Written by Radio

The Fragmentation of the UK Radio Sector

I’ve yet to properly write about the recently published RAJAR report, Audio Time, based on the last MIDAS survey. That will come. But it does implicitly present some food for thought about the future of radio in the UK, identifying some of the threats it may face.

“Amongst 15-24s, the weekly reach of radio is very similar to the total population, but there is a clear
preference for online forms of audio – the most widely used being online music video on sites like YouTube.”

After last week’s RAJAR release, I highlighted some serious concerns about how much the amount of 15-24s listening to radio falling.

To overturn some of these trends is going to take something of a concerted effort from everyone in the radio industry. These aren’t trends that can be ignored because we can’t just expect people to discover radio when they get a bit older.

So it’s interesting at this point in time, to note how fractured UK radio actually is.

Obviously, I’m not talking about industry ownership. That’s more consolidated than ever, with Global and Bauer dominating, and the latter having just bought up Orion. But not everyone in radio is singing from the same hymn sheet.

The news that Global Radio has pulled its Patron support from the Radio Academy has, I fear, been a while in coming. For those who haven’t been following recent developments, in short the Radio Academy over-spent on major events like their Awards (aka the Sony Radio Awards) and the Radio Festival, and had to make nearly all its permanent staff redundant – with just a temporary CEO left in place.

The Radio Academy Awards were cancelled altogether – the last set of awards were in 2014, and there is currently no sign of a replacement despite promises of its return. A pretty dreadful state of affairs. If you make great radio, there’s nowhere for you to compete against all of your peers. It’s not just about having a shiny piece of perspex in a cabinet somewhere; award recognition can drive someone’s career.

Meanwhile, the Radio Festival was slimmed down and moved to London, and the organisation has been trying to reshape itself, although the recent news about Global’s withdrawal from the Radio Academy suggests that an overall appeasement has not reached. (It’s also worth reading what Paul Easton thinks about the situation and what it means for members like him.)

But beyond squabbles within the Radio Academy, if you look across the wider industry, these are not the only lines of disagreement:

  • Wireless Group, formerly UTV, pulled out of commercial radio’s trade body RadioCentre a few years ago now, as did UKRD. (As a consequence, neither enter the Arqiva Commercial Radio Awards, even though the awards are now open to all commercial stations, regardless of RadioCentre membership.)
  • There are certainly differences of opinion over DAB and it took tortuous negotiations to agree a Memorandum of Understanding between commercial groups, the BBC and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. And you certainly won’t find uniform agreement about any kind of potential “switch-off” or “switchover” to a fully digital broadcasting solution. As we get closer to a symbolic 50% digital listening percentage, those differences in opinion will probably only widen
  • RadioPlayer is a joined up success and most stations have bought full into it. Yet visit some of Bauer’s sites (example link) and you still won’t get the universal player as you would with Global, the BBC and most other commercial stations, despite Bauer being a shareholder in the group as a result of its purchase of Absolute Radio.
  • The only real pan-radio group is RAJAR – everyone uses the same currency. Except, of course, some smaller commercial stations and most community stations, since RAJAR’s methodology would not satisfactorily measure these stations without increasing costs massively.

I should point out most people use RadioCentre’s Clearance services to ensure that advertising copy is fully complied, and pretty much all national radio advertising is scheduled via the JICRIT system for trading.

And of course an entire industry will never see eye to eye on everything – you wouldn’t expect any industry to do so. But radio, a medium now facing unparalleled challenges, really doesn’t present a particularly united front on anything.

Following Global’s withdrawal from the Radio Academy, On Twitter, I wondered, with my tongue only very slightly in my cheek, whether in fact Sound Women was now the de facto pan-industry radio group?

Sound Women of course has a specific set of aims and ambitions, notably: “to build the confidence, networking and leadership skills of women in audio.”

To those ends, they hold events and festivals, provide training, and including a regional programme.

They’re open to all – including men – and, at least at time of writing, I believe that they’re supported by most of the radio industry including Global, Bauer and the BBC, as well as several radio indies, Skillset, RadioCentre and Ofcom. Oh, and the Radio Academy!

I must confess that I’m not a member, in large part, I suspect, because I know I would feel like an usurper attending their events. I’m a white middle-class man after all.

(Aside: It’s perhaps also because my own bête noire is the representation of diversity in radio. It shouldn’t just be defined in terms of sex or ethnicity either. As I’ve argued before, social background is at least as important, because we’re not talking to our audience while our industry is predominantly middle-class. With so many routes to entry based around unpaid work experience, we’re effectively barring those without private incomes or who’s parents can’t support them.)

Sound Women is doing an excellent job in raising key issues about the gender imbalance in radio, audio, and indeed the wider media.

But beyond them, who’s looking after the rank and file of those who work in radio, audio and beyond? What’s the venue for sharing knowledge and learning from our peers? The Radio Festival and Hall of Fame are all very well, but only a minority get to attend. The Festival tends to be aimed at managerial types. Yes – that includes me. Meanwhile the Hall of Fame is somewhere to take your talent – or for the most senior people in your station to schmooze.

Regional Radio Academy events were open to all. Anyone could attend – even non-members for a small fee. You could learn, network and discuss relevant issues with your peers. For many members – most members? – these were the only things the Radio Academy directly offered them.

Is this being lost?

Now, if you work at a Global Radio station, you’ll need to personally spend at least £36 a year to get along to an event. That said prior to notification of the upcoming 30 Under 30 event, I honestly can’t remember the last time there was an event in London – and like it or not, that’s where the big groups, and a large proportion of Radio Academy members live and work. (Yes – I know that regional events have been rather better organised, with a number of events taking place recently).

One way or another, at a time when the medium is under attack from a variety of interlopers in the radio and audio world, the industry doesn’t appear to speak with a singular voice on pretty much anything. And now we’ve reached a point where there isn’t even a single representative organisation for everyone in radio.

This seems a pretty appalling state of affairs. Maybe I’m making it sound worse than it is, but you’re going to have to work to persuade me otherwise.

It seems that corporate differences, entrenched views and personal grievances have won the day. Will the all the UK’s commercial radio groups be sending delegates to the UK’s main radio conference later this year? Will they all speak at the event? Will talent regardless of station be eligible for the Hall of Fame? Perhaps the answer to all of these will in fact be ‘Yes.’ But these are awkward questions that we shouldn’t have to be asking.

Is it time to start afresh and do something different? Do we need something that is open to all without corporate involvement? Something for individuals and beyond the reach/interference of organisations? Of course doing something different will have costs, and that raises the question of funding. In many industries, corporate patronage is a key part of making these kinds of groups viable. Is that something we need to rethink in the future if at a corporate level, agreements can’t be reached?

Yes, there are independent operations – conferences like Next Radio (The 2016 conference has just been announced!) and Radiodays Europe. But they’re relatively few, and in the latter’s case, at nearly €1000 a delegate, few employees of stations are likely to dip into their own pocket to attend, meaning that you have to rely on your employer’s support.

I look slightly enviously at Television where the BAFTA Awards still happen – BBC; ITV; C4; Sky; Netflix; Amazon; everybody represented. There’s a conference in Edinburgh that anyone serious in the industry must attend. There are events for both BAFTA and Royal Television Society members. There’s a trade body that all the major commercial groups are members of.

I’m sure it’s not all perfect, and that there are differences between members. But it looks somewhat rosier than radio from where I’m sitting.

At a time when global giants like Apple and Google are investing ever more into audio, can UK radio be outward, joined-up and inclusive, rather than inward, fractured and narcissistic?