RAJAR - On the way, at last - but what will it say?
If you thought grabbing some sleep on Christmas Eve as a kid was a challenge, try it the night before the publication of Rajar audience figures.
Livelihoods are at risk – and in commercial stations, millions of pounds can be wiped off – or added to - revenues on the strength of the figures. Little wonder we toss and turn.
The pressure leading up to October 28th is enormous. These will be the first full figures using fresh data since the ones published for March 2020 – and our World has changed since then.
It’ll be easy to leap to conclusions quickly on the headlines, but caution is wise.
Time since the last data
A significant period of time has elapsed between the publication of the new data and the old.
Listening habits tend to adjust slowly. A change is made on on-air; listeners take time to notice. Then they take time to recognise, recall and document their changing habits in their weekly Rajar listening diaries. Meanwhile, Rajar's contractor itself takes time to collect and publish data. All this means that ebbs and flows are usually modest for most stations.
This time, many, many months have elapsed since some of the oldest data on which the last figures rested. Even if life were normal, that is long enough for things to have changed appreciably. Any jumps or falls may seem abrupt.
There are other complications too. The larger and national stations, normally benefiting from a large TSA and a sample sufficiently robust to base figures on data from the last three months alone, will this time have that data (Jul-Sept) spiced with response from the previous quarter (Apr-Jun). So – in this ‘extended quarter’ - some of the performance for even the major brands could be measured on data collected right back to April 2021.
Smaller stations have always published figures using data from six-month or twelve-month samples. This will again be the case, but this time, the prior periods were back in the Middle Ages. Half-yearly stations will have data from the last quarter – plus data from Q1 2020. Yearly stations will have data from Q3 2019, Q4 2019, Q1 2020 - and the most recent quarter.
So, the results for the smaller stations will include at least some data from as far back as July 2019 – six months before the first UK Covid case. That really does seem a lifetime ago.
In short, Rajar - always measuring historical not current performance - this time will be more historical than usual. The figures are thoroughly welcome to kick things off again as a trading currency - but as a programming device, it's good we all lean on other things too.
And - whilst radio's hugely valuable role in lockdown has been well-examined around the World, these figures will not really tell that story owing to the fieldwork dates.
It’s changed. Beware of apples and pears.
Rajar has traditionally been produced wholly by the efforts of valiant door-knockers, banging the doorknobs at selected homes to cajole respondents to take part. Individuals are asked to recall their radio listening over a week - and complete a listening diary online. The old paper diaries are now available as an option – but used increasingly rarely.
During some periods of the Covid episode, however, it was impossible to recruit respondents on the doorstep without being arrested, hence the hiatus in figures.
Now, with the radio and advertising industries hungry for fresh figures, Rajar has managed to generate a set, despite ongoing challenges to fieldwork, by relying on a flexible approach to methodology.
This time, the data from the ‘knock and complete’ weekly diaries are supplemented by a couple of fresh alternatives. Data will also be drawn from an ongoing diary panel, where appointed individuals report their listening on a more ongoing basis - and from a tech-driven approach using the MediaCell smartphone meter, which detects audio, then recognises and registers it. That approach has been well-tested - and is used by the Rajar contractor Ipsos MORI in overseas markets.
All the data, however, will be sucked in and processed so that the outputs look familiar. We’ll still be able to see all the ebbs and flows of the day, the demographics and how our mates are faring etc, but under the bonnet, there’s been an awful lot of soldering.
Any research methodology has its challenges. The conventional door-knocking approach is certainly not the cheapest; but brings its advantages. The MediaCell and similar methods have merit too, but again, as trials have shown, also have limitations and quirks.
There is simply no perfect way to research radio, not least because of the ubiquity which generates its massive consumption. Each method will deliver slightly different results, maybe higher/lower reach, higher/lower time spent listening, or higher/lower volatility - alongside differing challenges in respondent recruitment.
