radio

Shutting Down AM

Today, Ofcom published a short consultation based on a request from Absolute Radio to shut down a number of AM transmitters and reduce the power on some others.

In essence the request, which I confidently expect to be quickly agreed to, has three main details:

  • They want to close down completely 12 AM sites, and reduce the power of another 5 transmitters, leaving 20 transmitters in total.
  • These closures and reductions in power will see national AM coverage fall from 90.5% of the population to 85.4% of the population.
  • This would save Bauer Radio, Absolute’s owners, just over 50% of their costs.

So for a relatively small reduction in coverage, Bauer saves a lot of money for a service that is largely also available in one or more of DAB, FM, digital television or the internet in all the affected locations. I think it’s only fair to note that there are FM alternatives wherever the BBC is shutting down an AM station. But the point is still valid, especially with regards to music stations.

Bauer points out that the BBC has been shutting down a number of AM transmitters across its local radio network, and that AM music listening in particular is in massive decline.

This all seems eminently sensible to me. Indeed there’s a fairly incendiary line in Ofcom’s consultation:

“Absolute Radio has made these proposals in the context of declining listening to AM radio and increasing transmission costs and noted that, if it is not able to make these changes, it may have to consider shutting down Absolute Radio’s entire AM network and surrendering its national licence.” [My emphasis]

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that when I was previously employed by Absolute Radio, I too looked very closely at the AM transmitter issue, and we were also very close to shutting down the AM network and handing back the national licence.

While that might seem dramatic, in reality the business is driven by digital and FM. At the time FM was only in London, but Bauer switched its West Midlands licence to FM as well. And it had always been in the interests of first Virgin and later Absolute to transition its listeners to DAB as quickly as possible.

For me, the larger question is whether the entire AM network shouldn’t be shut down, allowing Bauer to make savings of those other 50% of AM costs?

Lots of stations are on lots of platforms, but there is a cost to every additional platform a station goes on, and most stations will try to break down those costs to come up with some kind of cost per listener-hour by platform.
For the average local station, for example, FM is relatively cheap. In many cases it’s a single transmitter somewhere on a hill, and the kit and running costs are relatively. For any transmitter you also have to factor in electricity costs, and these are also relatively low for FM.

AM transmitters require vastly more power, and the costs can be significant. DAB is relatively cost efficient, but it usually requires more sites than FM, with the advantage that digital transmission lets you “fill in” gaps without causing interference. You can’t do that with AM or FM, hence secondary analogue transmitters have to be on different frequencies.

It’s not always easy to figure out those costs per listener-hour since RAJAR doesn’t break things down to quite a low enough level. For example, if you broadcast on both AM and FM, RAJAR can’t really differentiate beyond making assumptions using geography. Similarly, there are several TV platforms (Freeview, Freesat, Sky, Virgin Media etc), but RAJAR just reports “Digital Television” in general. If your favourite station isn’t on your preferred TV platform, it might well be because the station can’t really work out whether it’s worth going onto that platform.

Returning to AM, and Absolute in particular, there are some interesting things in the consultation document. The sites that are proposed to be closed are largely in rural areas, those close to FM coverage, or those with high DAB penetration. Obviously Bauer has done a fair bit of analysis to come up with this list.

They estimate that 19,000 current listeners on AM will lose access to the AM signal following these changes. A small cost in listeners compared to monetary savings.

Ofcom notes that this represents 4% of the total AM audience of 472,000. But I think that Ofcom’s figure is slightly misleading, and it’s to do with the way that RAJAR is measured.

I would hypothesise that the actual number of AM listeners is much lower than this for a few reasons:

  • All local London stations, including Absolute Radio, report with a common London transmission area (TSA). Think of the area as essentially being that encompassed by the M25. But anyone who lives just outside the area knows that FM signals actually reach much further than that. It’s possible to just about listen to a London FM station all the way to Swindon as you drive down the M4. So an Absolute Radio listener, somewhere in the commuter belt around London, who listens on an FM radio, has to tick the FM/AM box in a RAJAR diary. And from a reporting perspective, they’ll be thought of as an AM listener. (You might ask why London stations don’t change their TSAs to accurately reflect their coverage, but these things are complicated – all the more so with the fact that London FM stations all use the same TSA to make it easier for London advertising agencies to reach the valuable audience. Outside of London, stations are far more likelier to fine tune their TSAs according to actual geography.)
  • RAJAR determines your listening dependent on where you live. That’s fine in areas where people don’t travel too far to work. But think of someone who lives in, say, Cambridge and commutes into London. If they listen to Absolute on an FM radio all day at work, analysis of their RAJAR data will that listening must be AM because of where they live. You might think this is an edge case, but London has a substantial commuter belt with hundreds of thousands coming into Greater London daily.
  • There will be similar, if less extreme, patterns around the West Midlands.
  • Finally, we know that respondents aren’t necessarily fantastic at filling out RAJAR diaries correctly, and while there are lots of checks to ensure that platforms are correctly recorded, I strongly believe that some listening recorded as AM/FM should actually be recorded as DAB. Most people don’t think about radio transmission formats as much as the average reader of this blog!

When you take into account all of that, I think you could substantially reduce the number of true AM listeners that Ofcom suggests Absolute has. Indeed it’s notable that Bauer doesn’t make this claim itself.

That’s not to say that these closures and reductions won’t have any affect. In rural areas, particularly those with lots of hills, AM (and LW) signals are about the only ones that get through. While the DAB has been built out to reach a large part of the population, there are still pockets with either only the BBC DAB multiplex or perhaps no DAB coverage at all. While satellite TV can fill in the gap at home, that’s not much use if you’re in a vehicle – especially one without DAB.

So turning off the AM network entirely would lose some listeners. But I suspect that it’s far fewer than the RAJAR numbers Ofcom suggests.

Finally, if Absolute was to hand back its AM licence, what would that mean? Well probably not a great deal for the station. It would continue on DAB and all the other platforms. It wouldn’t affect its FM listening in London or the West Midlands. Those are entirely separate licences.

But I believe that Ofcom would have to re-advertise the licence. I think primary legislation would require them to, whether or not they really wanted to. And I suspect that there would be a taker or two. The most obvious would be a Christian station – they often crowdfund their running costs. But there are others who would have a look.

This wouldn’t be a cheap option. Those electricity costs alone are significant. And it’s true that having that licence does allow the owner to get onto the D1 national DAB multiplex. That might be problematical in itself, since the mux is basically full!

And then there are the kit costs. One of the reasons Bauer gives for shutting down many of these transmitters is that the transmission kit is now very old. It dates from BBC ownership prior to the launch of independent national commercial radio, when those frequencies belonged to Radio 3. Replacing that kit is going to cost money, and it seems like an odd investment to be making in 2018.

By the way, have you actually tried to buy an AM radio recently? It’s not that easy…

RAJAR Q4 2017

RAJAR

As ever, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I am delighted that I continue to be able to bring you this RAJAR analysis in association with RALF. For more details on the product, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

49.9%, hey?

49.9%.

That’s the percentage of listening that is now digital. So very close to 50%, but just not quite. But I’ll come back to that shortly.

These are a few thoughts on the final RAJAR results for 2017 that are now in, representing the period up to and including 18th December 2017.

Overall radio listening remains at 90% of the UK population listening at least once a week, listening for over a billion hours cumulatively. Those listening hours are down a small amount however, falling 0.9% on the year.

For the record, the mean age of a radio listener is 48 (up from 47) a year ago. But averages are something of a brute instrument to measure listening, particularly when you consider that the population is ageing.

A more useful measure is to look at the number of hours age groups listen to over time. The chart below compares listening by age demo over the last five years, comparing similar quarters.

In general terms the story isn’t too bad, with the notable exception of 15-24s for whom there is a clear downward trend. The reach for this demographic is down to 80.3%, the lowest it has ever been. This is a “problem” group for radio.

Earlier this evening I attended an interesting event organised by the research and analysis company MIDiA, exploring radio in a streaming world. One of the metrics they talked about was the number of listening events people have during the week. While MIDiA’s research compares radio to streaming services which isn’t something that RAJAR allows, RAJAR does let you explore what’s happening with listening events.

This chart is another good way to explain things.

What it shows is the number of different listening events someone has in the course of a week. While a given listening event might be just a few minutes, or conversely many hours, the number of times someone turns to the radio is a decent indicator about how radio is doing as a medium in someone’s life.

I’ve just compared 15-24s with all adults in the above chart, and you can quickly see that there is a decline in the number of times the average 15-24 year old turns on the radio over a relatively short period of time. It’s now less than twice a day. The all adult number is steadier, but the key here is to make it easier for that number to be bumped up, and that will be the challenge radio has to face up to. Can smart speakers introduce more listening events?

But let’s get back to that digital listening figure, as it’s incredibly close to the point whereby half of all listening is through a digital platform.

49.9% is clearly the highest amount of digital listening we’ve yet seen, and I would confidently expect the 50% figure to be breached as soon as next quarter, in the main because I think we’re about see significant growth in radio listening via smart speakers.

Google reported selling 6m speakers globally between October and December, many of them heavily discounted. Amazon doesn’t give out numbers, but reported that the Echo was the biggest selling item on its site over Christmas.

A lot of speakers were sold, and these make very convenient voice controlled radios.

That’s why I think we’ll get to 50% digital listening as soon as the next quarter. But it is also true that these speakers make listening to services like Spotify also much easier. So there’s give and take there.

