OPINION: BBC is blaming commercial radio for what is inevitable

The corporation may complain about the success of the newer radio stations, but the reality is the Radio Authority ensures the fight is fair, Kester Fielding says

The corporation may complain about the success of the newer radio

stations, but the reality is the Radio Authority ensures the fight is

fair, Kester Fielding says

In 1996, commercial radio will be the UK’s fastest growing advertising

medium for the fourth year in a row. In the past three years, the sector

has seen audiences grow by a third, national ad revenue double and local

revenue expand by more than a half. Inevitably, perhaps, such consistent

success begs the question, when will it all end?

What’s surprising is that it’s not advertisers and the press that are

raising doubts about the future. Neither is it the Advertising

Association, which predicts that commercial radio’s ad revenue will grow

twice as fast as that for all advertising over the next decade.

Instead, the only party with a bad word to say about radio is the former

market leader, the BBC. It has consistently complained that the radio

market is static. Despite the launch of new stations, it claims that

there are no more listeners.

For advertisers there are a number of reasons why the BBC’s position

doesn’t stand up to serious analysis; not least because of its selective

use of the Rajar audience figures.

Year on year, the total number of people listening to radio has actually

risen by 400,000 a week to 40.5 million. Nine out of ten adults in the

UK listen to radio for a staggering three hours a day.

Witness the performance of rival media such as TV, which has lost 3 per

cent of its audience in the past two years, or national newspapers,

which have lost 6 per cent of their sales in the same period.

What’s crucial for advertisers in this highly competitive situation is

that consumer choice in commercial radio is expanding. Not only that,

but its listenership skew is younger than the BBC’s.

Extending choice is a marketing principle that advertisers in mature

marketplaces cherish.

Ironically, this has also been the BBC’s corporate battle-cry for the

past three years, albeit that commercial radio is expanding and winning

the greater audiences while the BBC has reduced some of its local

services by merging local radio stations.

At the end of 1993, Radio 1’s listening hours slumped by 15 per cent in

just three months. Since then the BBC has been on the defensive as it

strives to retain public support for the licence fee.

Radio 1’s difficulties are symptomatic of the corporation’s more

fundamental cause for concern, which is the prospect of long-term

decline in its audience share, although that’s a blessing for

advertisers and listeners.

Liz Forgan, the BBC’s head of network radio, predicts that pressure from

commercial radio is going to drive down the corporation to a 30 per cent

audience share by the year 2005. That should have advertisers dancing in

the aisles. In effect, the BBC acknowledges that a further 20 per cent

of all its listeners will become available to advertisers in the next


The BBC’s concern about competition would be justifiable if commercial

radio simply replicated services. But the beauty of the system is that

the Radio Authority has a legislative duty to prevent this from

happening. No new licence is granted unless it will attract new

listeners or serve them better.

Commercial radio is getting it right, which explains why powerful media

owners are queuing up to grab a piece of the action. Just look at the

overall stock-market price of top radio companies if you don’t believe

me - they’ve trebled over the past three years.

With the BBC’s share eroding rapidly and the number of commercial

stations expected to double, audience growth is the last of its worries.

Advertisers will continue to be offered bigger audiences and a greater

share of voice for the forseeable future.

Kester Fielding is the group media director of Universal McCann