The story it has told, though, has been inconclusive, with neither side
producing sustained dominance; and in the latest Rajar figures published
last week, the BBC was back on top. Listening share for all BBC stations
was 50.3 per cent; commercial radio weighed in at 47.8 per cent.
So perhaps it was no coinci- dence that the biggest noises being made in
the commercial radio sector last week were not about audiences but the
future impact of new technologies.
GWR, in announcing decent results, said it was focusing its efforts on
digital in the belief that this would be where the greatest growth
prospects were to be found - indeed, the new era is almost upon us with
the launch of the national commercial digital service, Digital One, on
But is digital really going to provide commercial radio with its next
leap forward? Or does its faltering performance in the overtaking lane
underline some fundamental concerns for the medium’s future?
Justin Sampson, the operations director of the Radio Advertising Bureau,
says the medium is already winning the battle for future audiences
because it is succeeding in targeting the all-important 15- to
44-year-old age group, where commercial radio has a 77 per cent share.
He also maintains that commercial radio’s great leaps forward have come
at times when it has increased its share of the dial.
Digital, Sampson argues, will see commercial radio competing on a level
playing field for the first time. He says: ’With digital, commercial
radio will be able to compete equally with the BBC for the first time on
a national basis - by 2000, we will have six national stations and they
will have five.’
But some sources insist that the commercial sector shouldn’t take its
eye off the ball.
Robert Ray, the joint managing director of MediaVest, comments: ’The BBC
thing is a barometer but I think people get preoccupied with it. The
most important thing from the advertisers’ point of view is whether the
commercial sector is losing audience year on year. If it doesn’t deliver
audience, the prospect of inflation rears its ugly head.’
Radio treats its best customers extremely well - while a select few of
the medium’s longest, biggest and best supporters are cushioned, the
worst effects of inflation are loaded on to the broad rump of the
medium’s less-favoured customers.
Some observers believe that’s a dangerous policy. But it’s not a real
problem if you have faith in growth. Unfortunately, even if digital has
the potential to deliver that growth, it isn’t going to happen
overnight. And there are those who doubt the wisdom of putting your
faith in technology rather than programming excellence and brand
Ray says: ’Digital will offer better sound quality but the public isn’t
going to listen to more radio because the sound quality is better -
they’ll only do so if the licences bring something new in terms of
We’re waiting to see evidence of that. Possibly the biggest thing that
digital will bring is more fragmentation. Will that mean more revenue
for commercial radio? I suspect not.’