Radio's Dramatic Decade
As the dawn of the decade was toasted, Chris Moyles was about to end his record spell on the Radio 1 breakfast show. As self-declared "saviour of Radio 1", he'd taken his show from 18m listening hours to, at its height, over 30m. Grimmers was to take over in 2012, with Greg James sliding in quietly last year, set to truly own the 2020s as a perfect broadcaster of his generation - on a now thoroughly focused radio station.
Big Ben Cooper occupied the Radio 1 Controller's chair for much of the period, having replaced Andy Parfitt in 2011. As the decade closes, Ben no longer has to dress down with the kids as he leaves the BBC, having achieved the "childhood dream" of working at the station.
At Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams dominated, controlling the network from 2010. Whilst she had not dared to milk any sacred cows, save maybe for slaughtering Midweek, she might hope to be remembered for Soul Music, extending the World at One and a "wider range of voices". Radio 4 also hit unparalleled 11m audiences mid-decade. Several stalwarts drank their lukewarm valedictory vino in her reign, including John Humphrys, Robin Lustig and James Naughtie, the latter much-loved for his Jeremy Hunt spoonerisms and shitting in the pips.
Radio 2 was shedding the final vestiges of the Light Programme, as it ended Melodies for You, David Jacobs retired and Desmond Carrington stepped down after a staggering 80 years. Then, as 2010 dawned, the unthinkable happened as Terry Wogan handed over the breakfast reins to his errant son Chris Evans. Terry assumed weekend duties until his death in 2016 when the nation mourned – as did UK radio, with his passing observed universally by radio stations of all flavours.
Although seen as maybe risky at the time, Chris Evans’s appointment to the Radio 2 schedule was a masterstroke. The network survived the decade on exactly the same audience reach (26%) as it had started it.
This was the decade that commercial radio sorted itself out, with the closing scenes in the consolidation drama, lots of brand juggling and licensing - and a host of new national launches.
The regulatory noose loosened after the Digital Economy Act 2010, and Ofcom, following consultation and with a tug on the sleeve from DCMS, started to take a more pragmatic view of what might be networked and where stations should be based.
Fifty years on, the 1970s model of local stations under different names moved to one of finely-tuned major national brands. Mercury and Ten17 T-shirts and mugs were pulped in 2010 as those stations evolved into Heart; and the likes of Red Dragon, Trent and Galaxy were Capitalised the following year. Global head Ashley Tabor-King suggested Capital would be the "the 1st proper national commercial competitor Radio 1 has ever experienced". The Capital brand (including Capital Xtra) ended the decade with more listeners than Radio 1.
In an era where local shrank and national grew, there were casualties and many understandably tearful - but professional – farewells marked the personal upheaval for many in the radio business. Some have settled into new, larger gigs beyond their wildest dreams, whilst others have reluctantly had to put their skills to use in other industries. For some, it won't be the best Christmas.
The streamlining, however, meant commercial radio was able to offer, for the first time, a platform of sufficient stature for BBC stars, such as Moyles, Mair and Mayo. Notably, after transferring this year from Radio 2 to Virgin, Chris Evans achieved a remarkable set of debut figures, helping to double the station's reach. Alongside Eddie Mair's figures from his new LBC home, there was evidence that top talent can now cross the road and begin to take audiences with them at a scale Britain has puzzlingly rarely seen.
The growing number of stations allowed for ever more targeting. In 2012, Talksport removed any remaining content not involving balls and became a total 24-hour sports station. Commercial brands were stretched, with the arrival of Smooth, Magic, Heart, Capital and Kiss spin-offs - with Kisstory rising to a 5% national reach.
Absolute was an early master of the brand extension, and its decade-driven off-shoots, plus growth in Absolute Radio itself as DAB listening replaced AM, contributed to huge total audience growth with the network delivering record audiences of almost 5m.
That injection of listening hours made good reading for Bauer, which had acquired Golden Square in 2013. Bauer’s spending spree later spread to Orion, Celador, UKRD, Lincs FM and some Wireless assets. After enviable efficiency in the latter purchases, it probably feels it has spent much of the last decade frustratingly waiting for the CMA to allow it to get on with the plans.
There were new stations too, with the surprising arrival of Scala. And Bauer lost its first heritage brand name as it sacrificed an ailing Key in Manchester in favour of Hits Radio - and created a sister Greatest Hits service.
Global meanwhile, having spent much of the previous decade on the acquisition trail, was busy focusing its brands and frequencies, generating Radio X from Xfm, streamlining Smooth, Heart and Capital and nationalising LBC and LBC News. Given LBC has been loved but troubled since 1973, it was great to see the brand in its best-ever shape – making the news itself time and time again.