(It’s worth noting that I’m absolutely not going to round 49.9% up to 50% because we’ve been looking at this number closely for years, and always reporting it to the nearest .1%. To round up now would be wrong and somewhat misleading.)

What I’m not saying is that a great deal will happen very quickly once the 50% mark is breached. While theoretically allows processes to begin for an analogue to digital switchover for radio, I just don’t see that happening very soon. Generally speaking other things are using up lots of Parliamentary time at the moment. Similarly, I suspect that recently announced radio deregulation will take longer than many might hope, because there just isn’t time to fit in the primary legislation required to do anything.

If you dig a little further into the digital figures, then you find that commercial radio is ahead of the BBC in going digital. Commercial radio is 51.6% digital compared with BBC radio at 48.3%. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that BBC radio is generally older than commercial radio – the average of a listener is 50 v 45 for commercial radio. The older you are, the less likely you are to have switched to digital.

National and Digital

Radio 1 had a good quarter this time around, climbing to over 9.8m in reach, representing growth on both the previous quarter and year. Hours spent listening climbed too. The only very slight downside is that the average age of the audience crept up very slightly to 36. But I do think it’s harder to break music listening into age groups as much as would have been the case in the past. Nick Grimshaw also had his best performance at breakfast since Q3 2015, with 5.7m listeners.

Radio 2’s results were decent as well, with reach up 0.8% on the quarter and 2.9% on the year. While hours were up a very healthy 3.6% and 4.5% respectively. 190m listening hours is a new record for Radio 2, and represents 18.3% of all UK radio listening.

Radio 3 was down fractionally in reach on the quarter, but more so on the year. It was a similar picture in terms of hours, but it’s worth noting that Q4 2016 for Radio 3 was something of a freak result, particularly in terms of hours. Radio 3 also had some schedule changes take place during this quarter.

Radio 4 is fractionally up in reach on the quarter and fractionally down on the year. Hours are down 0.8% on the quarter, and a much more significant 8.1% down on the year. But of course, Q4 2016 was a US Presidential election quarter!

Radio 4 Extra reported some record figures being healthily up in reach and hours on both the previous quarter and previous year. It reached 2.26m reach and 13.3m hours this time around.

Five Live had quite a decent bounce from last quarter, up 7.6% in reach. That’s still 4.6% down on the previous year, but there’s a relatively new daytime schedule still bedding in, with some recent further tweaks that won’t yet have hit RAJAR.

Five Live Sports Extra had a small amount of Ashes commentaries in this quarter, although much of the Australian tour will come in Q1. What’s more, there was more summer sport in Q3, so this quarter saw sizeable falls.

6 Music didn’t have a record set of numbers! It was down a little in reach, although up on the quarter in hours. It ticks along very nicely.

Classic FM had a really good set of numbers, up 4.4% on the quarter in reach (up 5.7% on the year), and even greater gains in terms of hours.

Absolute Radio had a good set of numbers too, with reach up 10.9% on the quarter (up 5.9% on the year) and hours up 5.9% on the quarter (up 16.3% on the year). That represents easily the best reach the station has had since it rebranded as Absolute Radio back in 2008. Hours are also at a record level.

Talksport falls a little from last quarter in reach, down 2.2% on the quarter (down 4.8% on the year). More worryingly, hours fell 17.5% on the quarter (down 8.8%) on the year. The only thing I’d note is that there was quite a big swing last quarter, so some of this might be “correction.” The station is benefiting from News UK cross-promotions however, with regular ads to be found in both The Sun and The Times, but I wonder if it needs further refreshment?

It’s sister station Talksport 2 remains a little challenged, with reach down 9.1% on the quarter (but up 5.8% on the year) at 311,000. Hours are more stable, but there is still work to be done in establishing what the station really is – since it’s more than simply a spillover station as Five Live Sports Extra is.

The last few weeks have seen some big changes in the Talkradio line-up with some significant programming investment going into the station – not least signing up Eamonn Holmes, and moving Julia Hartley-Brewer to breakfast in place of Paul Ross. Of course, we’ll have to wait until next quarter to see the first fruits of these changes. In the meantime reach fell 5.5% on the quarter (down 4.0% on the year), while hours rose 6.9% on the quarter (and more than doubled on the year).

The Absolute Radio Network had a great set of figures, closing in on nearly 5m a week across the portfolio of services – a new record. The network was up 4.4% on the quarter (up 3.7% on the year), while hours were up 2.9% on the quarter (up 2.7% on the year). The main Absolute Radio service was the best performer, but it’s notable that Absolute Radio 90s has just won “promotion” to the national D1 multiplex. It’s interesting that Bauer chose not to shuffle the deck a bit and put Absolute 80s back on D1, and put 90s on D2 which has lower coverage. Absolute 80s launched in 2009, and we are now nearly ten years on. Does that mean that 90s is the new 80s, and 80s is in fact what we’d have previously called a “gold” format?

I tend to think that Absolute is being quite smart making a play for 90s, as demographics mean that those in their 30s-40s today grew up with 90s music in their teenage years.

As for Absolute 80s? Well it’s battling on with Heart 80s, and while it’s still ahead, things are getting tight. Recall that Heart 80s has the better D1 coverage.

Absolute 80s fell 3.8% in reach on the quarter (down 3.6% on the year), to 1.47m. Hours fell more down 12.6% on the quarter (down nearly 27% on the year) to 6.4m.

Heart 80s is still on a few months old, but it grew 7.4% in reach to 1.17m, while hours grew 25.3m to 6.1m. That means that the station is on course to overtake Absolute 80s in terms of listening perhaps as soon as next quarter. We’ll have to wait and see about reach.

That raises some interesting questions about loyalty. It turns out that only 200,000 people listen to both stations, suggesting that there’s more than simply having “80s” in your station name. But Heart does seem to be persuading people to make the switch.

Returning to Absolute Radio for a moment, the big question there must be who replaces Christian O’Connell who has recently announced that he will be moving to Australia to take up a new challenge in Melbourne. His reach of 2.1m is second only to Rickie, Melvin and Charlie on Kiss in the commercial radio world, and he’s going to be a tough act to follow. The obvious choice would be Dave Berry who looks to have quickly settled in at Drive on Absolute. But changes in breakfast presenters are always tricky times.

Elsewhere in Bauer, the Magic Network performed well with both reach and hours up. The 3.9m reach of the network is a new record for them. The main Magic station is also doing well.

Kiss is largely speaking flat on the quarter with only small changes, although it’s up on the year. Kisstory is down in reach and hours on the quarter, but it up on the year. Kiss Fresh starts from a lower based, but it up in reach and hours both on the quarter and the year.

Over with Global, the Heart Network saw some falls, with reach down 5.1% on the quarter (down 8.3% on the year), while hours fell 2.9% on the quarter (down 10.2% on the year). There’s a similar story with the Heart Brand which incorporates more than the main network. In London, there’s certainly been some marketing activity recently – I noticed that some of the current bus ads have actually put the FM frequency on them, something that many radio brand ads have shied away from in recent years. But I can’t definitively pinpoint what marketing was done in this quarter nationally.

Capital too has a current marketing campaign underway, in London at least, where they are still trying to bed in Roman Kemp on their breakfast show. Nationally, as with Heart, the network is down a bit, with reach down 4.1% on the quarter (down 4.5% on the year), while hours fell 7.5% on the quarter (down 5.0% on the year).

Radio X is doing well nationally with its best ever figures. Reach is up 3.7% on the quarter (and up a massive 26% on the year), while it’s also up 11.7% on the quarter (and up 26% on the year). Global has invested heavily here, and it looks to be beginning to pay off for them.

LBC is down a little on the quarter, but still up nearly 20% in reach on the year. It seems to have settled at just over 2m listeners a week nationally.

Overall commercial radio fell from 45.3% of all radio listening last quarter to 44.2% of listening this quarter. (It’s still up from last year’s 43.9% however).

On the other hand BBC radio grew from 52.1% of listening to 52.8% of listening this quarter. However it was at 53.5% this time last year.

London

As ever, London sees a certain amount of movement. Things are tight amongst the commercial stations with Capital London just pipping Kiss for the biggest audience in terms of reach.

Capital was down fractionally to 2.1m (although up nearly 22% on the year), while Kiss had a big 8.2% jump to 2.0m reach (up 8.8% on the year).

The tables are turned in terms of listening time however, with Kiss coming out ahead of Capital. Kiss actually saw a fall of 7.2% on the quarter (and a rise of 13.5% on the year), showing just how changeable the London marketplace is. On the other hand Capital’s hours fell more, down 9.2% on the quarter (but up 28% on the year!).

However, LBC still owns the commercial listening crown in London despite also seeing a fall in hours of 7.6% (down 1.6% on the year). Reach was nicely up 9.5% on the quarter (up 15.2% on the year) to 1.2m.

Absolute Radio had a decent reach result in London, up 5.0% on the quarter (up 22% on the year), although hours were down nearly 21% on the quarter (up 22% on the year).

The other station to note in London is Radio X, with its strongest London performance since it rebranded from Xfm. Reach grew 6.5% on the quarter (up 18% on the year), while hours jumped 31% on the quarter (up 12% on the year).

Finally BBC London had a good quarter, increasing 26% in reach on the quarter (and 60% on the year), while hours were up 59% on the quarter (and 99% on the year). It has to be said that BBC London’s figures have been all over the place in recent quarters, hence some of those gains. But reach is in line with recent quarters even if hours seem remarkably high.

