SPOTLIGHT ON: COMMERCIAL RADIO: UK radio continues to ride the storm of financial recessions - Economic downturns have so far failed to halt radio’s growth, says Alasdair Reid

Anniversaries are coming thick and fast this autumn. UK commercial radio will be 25 years old next Thursday, LBC having launched on 8 October 1973.

Anniversaries are coming thick and fast this autumn. UK commercial

radio will be 25 years old next Thursday, LBC having launched on 8

October 1973.

That Lady by the Isley Brothers was top of the charts, album of the year

was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and English football was

beginning to be dominated by a Liverpool side featuring Kevin Keegan and

John Toshack.

We were about to enter the three-day week, featuring politely scheduled

rotas of power cuts that provided a golden age of excuses for missing


For grown-ups, things seemed slightly more serious. We were in a


The miners were on strike. Definitely not the best time to launch a new


But in its 25-year history, commercial radio has had an ambiguous

relationship with recession.

Downturn may have had a near catastrophic effect on ad revenues, but

troubled economic times have always coincided with quantum leaps for the

medium, at least in terms of audience and numbers of stations.

Take the early 80s. While the Tory government was inflicting more damage

on British industry than had ever been achieved by the Luftwaffe, a

freeze imposed on the medium by the Annan Committee was being lifted.

New local radio franchises were awarded at a rate of five-a-year until


And then again a decade later. While Saddam prepared for war and Western

economies reacted by going into paralysis, frequency splitting -

launching different services on FM and AM frequencies, rather than

having to simulcast - increased the independent local radio family to

100 stations.

The 1990 Broadcasting Act also gave a green light to the launch of

national commercial stations.

This last move is acknowledged as the single biggest factor in taking

radio to its current comfortable position. The early 90s may have been

devastating in ad revenue terms, but radio has since gone from strength

to strength; climbing from a third to more than half of all radio

listening and from 2.5 per cent to more than 5 per cent of UK display ad


All of which provides a more than compelling reason to use the 25th

anniversary as an excuse to do some crystal-ball gazing. History might

just have a schedule full of repeats this autumn.

If there’s to be a recession soon, it is likely to coincide with the

serious consumer launch of digital. That could see a step-change

involving thousands, rather than hundreds, of new services.

But could this recession be the medium’s most painful yet?

Unsurprisingly, Justin Sampson, the operations director of the Radio

Advertising Bureau, says advertisers are likely to react very

differently this time around.

He says: ’In the past, advertisers had one or two core media. Now they

use more media as a matter of course and they are less likely to

retrench to traditional primary media. We are more likely to see the

creative use of media previously regarded as secondary.’

Wishful thinking? Perhaps not. Derek Morris, founding partner of Unity,

tends to agree. He says: ’Ten years ago, you had four or five bursts on

TV and then you might be allowed to add posters or radio to it. People

are more confident about mixed media schedules and they are more

confident about using TV at lighter weights - they don’t have to

sacrifice everything to protect their TV spend.

’Clients are more familiar with the medium, which makes it less easy to

knock off the schedule. Ten years ago, people didn’t want to use it in

the first place. They had been talked into it by a planner who’d done

everything else so well that there was still some budget left. Now most

buying points have radio specialists whose jobs depend on use of the



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