If awards were offered for the decade, the Gold overall might go to Global. One of its founders, Richard Park, stepped aside this year after a phenomenal 53 years at the sharp end of radio - entrusting his legacy to a new cohort of gifted executives already making their mark - and leaving a wealth of colourful anecdotes.
Amidst all the change, Jamie Theakston at Heart, James O'Brien and Nick Ferrari at LBC, Steve Wright, Jeremy Vine and Ken Bruce at Radio 2 and Big John at Hallam chalked up another decade to their long on-air service records. Steve Allen marked 40 years since he'd walked through the LBC door.
Broadcast engineers have been pulling their hair out as commercial radio crammed ever more studios into their principal bases. The Corporation was also blessed with new premises as 5 live moved from London to the new MediaCityUK in 2011 - and BBC Radio Manchester crossed town after 35 years at Oxford Road. Helen Boaden and Tim Davie were pictured breaking through the wall connecting old and new as London’s New Broadcasting House came into full service in 2012. Bush House and TV centre radio programmes moved in, and the Queen popped into reception to cut the ribbon the following year.
Commercial radio revenues rose from £506m at the end of the noughties to £714m in the most recent published figures to date (2018), with national revenues the real winner, climbing 45%. Local revenues grew by just 16% – but branded content, assisted by Ofcom’s regulatory changes rules allowing brand integration, climbed 21%.
One thing common to every decade is the potential for BBC cuts – or, as the Corporation labelled them last time, Delivering Quality First. BBC DG Mark Thompson celebrated the start of 2010 by announcing the closure of BBC 6 Music and the Asian Network, with BBC 7 becoming Radio 4 Extra. The BBC Trust had other ideas, however. The proposed cuts were reversed and 6 Music's audiences climbed indignantly.
BBC local radio was reprieved when the significant networking planned in 2012 was forbidden by the Trust, leaving just the implementation of evening networking the following year. In 2017, the new DG reversed even that economy. The stations repaid that show of Head Office faith by trending down in audience reach to their lowest ever levels this year. It would claim success in its efforts to find new talent.
2011 saw John Myers begin his review of BBC local radio. The radio world was to lose John in 2019, an influential and much-admired figure who was deservedly afforded one of radio’s state funerals.
Community radio expanded in the decade, growing to around 300 stations - around the same number as local commercial licences. The decade ended with the final analogue licensing as the sector prepared to take advantage of the new small scale DAB multiplexes.
Having saved a station or two, the BBC Trust was disbanded in 2017, leaving just Ofcom as the wagging-finger single-parent. Within the terms of the Charter and Ofcom’s more generic operating licence, the BBC became freer to juggle its offerings.
Although it has delivered numerous beautiful successes overlooked too often by its critics, in several areas, the BBC suffered a decennium horribilis. The Corporation - and other media – briefly marked Jimmy Savile's death in 2011 with fondness, until the appalling truth became clear. The ripples from that episode were to impact disastrously on the lives of many others in broadcasting – including the innocent. George Entwistle’s resignation as Director-General in November 2012, following controversy over a Newsnight TV report, made him the shortest serving Director-General in the history of the BBC.
April 2013 saw the arrival of Tony Hall in the oak-panelled BBC DG office. He’s still there.
On social media, the BBC was subjected to a torrent of accusations about bias, largely with mis-spelt comments in capital letters leaning on analysis of content which had not actually been witnessed by the accusers. Whilst no broadcaster is ever perfect, given such a huge volume of often live programming, many of the accusations were without foundation. The tirade of abuse worsened around the 2019 general election - and its own journalists were driven to fight the might of the nonsense.
The decade saw huge strides in the numbers of women on-air, after previous decades of mainly male leaders had been comforted by research which suggested people don’t like women on the radio. Research that no-one could ever find.
Zoe Ball became Radio 2’s first female breakfast host, and Sara Cox assumed drivetime. BBC local radio too rose to the DG’s 2014 challenge of delivering women's voices at breakfast on at least half of local stations. Some arranged marriages worked, some did not, whatever the relative merits of the individuals. Simon Mayo’s double act with Jo Whiley on Radio 2 lasted, in his words, just "an awkward, stressful few months", and I suspect Jo would say the same although they both gave it their best shot.
Running the BBC must be painful. In 2017, it was asked to divulge the password of its performer fees spreadsheet, which made for fascinating reading. Media rewards are always difficult to contrast – are like-for-like gigs actually like-for-like when you factor in experience, listener value and ‘star quality’? Nevertheless, the figures did add weighty evidence to some wholly justified cases.
