The Year Ahead for ... Radio

John Ryan thinks the radio sector has a lot to feel positive about going into 2012, but is still waiting for an outbreak of truly great ads.

John Ryan
John Ryan

So, at least two good things happened in 1973. First (for me anyway), I was born, and second, so was commercial radio in the UK. It would seem that I'm older by 50 days (sigh).

Since then we have lived side by side, with no pressure from either of us to radically change our relationship.

Radio has never gone out of its way to baffle me with technology, or make me feel inept because I don't have the latest version. Not once has it let me down by not being there, or not catered for my shift in taste. In fact, it never asked anything of me - until now or, more accurately, until five months ago, when I was asked to take on our radio team (alongside our print team) and consider the direction we should take.

For starters, I'm no radio "purist" - a strange intro to a thought piece on the channel maybe, but any other claim would clearly be disingenuous, and particularly so to the "purists" I have been lucky enough to inherit and recruit as part of this role. The claim is only really pertinent because it would seem to be a reflection of the channel itself. People who have grown up working in radio tend to stay working in radio: they develop a passion for it in the same way that advertisers that use it - and, seemingly, keep on using it - do. It has a certain "stickiness".

I start with a blank sheet of paper, and an intention to fill it with the key areas that need covering before attempting a narrative. The scribbles come immediately and, as the sheet starts to fill up, I realise just how much there is to cover - and I am pleasantly surprised by just how many of those areas are positive.

First, a look at the basics. In terms of product and consumption, Q2 saw radio listening (as a whole) at record Rajar levels (47.6 million), and commercial radio performing very positively within that at 34.2 million. Nothing unhealthy there.

In terms of advertiser support, revenues were expected to be up around 4 per cent like for like, and are predicted to see further growth in 2012 - so another tick. Finally, 40 of the top 50 spending advertisers across January-October 2011 increased radio investment on 2010, with 15 new advertisers also joining the top rank - another positive sign, and testament to the work put in by all on the owner side to rebalance the books after the recent COI reduction.

In addition, the major businesses involved are seemingly in good health and constantly demonstrate a desire to push into new areas, be it digital, mobile, data or audience-related. It also feels positive that, for every one of the key players, it's possible to understand their business strategy and point of difference; and, in Global and Bauer's quite opposite approaches, it is testament to the breadth of opportunity.

Last, with so much change in ownership elsewhere, and the fact that we are in such challenging economic times, it's reassuring to know that each of these businesses is committed and expert in equal measure. Stability, all of a sudden, is so much more attractive to advertisers and, of course, critical if we are to avoid undermining radio's current momentum.

Moving on, I started by briefly talking about my relationship with radio over the years as a consumer, and it made me think of another dynamic: radio's relationship with itself (bear with me, reader). What I mean to say is that it's quite clear that radio has a solid sense of self. It combines a very healthy appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses and, most of the time, a real sense of mission about how it intends to address each of them. A refreshing approach, in my view, and - if the balance of confidence and realism is managed effectively - one that can only continue to be a positive in 2012 and beyond.

As I write this, the industry is united in its £10 million digital push. This year will begin with further evidence of the channel's commitment to continued reappraisal/consideration, through Absolute's "Redefining Radio" event in the Houses of Parliament.

Both are positive, and although digital switchover looks set to drift further again (2019 has been suggested in some quarters), it still does what it needs to do: namely, ask that radio is reappraised, show it is interested in growing the listener experience and demonstrate that the technology debate can be extended to include it.

The Absolute event has the potential to have a really positive effect on the perception of radio, and I hope there is a strong and lateral embracing of it by our industry and clients alike.

Some of the work that Absolute does to remind media agencies and advertisers that radio aims to be as "fashionable" and as "social" as other channels is fantastic. Obviously, it is not alone in this, and initiatives such as these can only have a positive halo effect - particularly on the younger generation of marketeers and media professionals coming through - so I'd like to see more and more of this in 2012, if possible.

There are, of course, challenges. One in particular stands out as the most public: where have all the great radio ads gone?

It's a widely debated issue and not one I'm entirely qualified to comment on - at least, not professionally. But this is clearly an area where time needs to be spent, guidance given, appetite found and magic sprinkled.

Hopefully, Ofcom's relaxation of some of the more archaic rules should help lubricate thinking, inspiring agencies, creative and media alike to collaborate more closely with programming teams, and get us all standing to applaud some sheer simplistic brilliance again very soon.

In conclusion, most of us have radio ingrained in our hearts and minds more deeply than we tend to realise.

I mean, who doesn't remember their local station growing up as clearly as they remember their first love (and break-up), or the bus that took you seemingly anywhere for 12p, or signing shirts on the last day of school (probably QR code stamps these days), or, finally, unpacking for the first night in your first home away from home?

Yes, there is a generational debate, and, yes, of course that is part of the challenge. But no-one is sitting on their hands, and the last I heard, our population was getting older, not younger.

I guess, as the current digital radio ad suggests, if you love radio, let it live; and if you're not sure, look again, but take time to think back a little too.

John Ryan is the investment director, head of print and radio, at Manning Gottlieb OMD.