Overall those BBC London figures contributed towards a better quarter for the BBC in London than commercial radio. While commercial radio is still ahead of the BBC with 50.3% listening in the capital, it has fallen back from 54.7% last quarter. However it’s still better for commercial than a year ago when the BBC had a rare victory in London.

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Mediatel’s Newsline will have lots of figures and analysis
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will [probably*] have some great analysis
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site
Global Radio’s corporate site

All my previous RAJAR analyses are here.


Source: RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB, period ending 18 December 2017, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

* The day RAJAR comes out probably isn’t the best time to go for a meal and still leave yourself time to write up what’s happening!

RAJAR MIDAS – Winter 2017 Results

There seems to have been a bit more noise made about this week’s release of RAJAR’s MIDAS data. Recent releases have perhaps appeared a little too closely to the main quarterly RAJAR release. MIDAS stands for “Measurement of Internet Delivered Audio Services” although it doe sa little more than this, particularly when comparing what platforms people are listening to.

The fieldwork for this data release was conducted in November 2017 and that’s important, because we know that bucket loads of connected speakers were sold at Christmas, with heavy discounting from the main players, Amazon and Google. It seems entirely possible that this will have some effect on overall listening behaviours down the line.

The publicly available MIDAS stats are available on the RAJAR website, although subscribers do have access to more detail. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be looking at, and I’ve tried to add some trend data to the results, going back through previous releases. MIDAS data actually dates back some years, with publication of some that data beginning in 2014. However what is reported has changed over time, with different morsels served up each quarter to keep people interested. Over the last few years however, there has been a little more consistency allowing some trending.

In overall terms, it doesn’t look like a great deal is going on.

Here is the key Share of Audio chart, which breaks out how people listen to different forms of audio. (Hover over these charts with your mouse to see underlying data.)

Live radio is solidly consistent at around 75%, and everything else is far behind radio.

But zoom into the bottom of that first chart and have a closer look.

There is one line significantly on the rise there, and it has close to doubled since the start of 2015. On Demand Music streaming – aka Spotify and its ilk.

(NB. The numbers are all rounded, so 0% listening to vinyl is probably not quite true. It’s just less than 0.5% of all listening)

But the real story comes when you look at some of the sub-demos. I’ll just note that sub-demo data was only made available regularly from the end of 2016.

Here’s the chart for 15-24s:

There’s no need to zoom into the bottom of the chart for this one. Radio is going down. Digital tracks are going down. On Demand Streaming is rising. It has risen from 16% of listening at the start of 2017 to 28% by the year’s end.

As ever, the story for data like this is to be found in trends. In that context, the data for Winter 2016 seems like an outlier, and I’d be more inclined to look at the trend over the calendar year 2017.

Live radio looks set to fall to less than 50% of listening in 2018, and it’s not impossible that On Demand Streaming could overtake it in the next 2-3 years. That’s not completely certain of course, since not everyone in this demographic can afford to pay for premium services like Spotify. But there’s a free version, and family plans exist. Plus households with Amazon Prime get access to their bundled music offering. Plus there certainly doesn’t seem to be any sign of the growth slowing just yet. Radio brands targeting youth age groups take note.

Interestingly, there’s more CD and digital track listening amongst this group than there is among 25-34s. I would guess that this is a cost thing. Younger people with little money and perhaps no access to a streaming service (or the data plans that tend to be needed to listen on the go), are still relying on CDs and digital downloads.

For 25-34s, the story isn’t quite as extreme, and radio is still holding its own, if falling slightly. But again, On Demand Streaming services are rising over time and have become the second largest group, as listening to owned music declines. Also of note for this group is the fact that podcast listening is highest here, with 6% of overall listening is to podcasts. That’s ahead of CD listening for example.

As we get older, so radio becomes more dominant. On Demand Streaming isn’t so prevalent, although this feels like a ripe market for the providers to target, with much more ability to pay £10 a month for the service. CD and digital track ownership are very slightly decreasing, but at a much slower rate.

For the oldest listeners, radio is vastly the most significant form of audio, with only CDs and digital tracks being an alternative. They don’t listen to Spotify and they don’t listen to podcasts. Not yet anyway…

The other thing I’d take from all this data is that vinyl or even cassette listening is not significant. Yes, you can buy vinyl in Sainsburys, and yes the broadsheets are always talking about its revival. These figures would suggest that regardless of sales, its impact in terms of actually being listened to is minimal.

There are a couple more trend lines we can get from MIDAS data.

Podcasting listening is growing, which is as you might expect. 6.1m people listen to podcasts each week, with the smartphone being the most popular device.

Radio apps are also very popular, with 27m (50% of the population) having downloaded an app.

Where radio does have a significant role is in the use of voice activated speakers, and amongst those who use them, the primary uses are for Live Radio and On Demand music services. Radio has a slight advantage here.

Again, I’d note that this is before the slew of speakers sold over Christmas. Amazon said the Echo was its best-selling device, while Google says it has sold 6m since August.

Other bullets from the data:

  • Listen Again isn’t terribly popular, but it skews older, with 77% coming from 35+s
  • Podcasting skews male, with 62% male and 38% female. That’s more skewed than other key forms of listening. An opportunity for some podcasters perhaps?
  • Radio listening is likely to be a solitary affair, with 52% of people listening to the radio on their own. That changes significantly if you’re 15-24, when it’s much likelier to be a social experience. Just 38% of their listening is solo.

There’s more in the release, so have a look if you’re interested.

Methodological note: MIDAS samples tend to be around 2,200 people who are re-contacted by RAJAR’s fieldworkers, having previously completed a regular RAJAR diary. For the most recent release, the fieldwork was conducted in November 2017.

2018 Media Predictions

It’s that time of year when, because not a lot else is going on, and pages need to be filled, everyone is busily predicting what might happen in 2018.

So here are my bold and not so bold predictions in the coming year across the media industry.

  • A streamer will win some Premier League rights. Having written at length about this process, and not really come to a strong conclusion that it makes sense for any of the big players to get involved in the Premier League rights auction, I can still foresee 1-2 packages going to them just because the Premier League probably thinks it has rinsed as much as it really can out of BT and Sky.
  • Digital advertising will continue to grow, but continue to have major questions asked of it. How much of digital advertising is fraud? How much of it actually works? Does anyone at all actually click on an advert unless it’s a mistake? Google Chrome is introducing it’s “ad-blocker” in February, and advertising that doesn’t adhere to the Coalition for Better Ads guidelines will get blocked. That will clean up part of the problem, in that the worst offenders will be disincentivised some of the worst practices. But that’s not really enough. Lots of agencies are getting asked lots of questions, and yet the money keeps flowing their way. Incidentally, an ever greater part of the digital advertising world is becoming owned by IT services companies like Accenture. Could Publicis or WPP actually get bought by one of these?
  • Radio listening among younger audiences will decline. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag with this one. While overall reach has held, and probably will continue to hold up, time spent listening to those services will decline amongst younger audiences. They’re spending too much time on YouTube, Spotify and Amazon. See every RAJAR summary I’ve published in the last couple of years for more.
  • Smart speakers will be everywhere. With the basic models going for £35 this Christmas, and near enough every portable BlueTooth speaker likely to include either Google Assistant or Alexa in the coming months, these speakers will be everywhere regardless of whether you think you need one or not. I’m not certain that everyone will be controlling their lighting and heating with them, as that involves spending considerably more money on technology, but it does make audio listening easier, and for things like news, sport and weather, they’re terrific. Some naysayers think the impact is overblown, but while they won’t reach everywhere, they definitely will be of use to a decent proportion of the population. And you can definitely expect an uptick in internet listening overall. I’m less certain that devices like the Amazon Show or worse, the Amazon Spot (alarm clock with an internet connected camera that you’re supposed to put on your bedside table) will quite hit the mark however.
  • No real changes in UK radio’s structure. DCMS recently published a fairly groundbreaking document that sets out to remove most regulation surrounding UK local radio. Stations will broadly speaking be able to do what they want. So expect Capital and Heart to go fully networked for example, while programmers will be able to play whatever music (or speech) they deem their audience wants to hear. Except that none of this will happen in 2018. Primary legislation is required to do it, and for the most part, Brexit is tying up nearly every part of Government. If anything, the pressure is only going to ramp up in 2018 to get that work done. “Unimportant” things like radio deregulation will have to sit and wait.
  • We will reach “Peak TV.” Many might think that we’re already at “Peak TV” with every network under the sun commissioning “original content” as a way to stand out against IP delivered interlopers like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But now Apple and Facebook are entering the game, and the volumes will be ridiculous. I do think that some of these players will be challenged. Facebook isn’t going to be able to do edgy fare, so it will find it as hard to cut through as a US network might. In other words, it will take many attempts to get a hit. I don’t see Apple really having the ability to do that either. It’s worth remembering that you don’t just make good TV by throwing money at the problem. And making these shows work globally is near impossible. Different parts of the world have very different expectations. Nonetheless, TV reviewers are going to have their work cut out. In the meantime, as Disney swallows Fox (including Sky TV and Star TV), they will be transitioning their business from broadcast to IP at a faster rate. Others will follow.
  • Local news will reach a crisis point. More major stories will be missed in UK regions because, aside from the BBC, and a handful of modestly sized regional news operations, there will be no journalists to cover them.

From my own perspective, I’m vowing to do at least some of the following:

  • Watch back everything that’s still saved up on my Sky+ unwatched (including a couple of things recorded off the BBC HD channel!)
  • Get through a few more DVD boxsets that I have kicking around.
  • Books. Always books to be read.
  • Listen to more radio – in particular music radio. I spend too much time listening to speech, and while I listen to both my own music and streaming music, it doesn’t introduce me to nearly as much new music as the radio can, by placing it in context.