Thanks to the vigilance of Rajar and its contractor, no approach is wrong – just different.
The results from this more flexible approach should not be compared, therefore, to previous results – tempting though it is. That's why the published tables won't bear earlier results.
Any shifts may reflect the performance of the station or its competitors, the methodology - or the World. We will, nevertheless, have a line in the sand at last. We can assess our own successes and failures across our schedule and against our competitors. And, for commercial stations, we’ll no longer be selling airtime impressions on mouldy data.
Tribute should be paid to the Rajar team, particularly Paul Kennedy, who have worked hard to get the show back on the road so that this data can be published. I know it was not an enviable job.
Rajar adjusts its population universe on a regular basis. It’s usually minor, but the population did grow by almost 1% in the second quarter of 2020, and I expect another shift in the latest data – so maybe twice since the last published fresh data. Shifts in absolute numbers might wisely be viewed in this context.
Hands up if yours has not changed.
For months, the roads were quiet. Now, people are returning to something akin to normality – if they can find fuel. But will the breakfast peak look like it used to?
Some brands have always tended to be mid-morning led rather than breakfast; and I have a hunch that peaks will happen later. The familiar half-hourly daily listening ski-slope for broadcast radio has always looked a little different from the streaming molehill, with the latter daytime-led. Will they become more similar?
In working from home, as many people continue to do, they might lie in bed rather than dash for the bus. The likelihood of radio listening at the crack of dawn may have changed. Workplace listening choices too may also be more individual - rather than a consensus agreed at the photocopier with Eric from accounts. The amount of wfh may be exaggerated - but there is little doubt that it – and hybrid working - will have grown permanently from pre-pandemic.
Overall, whilst at home listening has always ruled overall, it was in decline – and (longer term than this graph) in-car listening had been growing. Will this trend now be bucked? And how will respondents choose to define their listening when they are both at home and working?
Radio can be seasonal too – and we’ve certainly not had a typical Summer.
The platforms on which listeners find us are quickly changing.
Did you serve as a patient IT desk to older relations as they frantically adopted new tech? The pace of change in audio consumption was already rapid - and the restrictions of recent months will have served as a catalyst for further significant change.
Trends suggested listening to radio on TV as a proportion of all listening was stabilising, as was DAB, with other online growing apace. What will this latest data indicate? I suspect that the amount of listening not on a radio set will have grown appreciably.
At the national DAB station we’ve launched during lockdown, Boom Radio, we know that our baby boomer audience adore smart speakers – and our research suggests use does not tail off for those listeners aged in their 70s. This device is quickly changing the face of radio listening.
Listen again/catch-up is also increasingly popular – and I would expect this to have grown. Not measured directly by Rajar hour-by-hour at present, this is radio listeners choosing to listen to programmes when they want to - and who can blame them. Some hours seemingly ‘lost’ to radio may well not have been – and, owing to their formats, listeners to BBC stations are probably more inclined to do this.
This survey will give us a clue to these issues, but I hope that Rajar will also be publishing its useful Midas study to penetrate the matter further.
Radio stations change over time, and many are quite different from last time around- and marketing has been interrupted.
The impact of the Bauer acquisitions will have settled and the progress of its Greatest Hits stable, alongside its London FM outlet, will be fascinating to see - now with Simon Mayo in the seat which has long had his name on it. And the level of impact – or otherwise, on Absolute as it loses its FM outlet in London.
At Radio 1, Rickie, Melvin and Charlie took over the mid-morning show; and Grimmy moved on. That's all relatively recent.
Radio 2 must be managing decline – and I’d be surprised if it remains at giddy heights forever. I say that without criticism. The station has enjoyed a mainstream format with gold-standard transmission platforms, unrivalled marketing inventory and the funds to secure the very best talent. I doubt, however, whether the heights of the Wogan/Evans era can ever be replicated as commercial radio targets specific audiences with precision with an ever growing range of offerings – and begins to move a touch closer to platform equivalence.
