BBC Radio - Where next?
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
In the 1950s, radio was approaching a crossroads. TV had Ewbanked up audiences, stolen evening peaks and radio questioned just how the spoken word would fit into a new media world. And Auntie stood alone.
In the '60s, BBC radio was dragged screaming into the beat era by the disruptive pirates - and in the '70s she reached out across the UK, fearful of the new localised commercial warriors. In the '80s breakfast TV arrived, and radio early shows across the sectors feared that their command of the cornflakes would be eroded.
No longer is change measured across decades. The last five years alone have seen change at a pace never yet witnessed. DAB has matured into a useful platform delivering huge listening volume; and audio on demand and podcasting has grown significantly as content proliferates and access to it becomes cheaper and easier. More broadly, there is simply an unprecedented volume of rival entertainment which just did not exist a generation ago.
In a sense, commercial radio/audio is a simple business. Whatever the future brings, it will follow or lead the market. Owned by whomsoever, it will create and market content efficiently which will seek to recruit the largest possible audiences - and extract the maximum value from those listener relationships.
How the BBC will fare in the years ahead is a more complex question - as is any question about the genuinely beautiful BBC. Without doubt it has been a defining and healthy influence on UK radio, and a large proportion of its content is of world-beating quality. However - once it was alone, now it must retain real purpose if it is to justify public funding - and focus if it is to retain audiences.
In portfolio management, history teaches us the risk of having too large a gap between Radio 1 and Radio 2. At the time when Matthew Bannister was steering the brand back down the demos, Radio 2’s controller, Frances Line, was in no hurry to forsake Young for younger.
Earlier this decade, Radio 1 was pilloried annually for getting ‘too old’, albeit that single simple regulatory focus on its linear stream has rightly shifted to take account of all the other Radio 1 content and indeed the contribution of 1 Xtra. Radio 1’s average age now sits at 36, trending older from 33 ten years ago. As listeners graduate to their 30s, Radio 1 has already become the fond soundtrack to their life - they remain happy with its musical pedigree, hugely strong personalities and production values - so they stay with it. That’s how good radio is - and it is nothing to be ashamed of. Attracting a new young audience to radio is a different question. Commercial radio too is losing out in this demo - despite more focused offerings and enhanced carriage - more so with women, with whom it traditionally fares well - a gender bias BBC radio does not have.
Scattering ‘youth dust’ across all BBC offerings is not the answer.
Radio 2 is trending slightly older too, from 50/51 ten years ago to 54 now. It’s simple to see why Zoe Ball was thought to be the right appointment to breakfast and the kind of characters who will likely be the new Jeremy Vine and Ken Bruce when the time comes for the warm wine and farewell speeches. Having reinvigorated the network under Moir, there appears no appetite to let the same issue recur.
Having those two networks shaking hands solidly in the mid demographics appears sensible, given BBC radio has also been quietly losing out amongst 30-40s with a downward slide greater than the much vaunted 15-24 decline - with 30-40s falling from 60% reach five years ago to 51% now, with Radio 2 decline there partly responsible. The change in 15-24s is mirrored by a change in the market, whereas amongst 30-40s, radio as a medium has shifted little. Former Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt told me about the plan some years ago for a family of Radio 1 stations of various flavours, from which only 1 Xtra came to pass. Maybe there is more to be done about the delineation of the BBC's sub-35 offerings, which would also stop the pressure on Radio 2 to become uncomfortably broad.
The real story stretches beyond audience reach, however, to loyalty - the time per week spent with a station. As is well documented, just as 15-24 radio listening falls, Radio 1’s audience is becoming much less loyal too. The BBC in that demo is hit both by changing habits – and by excellent commercial competitors, now available nationally. 1 Xtra has a fairly stable audience, growing marginally older over the last five and ten years, with loyalty again eroding.
Whilst loyalty amongst Radio 2’s total audience remains currently undiminished, I hazard a guess that, as I said on Zoe's appointment, the station's reach will never see its dizzy heights again, and that’s no fault of the programmer or the talent.
Radio 4’s audiences will always be slower-moving. Former Controller Helen Boaden told me with a smile of the caution required by its controllers if they are to live to see Christmas. Its audience might be a touch older and a touch less loyal ten years on, but trends are snail-paced. It remains huge but there's maybe a chilly wind in the long term forecast - not least because some of its content is actually more suited to on-demand. Maybe it could become, in time, a news station. Radio’s consumption is high in the demographics where it attracts the bulk of its business – and competition is less frantic.
To see what’s coming over the hill in the spoken word market, one can look at London. LBC 97.3’s total 1.3m audience there is, on average, aged late 40s rather than the late 50s of Radio 4. Only around 1/3m of Radio 4’s 2.6m London listeners, however, are dashing off for a filling of Ferrari or Fogerty. This is tribal. In a sense, it’s good for LBC too – and for radio – LBC is attracting people who would likely not dream of turning to Radio 4 for talk. As LBC’s audience grows naturally outside London, in line with DAB consumption and LBC’s brand strength, one expects this trend to continue.