RAJAR Q3 2017

RAJAR

As ever, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I am delighted that I continue to be able to bring you this RAJAR analysis in association with RALF. For more details on the product, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

RAJAR comes around again, hot on the heals of last week’s ARIAS. These are largely the summer months, and end on the 17th September. Summers during even years are “quiet” in that there are no major (men’s) football tournaments or Olympic games to disrupt normality. But it’s not unusual for stations to see slight dips in audiences with their listeners going away, or spending more time outside and less time listening.

First of all, a quick update on digital listening.

Last quarter, you will recall, digital listening had reached a record high of 48.7%. So what’s it done this quarter?

48.8%.

It’s slowly creeping upwards, but no real growth over the summer. I still anticipate the magic 50% being reached within the next two quarters however.

National and Digital

Radio 1 had a generally good quarter. Following on from gains last time around, they’re up another 1.2% this quarter (although down slightly on the previous year), to nearly 9.7m listeners. Hours have fallen however, down 4.3% on the previous quarter (although a more modest 0.7% fall on the previous year). As has been mentioned here regularly, the impact of hours is the bigger issue for Radio 1 as their listeners spend less time with radio and more time with other audio and video services.

Radio 2 saw growth of 3.2%, which means nearly 500,000 people. It’s up on the previous year as well. In hours, the results are even better with increases of 5.5% on the quarter and 6.0% on the year. Radio 2 accounts for 17.5% of all radio listening.

Radio 3 had a disappointing quarter, down 4.8% in reach on the quarter (although only down 0.7% on the year), while hours fell 11.9% on the quarter and 9.7% on the year. The station has had some recent changes to its schedule and presenters, but these will take time to bed in.

After some very strong performances, Radio 4 fell back a little this quarter down 2.9% on the quarter (and 3.1% on the year). Hours are much more stable however, and none of this is anything for the station to worry about.

Five Live saw its reach dip 4.7% on the quarter and 7.9% on the year. Hours remained broadly flat. The lack of major sports events over the summer is a likely contributor (although it was a different case for Talksport – see below).

Last quarter I note that 6 Music’s slight fall was likely to be a blip, and so it proved. Reach grew 8.7% on the quarter, and 3.8% on the year, to 2.43m. And what do you know? This represents a new record all time high! Hours increased on the quarter although were still slightly down on the year. The station is clearly fighting fit, and almost certainly among the beneficiaries of an ever growing digital listenership.

1Xtra and Asian Network both got quarterly increases, while the World Service fell back this quarter.

Bauer’s key national brands performed well this quarter.

The Absolute Radio Network increased in reach by 1.6% on the quarter (3.7% on the year) now reaching 4.5m people, although hours fell slightly on the quarter, but still managed 5.2% growth on the year.

Within that, the main Absolute Radio brand bounced back from last quarter with a 16.9% increase in reach (but down 6.9% on last year), while hours grew 19.0% on the quarter (and 13.1% on the year).

Absolute 80s saw some modest growth of 1.3% on the quarter (but down 1.1% on the year) in reach, while hours fell both on the quarter and on the year. It is being chased hard by Heart 80s, which saw reach increase 27.5% on the quarter while hours increased 25.2%. Absolute 80s has 1.532m listeners, while Heart 80s has just past the million mark with 1.086m. In terms of hours Absolute 80s has 7.316m v Heart 80s 4.851m. This is going to be a tight battle of the 80s stations.

The Kiss Network itself achieved a record reach of 5.7m, up 5.4% on the quarter (4.8% on the year), with hours growing a substantial 18.7% on the quarter (5.3%) on the year. Kisstory continues to do well with 1.8m reach (up 5.1% on the quarter (13.2% on the year), giving it a new record reach and solidifying its position as the biggest commercial digital-only station.

The Magic Network reach also was a record, with 3.7m listeners, up 3.2% on the quarter. Mellow Magic is the biggest sub-brand with 519,000 but essentially flat on the quarter.

Over at Global, there are some slight declines at the two biggest brands. The Heart Brand (which includes all the Heart stations including digital sub-brands) is flat, slightly falling 0.7% on the quarter (and falling 1.2%) on the year. Hours are up on the quarter however. I’ve already noted that Heart 80s is doing well, and Heart Extra is up on the quarter, but down somewhat on the year. The Heart Network represents all the local Heart stations around the country, and that’s also flat in reach (down 0.8% on the quarter and down 1.2% on the year), while hours are down 5.7% on the quarter (and down 1.2% on the year).

For the Capital Brand, the reach is again basically flat, and hours are up a fraction. Capital XTRA is doing well, up 22.6% in reach on the quarter (and 10.6% on the year), while the main local network is down a little in reach (down 3.7% on both the quarter and year), but flat in hours.

LBC has had another strong set of results, up 2.3% on the quarter (and 15.7% on the year), with hours increasing even more. The station continues to make news with its political presenters – even the stand-ins!

The Smooth Brand had a decent set of results, up across the board, while Radio X performed very well, up 9.5% in reach (20.4% on the year), and up 5.6% in hours this quarter (up 15.5% on the year).

Finally, Classic FM fell back a bit this quarter down 6.0% in reach and down 8.8% in hours. On the year it fared better.

Over at Wireless Group, Talksport had a decent quarter despite a lack of major sport. Reach was up 11.6% on the quarter, while hours were up 31.5% over the same period. The numbers weren’t quite as strong on the year, but the station is closing in on 3m again.

Sister station Talksport2 is also up a little on the quarter, up 1.8% in reach, but down 11.8% in hours.

It wasn’t a good quarter for Talkradio, which is still struggling to find its feet. Reach is down 6.9% on the quarter (and down 15.8% on the year), while hours were down 0.4% on the quarter (but down 17.8% on the year).

Virgin Radio, on the other hand, had a very strong quarter, seeing reach grow a steller 52.7% on the quarter (up 61.2% on the year), with hours up 39.6% on the quarter (and 24.8% on the year). And this all pre-dates Sam and Amy taking over breakfast from Edith Bowman.

London

As ever Radio 4 is London’s real number one. But nobody wants to know about that. How are the music stations doing?

Well Capital is number one in reach, although last quarter’s numbers have taken a bit of a hit. Reach is down 8.1% on the quarter, but up 5.6% on the year. Hours are flat on the quarter but up on the year. This was still early days for Capital’s new Roman Kemp breakfast show. However that’s not good enough to be number one in hours terms. That accolade goes to…

LBC. Their FM reach (AM is a different station) are actually down a 21.3% on the quarter, and hours down a massive 22.9%, but both are up on the year, and last quarter’s figures were massive, so a fall was on the cards. A reminder – I always say you should look at longer term trends than one off results.

As for Kiss? They are down on the quarter in terms of reach, dipping below 2m again. Down 8.7% on the quarter (although up 2.8% on the year). However hours are somewhat extraordinarily up 35.4% to 11.5m in London (that’s a 25.3% increase on the year). That’s the station’s largest hours for a couple of years.

Heart has dropped away a bit, to 1.515m reach, down 10.9% on the quarter (and down 10.0% on the year). Hours have suffered worse though, falling from 8.9m to 7.3m – a 17.8% drop on the quarter and 20.5% fall on the year. That’s not great news for the brand’s flagship station.

Magic has recently changed breakfast show too, with Ronan Keating and Harriet Scott taking charge over the summer. But they’re only partially included here. The station is flat in reach on the quarter (but down 14.6% on hte year), while hours have increased on the quarter, up 13.7%, but are still 11.3% down on the year.

Radio X is pretty flat with reach up 0.4% on the quarter (but 25.4% up on the year), and hours drifting slightly, down 2.5% on the quarter and down 3.2% on the year.

Finally BBC London, which had some record figures last quarter, has seen them fall back a bit, down 26.9% in reach (although up 7.1% on the year), while hours are down 20.6% on the quarter (although up a very similar amount on the year).

The London market is still volatile in the way it’s reported, although as I mentioned at the start, we have to be a little wary over the summer months.

Note

I seem to have written this quarter’s results without using a single chart. I’ll try to right that next time around!

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Mediatel’s Newsline will have lots of figures and analysis
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will have some great analysis
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site
Global Radio’s corporate site

All my previous RAJAR analyses are here.

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB, period ending 17 September 2017, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

What I’m Listening To… October 2017

It feels like it has been a long time since I wrote about what I’m listening to, and I thought it might be worth just recording my current listening patterns, for my own interest at a later date, if nobody else’s.

In any event, this week I was a panellist on this month’s Radio Today round-table podcast talking about a couple of these podcasts.

This piece is more about podcasts than radio stations per se, and I am an awful podcast downloader in that I download vastly more than I can actually listen to, later spending a lot of time sweeping off the unlistened programmes in big bouts.

Podcast discovery is still a big issue for the industry, as there’s no really good way to find out and discover new podcasts. Many of the lists you see in other places name all the “usual suspects” and however much Apple tweaks its charts, the same candidates are always riding high. And of course, if you big then you can spin-off another big podcast and so on. Hence This American Life begat Serial which begat S-Town. There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there with more launching all the time. Right now, finding the right podcasts for you can often be down to word of mouth. Hence this piece!

You’ll note that there’s basically no music programming here. That’s sort of deliberate, but also I fear, says something about the kind of radio I’ve been listening to of late.