Top BBC names broke cover to vent their anger on fair pay for women, with radio names like Sarah Montague and Jane Garvey making clear their frustrations, along with Carrie Gracie who was memorably on-air on Radio 4’s Today programme as the story exploded. It would be a shame, however, just to remember Jane Garvey for that intervention, when the decade has seen her effortless brilliance turn her into a national broadcasting great, surfacing on the hallowed Woman’s Hour.
On national treasures, Tony Blackburn returned to national radio in 2010, as he assumed the Pick of The Pops programme from radio-turned-TV name Dale Winton, who died in 2018. After a painful hiatus, Tony later assumed the Sounds of the Sixties programme, treading in the footsteps of Brian Matthew who died twice - thanks to the BBC’s prescient reporting in 2017.
On-air, there've been more tears and authenticity, with radio uniquely geared to reflect the spirit of the age. And - post the 2Day FM Royal hoax call incident in Australia in 2012 - potentially unkind radio gave way to feelgood. The Sunday chart show united ritual started to diminish as the BBC's chart moved to Friday and commercial radio groups went their own ways.
It’s been the decade where digital replaced analogue as the principal transmission platform. Total digital listening more than doubled from 243m hours at the start the of the decade to 562m now, with DAB accounting for the lion’s share. DAB morphed into DAB+ and a second national commercial multiplex came on air - delivering unprecedented choice to UK listeners.
The number of radio listeners online has more than tripled in ten years, with primitive pop-ups replaced by dapper apps. As the decade began, Tim Davie was proudly trumpeting the new Radioplayer at the Radio Festival, a real joint industry effort thanks, in no small part, to the energies of MD Mike Hill who ended the decade battling to secure radio’s place on the dashboard.
BBC radio delivered via iPlayer was relaunched in 2012 as BBC iPlayer Radio - before being replaced by BBC Sounds last year. Like most change, the hurried early incarnations of the app attracted "pretty terrible" reviews, according to the World at One’s own cue into an item on the controversy. Notwithstanding its understandable vision to to be a "standalone , and standout, destination bringing the best of everything we do in audio into one place", it subsequently wisely began to acknowledge more of the value of BBC's trusted station brands and the huge volume of linear listening.
BBC Sounds was but one initiative from a BBC chastened by figures suggesting under 35s care little for their elderly Auntie. James Purnell, director of radio and education, said it would allow the BBC to "lean in to the podcast revolution", where 15-24s were proving the most revolting.
Although the tech was around in prior decades, the last ten years saw the word ‘podcast’ creep into early mainstream. The number of podcasts grew like flopsy, albeit the vast majority enjoy short lives and are only listened to by the very brave. The exceptions have become phenomena, with the Apple charts featuring some international entrants, alongside a healthy contingent of UK radio derivatives. One delicious example was the excellent Brexitcast/Electioncast, which moved sideways from podcast to broadcast radio – and even TV. The sexiness of podcasting has also brought an extra burst of enthusiasm for audio as an influential advertising medium, hopefully one which might even propel radio to the revenues it has long-deserved.
In the last five years, the number of podcast listeners almost doubled – to 5.9m in 2018. Nevertheless, contrary to what some suggest, it remains the appreciably smaller cousin of radio, accounting for just a 4% slice of ear-time, compared to radio’s 73%.
This was the decade when radio's competitive sets for both audience and revenues shifted, as fixed broadband and mobile access grew in size and speed - with data cheaper.
Despite the increasing number of community and streamed stations not publishing Rajar results, the reach of such 'other radio' as a whole remained at around 7% across the decade, maybe due, in part, to national data sampling for major commercial brands capturing what would have been out-of-area listening.
Whilst traditional radio has faced challenges for its 15-24 audience, particularly in terms of loyalty, it remains a titan. With the population growing, radio’s audience rose too – up from 46m to, at best, a record 49m in the course of the decade, although its percentage reach of all adults fell from 90% to 88%, having bounced around as high as 92%. Ten years in media is a long time and such a slow decline is evidence of radio’s resilience.
The decade saw the end of the BBC's hundred year dominance of radio. The BBC fell from reaching 65% of the population to 61% - and commercial radio grew from 61% to 65% thanks to more services and better platform equivalence. Even with so much choice, listeners still stay with favourite stations - although those favourites may well have changed – and the number of stations in the average listener station repertoire has grown from 2.5 to 3 in the decade.
The last ten years have seen levels of change in radio which the medium has not witnessed since its birth in the 1920s. The next ten years promise much the same. As radio approaches its second century, let's hope the BBC can count on confident leadership for the challenges ahead, if it is to be seen as fit for purpose and retain what is best about it. And that they involve people who know and love radio in determining its new place in a broader audio world. Let's hope too that the commercial players continue to forge ahead with agility in a fast-changing world - and maybe even show a little seasonal goodwill to each other.
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