Most stations have their time in the sun - and times of challenge. It is the latter for BBC 5 Live. Despite some excellent content and talent – and being ever more available on DAB and other digital platforms - it hits 9% reaches of late, rather than the 12% of five years ago. At a time when radio is becoming ever more focused, this mongrel format is under stress. News and sport collide, as happened on the day of that famous Saturday Commons sitting. Furthermore, does the desire for interesting authentic conversation collide with the BBC’s traditional - and very regulated - approach to programme structure, news and news talk - and Auntie's typically cautious eye?
I cannot see a time when the BBC will move away – or be allowed to move away - from the demands of the extant Charter and Editorial Guidelines (even on non-broadcast material), but increasingly it will likely - and rightly - continue to push the boundaries in interpretation. I appreciate Brexitcast is a 5 Live production, but that model illustrates an interesting authenticity which might be echoed more loudly on radio.
The question, however, of where sport should live on BBC radio has been a hot potato for generations - shunted from 2 - to 5 - to 5 Live. An extra BBC radio sport channel would be the answer, but one suspects the BBC is not about to commit to this extra expense; and commercial radio would deem it unfair.
I’ve written much about BBC local radio over the years. Two years ago, the DG pledged that there’d be none of the cuts that its management had been diligently devising for a year and: "ending the idea of targeting just the over 50s". Whilst any declaration of interest in local radio from a DG is to be applauded, I wrote at the time how fearful I was. Here was a network which already had been variously focused variously too young and too old - and here was Tony pledging it would be broader still. The original target of ‘50+’ had already been much too broad to be helpful - and poorly executed. Witness the growth too amongst 60 to 70s for commercial radio. Now, after two years, BBC local radio is only beginning to demonstrate a new focus. Although it will always be cautious, for good reason, the Corporation must become more agile.
Now, at last, BBC local has escaped from its illogical home in news – and it will need gifted programmers, talent managers and entertainers/communicators to bring the stations to life in their markets. I also cautioned at the time that the network would have falling audiences at a higher cost which would come under scrutiny - and then the network would have to be abruptly remodelled. As the BBC faces a raft of cash demands elsewhere, there are savings to be had in local and network radio - but they must be in the right areas. Local radio enjoys huge format and operational freedoms - with the least demanding operating licence of all, liberated quietly from a host of restrictions when the Trust was folded. Long term - as I've argued here - it must be time for a fresh look at local radio generally across the sectors. If we agree there is value in localised radio, the UK's small commercial, BBC and community stations must surely sit more sensibly together. At present, they are where they are simply because they always were.
Where from here? The BBC has placed its eggs in the Sounds basket – and one can see the clear strategy there: making all the audio the BBC has to offer readily available to everyone. That’s great – and one hopes that the app – and how it is fuelled with audio and metadata - will continue to be tuned speedily from the rough edges still evident. In putting all the offerings together, I hope the brand guardians at the BBC recognise that, for example, Radio 4 and Radio 1 are powerful and trusted sub-brands too - and ensure that content genuinely fits with the label. In a world where content is so plentiful, clear brand identities and signposts help rather than hinder. As BBC (and Channel 4) TV content appears on other platforms, it is often not readily attributed, and to lose BBC radio network brand equity would be similarly damaging.
I hope too that the interests of the huge numbers of traditional radio listeners are also afforded just as much excitement and priority. Whilst on-demand and podcasting will continue to grow from its relatively small base now - and that approach suits a huge amount of BBC content and gets to new audiences - linear radio is not going anywhere any time soon. It accounts for 92% of the linear/podcasting/on-demand cake.
The time ahead will be one where radio listeners will be able to choose from an ever-growing array of content - live and on-demand from purveyors across the World. This will be an era where the best-targeted content, with the best marketing and the biggest talent will succeed.
When UK commercial radio fought for freer ownership limits, it argued that once consolidated, groups would offer more internal format variety. With the growth of LBC, the News UK offerings, Smooth/Magic, Classic and Jazz, this has come to pass - and no longer can the BBC expect to be the only player in non-pop formats. The market is delivering.
In short, being in charge of any BBC radio network at this stage of its life is a tough gig. Whatever your format, there are new competitors. If we can arrive at a research currency which registers all audio, not just 'radio', the BBC can better manage change rather than defend decline. I call it all radio anyway.
As ever, the BBC will have to deliver sufficient audience volume and distinctiveness to continue to justify the licence fee. BBC radio listening will fall, however, and one imagines the BBC will be in no rush to have FM switched off to speed that decline. When the licence fee diminishes or evolves, I suspect it will be BBC services which will close in the long term, rather than commercial cash be injected into mainstream BBC offerings. Auntie will have to focus on what she does best, possibly more as a publisher than as a broadcaster, with public funds also still injected into news.
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