Incidentally, I’ve inserted a link to each of these podcasts and programmes, but this is not an easy thing to do. While many have distinct websites, or pages on larger websites, complete with lots of links to enable the visitor to subscribe, for inexplicable reasons many don’t. In particular there are major providers who consider podcasts as other “content” on a wider site and don’t point people in a direction to subscribe. Or they just embed the audio into a random page and don’t do anything beyond that.

Worse than that are those who rely solely on third party sites – an iTunes “page” often being a ubiquitous link. That’s great if I’m using an iPhone, and next to useless otherwise. I’m not a massive fan on only using something like SoundCloud as your host page either. What happens if something happens to them? Do you have any other web presence? Your own website at least means that if you ever find it necessary to move podcast hosts, you’ve got some continuity.

Make life a little easier for yourself and your potential listeners – build either a no-frills site, or a single page with details of how to access your podcast.

That all said, here’s what I’m listening to right now in no particular order:

  • The Daily. From The New York Times. I probably only listen to one of these per week (they currently published every weekday, with the output due to increase soon), but the range of subjects and the way they cover it is fascinating. Obviously it’s very US-centric, and it’s a shame that Radio 4, for example, doesn’t do something quite the same.
  • Slate Money. This might well really be called Slate Business, because what it’s not about is personal finance. The podcast addresses three stories a week, with the three presenters lead by Felix Salmon being highly opinionated on a range of things. While they can be US focused, it still makes for a great listen, and I eagerly download each Saturday morning.
  • Tweet of the Day. This is less than 90 seconds, and could therefore probably do without the double “This is the BBC” stings at beginning and end. But something that started as essentially an audio guide to the birds of Britain, is now a brief thought from a writer or commentator on a bird. It’s so short, there’s no excuse for not listening.
  • The Media Podcast, The Media Show and Broadcast: Talking TV. All my UK media in three different podcasts (although two share a producer). Between them and the Radio Today Podcast, I’ve got all my media bases covered.
  • The Adam Buxton Podcast. This is an obvious one, but worth stating nonetheless. It’s basically Adam Buxton having extended conversations with people he’s interested in. The subject matter may not always be the obvious ones, and the interviewees tend not to have something to promote. In any case, he often records the interviews some months before they’re edited and broadcast. A good example was the recent episode with Louis Theroux, where they started talking about S-Town and then got into traits of US NPR-style podcasts. Buxton and Theroux referenced an episode of This American Life, which I too had heard, where they took on the sexism of some people who don’t like the “vocal fry” of many female presenters of This American Life. As Buxton and Theroux pointed out, this isn’t necessarily sexism (although it may be in some instances), but partly as a consequence of the stylistics that many podcasts have taken on – often mimicking those of This American Life itself.
  • The Coode Street Podcast. I discovered this when I randomly attended a recording at WorldCon in London a couple of years ago. Essentially its a serious science fiction literary podcast, with the two presenters, each living on different continents, talking about recent books. To say that they’re both voracious readers would be an understatement, but if you’re interested in the genre then they will point you in worthwhile directions.
  • 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. This has been a big hit and rightly so. Therefore, if you’ve not listened then you really should. The series is nearly over with an online poll currently being used to decide which of six items should be the “51st thing.” Each episode is only nine minutes, with presenter Tim Harford giving a little background on why Concrete, Barbed Wire or Double Entry Bookkeeping have been so important. Great audio snacks!
  • More or Less. If you’re going to listen to Fifty Things, then of course you’ll be listening to this. More or Less, also presented by Tim Harford is simply essential listening, taking apart the numbers in the news, often quite strongly. For example, when Boris Johnson recently raised the £350m a week nonsense again, More or Less explained very simply why it is very very wrong.
  • Fortunately. This is the Fi Glover and Jane Garvey podcast, two of our preeminent radio broadcasters. Fortunately is one of the BBC’s podcast-only programmes, and we’re now into the second series. The first series was mostly a rambling recommendation programme, highlighting things on BBC radio that you might have missed or not even heard. The second series is more interview led, and is as much as anything an excuse for the pair to natter on about anything that really comes to mind, perhaps with an element of how radio works. I did previously complain that the BBC-only focus was a bit of a missed opportunity, and although Fortunately is leaps and bounds better, it would seem to have replicated the service already provided by Pick of the Week. I guess the reality is that unless you’re some kind of audio-butterfly, there are only so many things you can recommend on a regular basis. So while there’s still an opportunity for someone to do a decent podcast/radio-recommendation programme, this is just great fun.
  • Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. But of course.
  • Seriously. This is really a catch-all bucket to place many of Radio 4’s one-off documentaries. As such it can be a little hit and miss, with the emphasis on the hits. That does mean I pick and choose what I listen to on the feed. The good thing is that when you find yourself reading the review section of Sunday paper the following Thursday and see that they’ve recommended a particular Radio 4 programme, the chances are that it’s already in the Seriously podcast feed. I’m going to duck a little now and just say that the only thing I don’t like about it are the podcast-only wraparounds from Rhianna Dhillon. It’s not Dhillon herself, so much as the tone of the scripts that try hard to personalise everything. It can sometimes feel as though I’m having my hand held too much to get into something. When the programmes are broadcast, the continuity announced it likely to only have time for a couple of lines to set-up the premise of the programme. I don’t feel that I need a great deal more. Now if there’s extra material, or perhaps a chat with the producer, that’s one thing. It’s just the cosiness of it. Sometimes people think there’s a particular “way” to do podcasts, and I simply don’t agree, any more than there’s a single “way” to do any kind of artistic endeavour.
  • Strong and Stable. This political comedy podcast launched during the election, and then disappeared, only to recently start up again. David Schneider and Ayesha Hazarika have different guests each week to take apart what’s happening right now. Even if you’ve “had it up to here” with Brexit, you should still listen.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask. One of a stable of podcasts that includes the Recode Media podcast with Peter Kafka. The latter can be great when he has someone really good, but occasionally there’s an interviewee who seems more intent on pushing their business model, no matter how untried or untested it really is. So I think I prefer the former podcast which gets its hands a little dirtier with the nuts and bolts of technology. The only other technology podcast I’m listening to right now is an occasional episode of The Vergecast.
  • Slate’s Political Gabfest, Slate’s Trumpcast and the Five Thirty Eight Politics podcast. This is my triumvirate of US political podcasts (with a mention for the NPR Political Podcast which handily timestamps to the minute when it was recorded such is the fast moving nature of today’s politics). Between them, I get as much news about US politics as I need or want. They’re all slightly different in tone, with the Gabfest having a wider ranging take on the political issues of the week. Trumpcast is there to cover Trump, and publishes on a “more than once a week” basis. The Five Thirty Eight Politics podcast has expanded beyond the psephology of analysing polls, and moved into more of a “what this means” turn of its existence. All told, they offer a comprehensive look at the car crash that is US politics, and which I can’t take my eyes off.
  • The PC Pro Podcast. I feel I must be missing a UK technology podcast. I used to listen to The Guardian’s one, but it morphed into something that I became less interested in. There’s Babbage below, and the BBC World Service has its Tech Tent, but most technology podcasts seem to be American. This is an exception, and I’ve been a listener for a long time now. I do wish they’d record it in a room, altogether, but I suspect that the finances of the magazine industry being what they are, that’s a bit too much to hope for.
  • Reply All. Gimlet makes a lot of great podcasts, but Reply All is one of their best. Somehow PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman manage to maintain quality at such a high level for so much of the year. There are so many good episodes including the most recent on a video game that had disappeared, and solving the case of someone’s 800-number being filled with recorded randomness. Over the summer, when they were on a break, Reply All “rebroadcast” some of their most popular episodes. So you’ll find hits all the way in their podcast feed right now.
  • The Two Shot Podcast. This is an interview podcast from the bloke from Line of Duty. That’s rather unfair since this is a terrific listen. In each episode, actor Craig Parkinson has an extended interview with someone, usually from the entertainment and drama world. He tends to really dig into their background and how they got into the business, but does it in a really engaging manner. The episode with Neil Morrissey is absolutely fantastic. I didn’t know his background at all, but I couldn’t stop listening to this particular edition.
  • The Economist: Babbage. This is essentially The Economist’s Tech podcast. While it takes its lead from the technology section of the magazine, it digs into the issues and stories a little further.
  • Twenty Thousand Hertz. If you’re interested in sound, then you may well be interested in this. It addresses all aspects of the medium in short and punchy episodes. 20,000 Hz incidentally, is the frequency above which the human ear can no longer hear audio.
  • Reasons to be Cheerful. We’ve only had one episode of this so far, and I should point out that I’m a friend of one of the presenters. This is podcast with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, in which they talk about big ideas. So in the first episode they examined Universal Basic Income. This might seem to be a dry subject, but it’s addressed seriously but with a lightness of touch that makes it very accessible. Geoff Lloyd seems to be leading a one-man mission to dominate podcasting since he and Annabel Port have also recently launched their Adrift podcast, following their departure from Absolute Radio earlier in the year. Both are very much worth subscribing to.
  • The Life Scientific. I confess I pick and choose which episodes to listen to based on how interested I think I’ll be in the subject. That’s a shame, but there’s so much science that I could be listening to, along with The Guardian’s Science Podcast and the BBC’s Inside Science.
  • Between the Ears. This could be just about anything on any given week, but all the better for it. Because it goes out on-air on a Saturday night, it again lends itself well to the podcast form.
  • The Danny Baker Show. If you don’t listen on 5 Live on a Saturday morning, then this is always an entertaining listen a bit later. Baker is a natural for radio, and this is my weekly hit. He has another volume of his autobiography due soon.
  • A Twin Peaks Podcast. When David Lynch and Mark Frost brought back Twin Peaks, there was instantly a whole batch of podcasts that swung into operation, dissecting each episode of the series as it aired. For complicated reasons that I’ll get into another time, I ended up binging the first seven episodes, and so it was only after then that I looked for something to listen to. This podcast comes from Entertainment Weekly and frankly I largely picked it at random from the crowd. But it has been an intelligent discussion from the two presenters after each episode, and post- the series, we’ve also had a few interviews with stars and people involved in the series’ production.
  • A Stab in the Dark. This is funded by UKTV and is essentially there to promote the TV channels Alibi and Drama. But as much as anything. it’s actually mostly a crime book podcast with presenter (and crime writer) Mark Billingham interviewing writers of crime fiction. Sometimes there are interviews with actors too, but mostly it’s with writers. And it feels like as the podcast has progressed; the level of interviewees has really gone up a notch. Billingham is such an amiable presenter that makes you think it’s all quite effortless. It really isn’t, and this is an excellent listen.
  • The Business. A KCRW radio programme on the entertainment industry. While it’s not always perfect, and can sometimes be a little ingratiating in the way it deals with subjects, it has a robust structure, opening with a brief chat (they use the hideous term “banter”) about the big entertainment news of the week, followed by a longer-form interviews with writers/directors/talent.
  • The Bike Show. These days it is relatively occasional in its appearances, but presenter Jack Thurston is charming and it addresses elements of cycling beyond the obvious. Indeed it doesn’t really get into the kinds of racing that most media coverage of cycling seems to be.
  • Page 94: The Private Eye Podcast. This isn’t currently “on-air” as it seems to only be commissioned one series at a time. But it’s worth adding to your podcatching software if you want to know the stories behind the stories. Indeed, it has really become quite a news-focused podcast rather than addressing the comic elements of Private Eye.
  • >Wireless Nights with Jarvis Cocker. Another Radio 4 programme, but it suits the medium superbly, especially as the radio programme airs quite late at night, and can be easy to miss.
  • The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson. This isn’t strictly a podcast because it’s currently only available to Audible subscribers. But it’s a podcast in tone, in that it follows a story over six episodes, exploring the consequences of something. In this instance, it’s the availability of free pornography online. Indeed my only real issue with the series is that it sometimes feels that pornography gets far more coverage from documentarians than many other subjects. To be completely fair, since this is presented in audio form, there’s not the same titillation that so many TV documentaries can run the risk of (either deliberately or inadvertently), and there are certain areas this series gets into that I never knew about. Clearly there was some significant money put into this project.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are plenty more I subscribe to, but they’re either really obvious podcasts that “everyone” listens to, or I really only dip in and out. Some are “off-air” right now, and therefore aren’t front of mind. Then there are the podcasts that are so occassional, it’s not worth even mentioning them.

