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