Written by Media, Radio


In radio stations up and down the country, radio station bosses have been examining their RAJAR results last night and first thing this morning.
Media Guardian has plenty of detail about the overall results. And you can get the raw figures direct from RAJAR.
But there’s an interesting blog piece my Media Guardian radio correspondent John Plunkett highlighting the least positive aspect of today’s results: the continued growth of BBC radio at the expense of commercial radio.
Now you might say that as someone who works in commercial radio, I would say that this is a negative. As an intelligent reader of this blog, it’s quite likely that you listen to lots of BBC radio. And you wouldn’t be alone – I do too. And everytime the future of the BBC is threatened, I worry about the future of the whole UK broadcasting environment. The USA is not a model I want to follow.
But with this RAJAR, the BBC’s share of radio listening has grown from 55.4% to 56.8%, while commercial radio’s share has fallen from 42.4% to 41.1% (Note for the curious: the “missing” 2% or so, is to stations that aren’t on RAJAR including web and international listening).
Now those might seem quite small percentage changes, but actually 1% of radio listening is 100,000 hours per week – a not inconsiderate amount. And more to the point the BBC’s share is now higher than it has been since the advent of commercial radio (and RAJAR). And that’s despite many additional commercial stations having launched throughout the duration of this chart.

The problem is that the BBC is just too successful. And it’s in that environment that the likes of Peter Bazalgette is again suggesting that Radios 1 and 2 are privatised.
Now I’ve argued before that that would be catastrophic for commercial radio, with those two services taking the lion’s share of revenues.
One thing is clear: depite more calls on leisure time than ever before, radio listening is not decreasing overall. All radio listening increased by 1.5% quarter on quarter – surely a testament to the medium.
But whose fault is it that the BBC is “too good”? Have commercial operators done less than their level best in recent years? Has the BBC’s guaranteed income meant that it’s been able to sign all the top talent, leaving the bare bones for commercial radio? Is it because the BBC is able to cross-promote its radio services on television to a far greater extent than a commercial operator is able to (having to pay for advertising airtime)? Or has commercial radio simply not invested in their product enough, perhaps having to worry more about servicing the needs of their shareholders rather than those of their listeners?
While I’m sure that champagne corks are popping up the road at Broadcasting House, the political ramifications of a completely dominant BBC are also likely to be carefully examined.
Unlike television, the playing field isn’t level. The BBC has the lion’s share of the most attractive spectrum with four national networks on FM compared to a single national commercial network in Classic FM. But commercial radio would never be able to support such institutions as Radios 3 and 4 (Channel 4 Radio, if and when it finally launches will surely be closer in tone to Five Live without the sport, and not Radio 4 as is widely perceived). But there are commercial alternatives to Radios 1 and 2. Your local commercial pop station probably shares a considerable amount of the Radio 1 playlist, and Radio 2’s audience has certainly decreased in age over recent years (Q4 2007’s RAJAR shows that the average age of a Radio 2 was 53, in Q4 1996 it was 59 – and that downward pattern has been consistent), as specialist music gets pushed to the outer reaches of the schedule (following the sad death of Humphrey Lyttleton, will any jazz be returning to Radio 2?).
If and when there’s a full replacement to analogue radio in one or more digital formats, then commercial radio will have a more level playing field. And it’s encouraging that a further half a million DAB radios were sold in the first quarter of 2008 taking the market total to 7 million. At the same time, 18% of all radio listening is now digital (whether via DAB, digital television or the internet). But we’re a way off a full digital future at the moment with continued uncertainty about which digital path should be taken. And the funding inequity is always likley to be in place, especially in a marketplace where advertising expenditure is threatened by both a recession and the growth of the internet.
Leaving aside digital for the moment, the only other direct way that commercial radio will be able to compete is “networking” – sharing programming across many stations in a group or groups. Ofcom has recently relaxed the rules on networking and already Global Radio and GCap Radio have announced plans to network parts of their main daytime output – much off-peak programming is already networked. While that might be a profitable short-term solution, followed to a logical conclusion there is the danger of depriving local communities of local programming. And let’s not forget that localness is all but gone from television already.
Networking also reduces the entry points for new talent into the industry. Remember that most of our top DJs actually started in local commercial radio. If there are no slots left to try new people, then we reduce the opportunities for discovering future talent. But go away and read Matt Deegan on this subject.
Overall, it’s important that the BBC does do the sort of things that commercial radio can never do. That doesn’t mean not producing services that are attractive to 15-44s, but to do this intelligently, and always remembering that “crushing” the opposition is not likely to help anybody’s cause. Commercial radio doesn’t deserve special priviliges – commercial radio companies are in the business to make money after all. But state funded services mortally wounding these business is not smart either.
As ever, the views here do not necessarily reflecft those of my employer.