Missing from here are plenty of news and current affairs podcasts I subscribe to, mostly actually listening to based on what the subject matter is. The same goes for some arts podcasts or things like Radio 3’s Essays.

I am looking for a good TV related podcast that deals with the industry from a viewer’s perspective (rather than the media industry side of things). I used to listen to KCRW’s The Spin-Off and Vulture’s TV Podcast, but sadly, both ceased production within a few weeks of each other earlier this year. The former did say that it was transitioning into something new, but unless I’ve missed it, that’s not happened yet. Both of those were obviously US-focused, and I wouldn’t mind something more UK-US or international in flavour, but I’ve not really found anything.

Finally, I should also mention The Cycling Podcast, but since I do a certain amount of production work for them, I am enormously biased when I say that it’s the world’s best professional cycling podcast.

RAJAR Q2 2017

RAJAR

As ever, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I am delighted that I continue to be able to bring you this RAJAR analysis in association with RALF. For more details on the product, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

RAJAR is upon us once more, and so this will be something of a canter through the results. However, I’ll also throw in a few pieces from the most recent RAJAR MIDAS survey that was also recently published, and is very illuminating.

I think I will start with digital listening, since we’re now incredibly close to half of all radio listening being on a digital platform. In this quarter it reached a high of 48.7% of all listening being digital, up from 47.2% last quarter and 45.3% a year ago.

You can see from this chart that progress has been constant over that time. And of course DAB radio is the largest part of that listening. But it’s always worth having a look at internet listening, because that seems to be growing much faster. Apps improve, and data packages increase. You may even have seen improved 4G coverage!

Internet listening is now up to 8.8% of all radio listening. Also a new high.

If you just look at 15-44s, then internet listening goes up to 14.6%. This is becoming an important platform.

Overall 49.2m people listen to the radio each week – an all time high. Although we should be careful to note that RAJAR updates its population estimates in Q2 each year, and as the UK’s population continues to rise, you would expect listening to rise – even if radio listening is actually “flat.” And so it is that 90% of the population listen to the radio, which is in line with previous quarters.

Each radio listens for 21.0 hours a week, which actually represents – just – a record low under the current RAJAR methodology. This isn’t necessarily surprising, since as I’ve said here before, it’s not so much reach and listening hours that are challenging radio the most, particularly in younger demos. But average hours are worth keeping an eye on.

National and Digital Services

Radio 1 will be pleased to have bounced back from some awful results last time around. They are back up to nearly 9.6m listeners, representing an increase of 5.3% on the quarter and a 1.4% increase on the year. In terms of listening hours, they’ve done very well this time with 64.3m hours which is the best they’ve had for nearly two years now. Last quarter does look much more like a “blip”, but this audience remains challenging and other metrics undoubtedly come into play as far as the station goes.

Radio 2 saw a small decrease across the board in its listening figures, with a fall below 15m for the first time in a few quarters. Notably hours fell too, down 6.0% on the quarter and down 3.0% on the year. But with 14.8m listeners tuning in for an average of 11.7 hours a week, they’re not exactly struggling. Obviously we do now know that their presenters are generally fairly well remunerated!

Radio 3 saw its reach breach 2m again, up 9.4% on the quarter, yet down 6.3% on the year in reach terms. There was a similar trend with hours.

Radio 4 had a stronger quarter in reach terms, rising to 11.6m. By the skin of its teeth, that’s a new record reach for the station, breaking the previous reach set in Q2 last year. Obviously there continue to be one or two things in the news which may well be helping. Hours were down a bit on the quarter, however, while being up on the year.

Five Live had a second successive disappointing quarter, being fractionally down in reach on the quarter, but more substantially down on the year. They’ll be keeping an eye on hours too, with 35.0m down 14.5% on the 41.0m they had a year ago. Obviously there’s no major football tournament this year, and the end of the football season wasn’t quite the story it was a year ago.

In a massive shock, 6 Music has somehow not achieved a record audience this quarter! Reach is down 4.9% to 2.2m, while hours dip below 20m. The latter in particular feels a bit like a blip and will be worth returning to next quarter.

I’ll note that the World Service is up 19.4% in reach terms this quarter, and 28.5% up on the quarter in terms of hours.

LBC has had another exceptional quarter, up 14.5% to 2.0m, and up 11.8% to 21.6m listening hours. These are both records in terms of the station in modern times, since it went national. The station really is going from strength to strength.

Absolute Radio was down 3.0% on the quarter and a little more on the year to 2.1m, while hours were down 1.8% on the quarter, but up 15.8% on the year. Absolute obviously has Dave Berry beginning his new drivetime show from this October, while this quarter (just) saw the departure of longtime presenters Geoff Lloyd and Annabel Port from that slot. We won’t truly be able to see the outcome of that change until the Q4 figures come out early in 2018.

Classic FM had a strong quarter with reach up 7.8% to 5.8m, while hours were up nearly 16% to 40.3m. Those both represent the best numbers the station has had since the first half of 2011, so a really great set of results for the team in Leicester Square.

Talksport on the other hand, has not had a good set of numbers this quarter. They’re down 3.9% in reach on the quarter, and down 20.3% in reach on the year. Hours are worse, down 16.6% on the quarter, and down 28.2% on the year. As with Five Live, there’s been no major football tournament this summer, and the end of the season wasn’t perhaps as exciting as in some other years. However, the reach is the worst since 2010, and hours the worst since the end of 2003. You must think that News UK can help the station with some solid marketing, but also wonder if we’ll see some significant programme changes. Some of those audience losses can be balanced against some growth in Talksport 2, which achieved its best results so far, with 336,000 reach and just short of 1m hours.

Talkradio has also seen some positive shifts, with its reach and hours both healthily up in percentage terms. It now has 275,000 reach with 1.1m hours. Those results put the station about on a par with Virgin Radio which was down in reach but up in hours on the quarter. It has 364,000 listeners spending 1.1m hours with it. The challenge for Wireless Group (and owners News UK) was always supporting all these new brands over the early part of their existence. Speech radio in particular is not necessarily a cheap format.

The Capital Network jumps back up 3.8% in reach and 3.1% in hours this quarter, with the overall brand (including Capital XTRA) similarly improving. Overall they have a reach of 8.6m reach with 48.4m hours. Does Global have Radio 1 in its sights?

Sister Heart Network is basically flat in reach, and down 3.6% in hours on the previous quarter. The overall Heart Brand is up 2.8% in reach but down 0.9% in hours. It reaches 9.2m a week with 67.0m hours. A recent trip to the cinema suggest that they’re spending on the brand currently (although the cheery ad perhaps felt at odds with Dunkirk, which we were about to see).