When this happens, it will not be a BBC failure. Merely commercial radio rescued at last from decades of regulatory and platform disadvantage. Radio 2 has a growing number of excellent commercial targeted competitors; some, like Virgin, boasting talent displaced from Auntie. No one station will attract a major chunk of Radio 2’s audience but each one may, in time, seize a growing slice of its cake.
The station has also moved away from staring at the 55+s who made up over half of its listening hours. Absolutely within the terms of its licence, it now addresses more enthusiastically the middle ground where commercial radio had seized ownership - and seeks to ensure good portfolio management. I get that. There is also the BBC’s political need generally to ensure that younger generations engage with BBC just as older ones do, if its funding model is to be defended. But, as ever, changes to registered audiences will be slow.
There are new stations too, not least Times Radio. Whilst we have become tired of the ‘rival for Radio 4’ moniker being applied to any talk outlet, Times will attract an audience. Radio 4 itself has also changed its appeal and style inch-by-inch - and its audience now has a range of alternative talk stations and also an impressive array of podcast offerings to spend its time with.
Against this backdrop, however, the Country has been in crisis – and that can be good for speech formats - when people seek both company and information. Although the BBC is often the port in a storm in times of crisis - I’d be surprised if LBC does not continue to fare well. And – maybe – the best feelgood stations will do decently too.
Boom Radio, of which I’m co-founder, came on-air in February, aimed squarely at baby boomers who felt disadvantaged by the Radio 2 changes. Boom Radio expects to amass but a small slice of Radio 2’s audience in this first survey. Not least because some of the data was collected in the Spring when we’d barely switched the thing on. But if that means that tens of thousands of listeners now have a station they feel understands them – then that’s good for radio. Like Times Radio, it'll certainly be good for us to have some debut figures, at last, to build on.
BBC local radio in England has also shifted. Now freed quietly from its 55+ remit, it now adopts a strategy which several of those working for it tell me they are a little puzzled by. Its music no longer very palatable to 55+ who made up 80% of its listening - and the programme schedules changing wholly, with the new longer slots. We’ll see whether all this really has ‘made a difference’ – but again, all the factors outlined elsewhere in this post apply too.
It’s been said for markets around the World that radio has ‘had a good pandemic’. Whilst not the best statement to repeat in the company of those who’ve really wrestled with the devastating challenges of this damn thing, we know what they mean.
As an industry, we know the importance listeners have attached to radio. When it comes to company, reassurance and a friend in a room, there’s nothing like it – and some of the great broadcasters have excelled. We’ve all certainly watched great streaming figures as listeners tune in at home. And - programmers have become ever more addicted to the tale told by the instant figures generated.
Online, however, is only part of the story. We do not yet know the change on the broadcast audience as a sense of normality returns. There will be some head-scratching when the Rajar survey is published.
Whilst the ‘Music streaming is killing radio’ headline will undoubtedly appear regardless of the facts, it is true that heightened access to technology, which this pandemic will amplify, will mean that streaming will continue to grow. Journalists should bear in mind, however, that radio has always shared its ear-time with other music sources - whether vinyl, cassette or CD, it’s just now they are all better documented.
Podcasting too is fast growing.
As ever, I repeat the case that it is futile putting things in boxes. Radio people make podcasts. Podcasts appear on radio. Former radio people use radio expertise to programme streaming services - and several radio brands are generating their own ancillary branded streams – and putting people more in control of what they hear. Radio stations spend much cash and effort fuelling the very social media platforms which steal some of their income.
Whatever the detail, ‘traditional’ radio will remain huge. The vast majority of the population will still be spending a huge chunk of their lives in its company - despite unprecedented numbers of convenient alternatives.
Our real industry, however, is about putting things in people’s ears – however that is done – whatever it is called. The battle for listening ears is frantic - and fascinating. These figures will provide much food for thought in our new World and there is no room for complacency - but let's use them with care.
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