Over at Kiss, reach is up 4.6% to nearly 4.4m, while hours are down slightly 2.8% on the quarter. The overall Kiss Network (including the very successful Kisstory which itself achieved record figures of 1.7m reach and 7.5m hours) is up 6.4% in reach although down 2.0% in hours.

The Magic Network has seen its audience grow 2.0% to 3.6m this quarter (down a little on the year), while hours have slipped 3.5% on the quarter and about the same on the year.

Finally let’s enter the battle of the 80s. Absolute 80s has increased its reach this quarter by 11.3% to 1.5m, although it’s slightly down on the year, and hours have fallen 9.4% to 7.4m. They’re the lowest they’ve been since Q3 2014.

So what’s happened, and why did I call this a battle? Well Heart 80s has happened. They’ve come in with a reach of 852,000, which is slightly over half the reach of Absolute 80s. Meanwhile they’ve got 3.9m listening hours – again just over half what Absolute 80s achieved.

I would imagine that Global will be delighted with those numbers, while Bauer is disappointed. I’ve mentioned previously that Bauer moved from the Digital One DAB multiplex to the presumably cheaper D2 multiplex. However, that multiplex covers significantly less of the population, and that move in itself saw a decrease in listening almost certainly as a direct consequence. In the meantime. Global saw an opportunity to put a new 80s service on Digital One, and Heart 80s is the result. You can assume that some listeners who lost access to Absolute 80s on DAB have now started listening to Heart 80s. While Absolute 80s is comfortably ahead as things stand, that has got to be a mini-battle worth watching in the future.

London

As ever, the biggest station in London in reach is… Radio 4. It’s up 7.4% in reach. But nobody ever wants to hear that. They want to know about the music stations.

The next biggest station in reach terms is Capital, who’ve had another great result, up 3.3% in reach 2.3m. Hours are up a bit too.

Kiss has had a good result this quarter, and is just behind (if we exclude Radio 2) with 2.0m listeners up 13.8% on the quarter, although down on the year. That’s quite a bounce back for Kiss. Hours are up a little too.

Then it’s Heart with 1.7m listeners, up an astonishing 21.9% after a couple of really poor quarters. Again, listening is down a little.

Skipping past Radio 1, we get to LBC with 1.4m listeners, up 31.6% this quarter, and up 9.2% on the year. But of course it’s the hours of LBC that really do well with 15.7m hours, it can rightly claim to be London’s most listened to commercial station (Radio 4 has more).

Absolute Radio is struggling in London right now with 637,000 listeners, down 17.6% on the quarter and more than 25% on the year.

But I’d finally just note that BBC London is up a colossal 88.8% on the quarter in reach terms and 156% in hours to 621,000 and 3.3m hours. Now while I’m dubious about massive jumps either up or down, 621,000 represents an all time record reach for the station under the current RAJAR methodology!

MIDAS

Finally, I thought that it was worth having a little look at the recently published RAJAR MIDAS survey. This examines listening against other types of audio listening, including on demand music streaming (OMS) services such as Spotify, mp3s, vinyl and so on. It’s important to note that the research is carried out separately to the main RAJAR survey, and as such, isn’t directly comparable. Nonetheless, the most recent set of data was published last week, and it seems as good a time as any to check out some numbers.

It’s always worth looking at the Share of Audio % which shows what radio is “up against.” Some might think that radio’s very retro, and that nobody listens to anything other than Spotify and podcasts, because that’s what they do as a cutting edge media-type. Of course this isn’t true as the chart below shows.

Share of Audio - Summer 2017

That chart shows that live radio dominates listening with 76% of (non-visual) audio. That’s down very slightly from 77% in the last spring release. Other facts that come out of the survey include:

  • 26m people, or 49% of the population haved downloaded a radio app for their phone, with on average users have 2 apps.
  • 5.6m adults listen to a podcast in any week, with smartphones being the most popular device. That’s up from 5.5m in the spring MIDAS survey.
  • 4.2m adults use listen again or catch-up services.

Obviously listening trends change substantially by age group.

You can instantly see that OMS listening is the most significant difference between age groups. Amongst 15-24s, this listening accounts for 23% of all listening, while only accounting for 1% of listening amongst 55+’s.

The growth in listening to OMS amongst 15-24s is quite alarming. There’s no other way to put it, since in Winter 2016 it was 21%. How big will this slice of the pie continue to grow to?

What devices are people using? Well analogue and digital radios are at the top of the list in terms of share, but it really depends on how old you are. For 15-24s, the smartphone is key – and there’s often not a radio built into these (or if there is, it’s pretty bad). But computers are also really important for this group. Only 36% of their time is spend with traditional radios compared with 62% overall.

One final thing worth looking at is what people are listening to by device. I wanted to highlight this, because the Amazon Echo is included. Now, although I don’t have the full data tables for MIDAS research, I suspect that the Amazon data will be on very small sample sizes, so should be treated with caution. However, if it’s in any way indicative, it shows that Voice User Interface devices like the Echo could be very important ways of listening to the radio in the future. Ahead of any other internet connected device that MIDAS measured, more live radio was consumed on the Echo.

As someone who owns two Echos, I can attest to the fact that it’s easily the most painless way of listening to the radio full-stop. You just bark your order at the device and it starts!

(I will note that “digital tracks” don’t seem to show up in the Echo’s results, and since you can listen to services like Spotify and Amazon Music on the devices, I would be very wary of the absolute numbers here. Something to watch in future. [UPDATE: Actually, I was misreading the chart. The “On Demand” represents On Demand Music Services including Spotify. It’s actually personally owned Digital Tracks that you can’t really play via an Echo and is therefore missing – well you can but it’s very fiddly and limited. Thanks to Mike for pointing this out. I still suspect the sample is small, so would be wary of absolute numbers, but the fact remains that Live Radio is crucial part of the Echo audio experience.])

The full publicly available summary is available here on the RAJAR website.

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Mediatel’s Newsline will have lots of figures and analysis
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will have some great analysis
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site
Global Radio’s corporate site

All my previous RAJAR analyses are here.

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB, period ending 25 June 2017, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

RAJAR Q1 2017

RAJAR

Once again, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I am delighted that I continue to be able to bring you this RAJAR analysis in association with RALF. For more details on the product, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

It’s RAJAR time again, when the UK radio industry releases a new set of listening figures. And this is the first release of 2017, featuring a smattering of new stations.

In overall terms, there are a few declines this time around. Overall radio is down 2.4% in terms of listening compared with the previous quarter, although it is up 1.7% on the same time last year. Reach too is down slightly on the quarter but up on the year.

In particular, BBC radio seems to have taken a bit of a hit this quarter, being down 2.9% in reach and 3.6% in hours; whereas commercial radio is only down 1.2% in reach and down 0.8% in hours.

In reach terms, the BBC and commercial radio remain very evenly with matched with commercial radio just edging the BBC with 64% reach compared to the BBC’s 63%. While in share terms, the BBC has 53% of radio listening compared with commercial radio’s 45% (the other two percent or so is non-RAJAR measured radio services).

Overall 89% of the population continue to listen to the radio at least once a week – a figure that has remained constant for many years now.

Digital share is something everyone in the industry pays attention to, and it’s now up to 47.2% of all listening being digital – that’s a big jump in the post Christmas RAJAR period. And it’s really closing in the symbolic 50% digital level.

National and Digital Services

It hasn’t been the best quarter for Radio 1, with reach down 4.8% on last quarter and down 8.1% on last year. It now reaches 9.1m people a week. Five years ago it was reaching 11.1m a week. Obviously its target audience is the most challenging of the BBC’s radio services to target, as I’ve said on many occassions before. While listening was again down on the quarter, it was actually up fractionally on the year. Again, Radio 1 will look to its iPlayer and YouTube footprint.

Radio 2 is also down a little both on the previous quarter and the previous year in terms of reach. But it’s nothing to write home about, and the station remains vastly larger than any other in the country (and many other stations in the world – although I would point to the BBC World Service English service reaching 66m a year…). Hours are very strong though, and although it they’re down slightly on this time last year, those were record numbers then. Radio 2 is still a beast of a station.

Radio 3 had what can only be described as a disappointing quarter, down 11% in reach on both last quarter and last year. Hours were particularly poor, down nearly 20% on last quarter and 15% down on the year. It’s not clear to me what’s happened, but the current listening levels are within the bounds of what it has done previously over the last few years.

While Radio 4 has fallen away from it’s Brexit high a couple of quarters ago, it’s still 5% up on the year in reach and nearly 6% up on the year in hours. This is a good set of numbers, and the station has had a reach of over 11m for four quarters in a row now, when historically 10m was more its norm. Sister station Radio 4 Extra has also had decent numbers.

Five Live has had a disappointing set of numbers too – perhaps not able to capitalise on such a fairy tale Premier League season. It’s down 6.5% in reach on last quarter and down 7.5% on the year. While hours aren’t as bad, it’s interesting that in these highly politicised times, Radio 4 continues to do well, but 5 Live doesn’t.

6 Music, needless to say, confounds all of this. It’s up in everything meaning that it has also once again set record reach and hours figures. It has 2.351m listeners spending 23.4m hours a week with it.

As with Five Live, Talksport hasn’t done so well this quarter, being down 9% on the quarter and 12% on the year in terms of reach. Hours are much better with even a slight uptick on the quarter. Although with less than 3m reach and 20m hours, they will want to do better. Sister station Talksport 2 showed a slight dip on this quarter still hovering around the 250,000-300,000 range for its reach. Hours are a bit more concerning being 10% down on the quarter.

Talkradio got a bump in hours, but is down a little in reach to 238,000. While I’m convinced that there’s room for more speech radio, perhaps it needs further tweaking. Meanwhile Virgin Radio was up in reach and up in hours. While it has yet to return to the levels of the first set of numbers it posted, this at least is encouraging.

Classic FM ticks on by, flat in reach on the quarter, but up nearly 5% on the year. Hours are down slightly on the quarter but up nearly 7% on the year. It comfortably stays north of 5m listeners and has around 35m listening hours putting it in a good place.

Absolute Radio is up slightly on the quarter, and essentially flat on the year in terms of reach. Hours is much better story, with something of a bounce back from last quarter, being up 12%. Across the entire Absolute Radio Network, reach is down a little, but hours are up, and the brand has 4.2m reach and 33m hours (similar to the size of Classic, but with a much more valuable target audience for advertisers).

Radio X is making solid progress nationally up 5% on the quarter in reach and up 6% on the year. Hours are also up, and with a fair wind, it should break 10m listening hours within the next quarter or two. It certainly seems to have some traction.

LBC nationally is performing outstandingly well. it has just short of 1.8m listeners (up 6% on the quarter and up 16% on the year), while hours are closing in to 20m. Listening is up a whopping 27% on the year! This is one station aside from Radio 4 that really is prospering right now.

Capital is doing decently across its whole brand. While reach and hours are down a little on the quarter, they’re up on the year, and the brand still has 8.3m listeners spending 47m hours across the various Capital stations.

The Heart Network and Brand’s listeners (the latter includes Heart Extra) have drifted away a little in recent quarters and this is no exception. Nothing stunning, but still downwards. It’ll be interesting to see if a recent new TV ad does much to turn its fortunes around.

The Magic Network got bolstered this month (see below), but it was still down a little in reach. Hours are better, with now more than 20m Magic hours across the network. Magic too has recently invested in a TV ad, the results of which won’t hit until next quarter.

The Kiss Network has fallen back a little for the second quarter in a row, with a reach still just ahead of 5m, while hours have fallen back below 30m. The brand has done really well to maintain its audience when you compare it with the difficulties Radio 1 has had.

The Smooth Brand is not one I think about a lot, but it’s a real performer for Global with 5.4m reach and nearly 40m hours. It dipped a little this quarter but is a very solid performer if it can hang on to that listening.

Finally a couple of new stations. Union Jack, which has been on the air for several months now, has posted a reach of 71,000 with 265,000 hours. It’s a low cost station (broadcasting at easily the lowest bitrate of any DAB music services), but it probably needs a larger audience in due course.

Meanwhile Magic Soul, which began as a summer pop-up, has a reach of 242,000 and hours of not inconsequential 1.3m. A decent enough start for the service from Bauer.

Finally there’s Share Radio. It has just announced that will be coming off DAB soon, continuing as an online-only service. It posted its first set of numbers, with 17,000 reach and 40,000 hours. The difficulty the station has is that it’s demographic target market is far too specialist for RAJAR to accurately capture. It’s analogous to Bloomberg TV which previously came off BARB in the UK because although the service is definitely on in the right offices and on the right trading floors, it’s not something that the BARB panel can easily pick up.

Breakfast

I’ll leave others to spend more time on breakfast, but Nick Grimshaw saw his show fall as the overall station did. He’s down 4.2% in reach on the quarter and 5.4% down on the year. Unfortunately for him, that’s the lowest Radio 1 breakfast show figure since the current RAJAR methodology started back in 1999.

Over on Radio 2, Chris Evans put on nearly 2% to his audience this quarter – that’s nearly 9.4m listeners. Down a little on this time last year, but still a very successful show.

In commercial terms, Bauer has the top two shows in the Kiss breakfast show with Rickie, Melvin and Charlie with 2.1m listeners, while Christian O’Connell across the Absolute Radio Network is just behind with 1.9m listeners.

London

Who’s number one in London? Well of course it’s actually Radio 4. But you probably want to know how the commercial rivals stack up.

Capital can still shout loudly about that position. With 2.2m listeners, it’s jumped a frankly unlikely 30% on the quarter bouncing back from last quarter’s low. Looking back, that really does look like a freak quarter. Kiss is the next closest in reach with 1.8m listeners.

However in hours terms, LBC gets the crown with 11.5m hours (up 28% on the year!). This compares with 10.8m for Capital and 9.2m for Heart.

(Sorry, I’ve just realised I managed this report without a single chart. I promise to do better in future!)

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic is here
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Mediatel’s Newsline will have lots of figures and analysis
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will have some great analysis
Media Guardian for more news and coverage
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site
Global Radio’s corporate site

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB, period ending 2 April 2017, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

Fortunately…

The first ladies of radio, Fi Glover and Jane Garvey have a new podcast out that’s really quite essential listening: Fortunately…

Glover and Garvey are fantastic radio people, and to a large extent, the joy of this podcast is just to hear them in fairly casual conversation with one another. Episodes are recorded in various non-studio places around the BBC in London.

In fact, the purpose of the podcast is to guide the interested listener to other things they might like across BBC Radio 4 and its sister station Radio 4 Extra (more on this anon). Each presenter takes it in turns to recommend something that they’ve listened to over the last seven days. Often these are current programmes, but sometimes they delve deeper into the archive. The key thing is that they have collated links to all these programmes and you can go back and listen to them in full at your convenience.

Since the primary medium of this programme is as a podcast (it’s not being broadcast on the radio), it’s very easy to either add a new podcast or find something on iPlayer Radio while you’re actually listening to their recommendations.

Now you might think that there’s already a Radio 4 programme that does this – it’s run for years and is called Pick of the Week. And you’d be right. Sort of.

Glover and Garvey are careful not to use the words “pick of the week” in any context where they’re too close together. But I suppose their point of difference is that as people many of us have come to “know” after hearing them so much on the radio, we’ll know the kind of things they’re likely to choose. You do need to know a reviewer to help determine whether what they’re saying will chime with you. Conversely, if I know that your tastes are markedly different from my own, then I will treat your recommendations with caution.

While I’m sure that every presenter of Pick of the Week assiduously listens to vast amounts of BBC Radio output, you do get the feeling that some editions are a little scripted, and that the presenter may not always be quite as diligent as they present themselves.

Fortunately… exists in a podcast-only format, and I suppose it’s a slight shame that three episodes in, they seem to be restricted to national BBC radio output – more specifically the Radio 4 network. Such is the wealth of good radio, guiding listeners to otherwise unknown gems around the various networks is a worthy service, but adding in some third party podcasts might be interesting too.

At one point in an episode, Helen Zaltzman’s name came up, initially described as someone who does a lot of crafting. This was quickly elaborated upon as not being the only thing we’d know her for (she’s a regular guest on programmes like Woman’s Hour, where she has indeed talked about crafting). But it felt like they were avoiding the obvious – she’s actually rather famous for making popular podcasts like Answer Me This and The Allusionist, to the extent that she’s been doing a two-hander live show with Roman Mars of 99% Invisible fame.

I’d hope that perhaps in due course Fortunately… expands its remit to include other radio stations and particularly podcasts. One of the main issues facing both podcast creators and listeners, is discovery. How do you find out about new shows? Some of the broadsheets make a good effort to alert readers, but for the most part, it feels that successful podcasts breed successful podcasts: This American life begat Serial. Serial begat S-Town. And so on.

While the cream is said to rise to the top, I’m not sure that’s always the case if the cup is incredibly deep, and the cream goes rancid before it gets a chance to reach the surface – to enormously overstretch a metaphor.

Incidentally, was I the only person left a little disappointed by the discussion about podcasts on The Media Show a couple of weeks ago? There was a pre-recorded interview with Brian Reed, presenter and producer of the excellent S-Town, before a short state-of-the-nation discussion about UK podcasts with Caroline Crampton of The New Statesman’s SRSLY and Ellie Gibson of Scummy Mummies.

The tenor seemed to be that the UK couldn’t do big podcasts like S-Town because it’s expensive and there’s the BBC here which cripples the opportunity. But I’m not entirely sure that we were comparing apples with apples here. As Reed had pointed out in his interview, much podcasting in the US is still a few people sitting around a microphone plugged into a laptop. A massively successful podcast like Marc Maron’s WTF, for example, is still recorded relatively simply in his garage.

It’s only the very top layer of podcasts that is are at the heavily produced and expensively made level of This American Life, Gimlet, Panoply or Radiotopia. And yes, US scale, and a less well funded public radio system means that there’s more space for podcasts to breathe. But neither of the podcasters in the studio was really in the same market as those big beasts. Indeed, I’m not sure that even the BBC could have put through the resources that went into something like S-Town, where the story germinated for a number of years before finally being made as a standalone series.

But, the aforementioned Allusionist is part of the successful Radiotopia family and is made by a Brit, and the podcasting output of organisations like The Economist, The Guardian and The FT is first rate by any measure, utilising sophisticated sound design and first rate production. However, it’s clear that the UK podcast advertising marketplace has not yet developed to as significant an extent, which means that nobody is getting rich (or even moderately wealthy) just yet. Spin-off live events, books and other merchandising are still a requirement.

There are high quality podcasts being made in the UK. Many of them will be celebrated this weekend at the first British Podcast Awards, and I’m just not sure that was entirely reflected in the piece.

Disclaimer: I am one of several producers on The Cycling Podcast, which is nominated in the sport category at the awards.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.