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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

Ten Years of Absolute 80s Success

Updated: Nov 24, 2019

Ten years ago, Absolute Radio launched Absolute 80s, now reaching 1.8m 'adults' weekly. This prescient decision contributed to the strategy which has helped Absolute’s overall brand listening climb to over three times its original volume in the face of unprecedented competition. It’s worth a quick chorus of Happy Birthday, Stevie Wonder’s version, of course.

Clive Dickens was in command of the Absolute ship at that stage, in December 2009. He implemented the decision with his trademark breathless energy, replacing the Xtreme spin off he’d inherited. It was by no means the first UK radio brand extension, but it was very targeted, setting the scene for a larger logical family of offshoots - and shared a breakfast show.

At the time, the oldest 80s song was around 30 years old, the youngest around 20. Listeners who’d danced to Dead or Alive’s You Spin me Round like a Record as a teen were now aged around 40. As Clive said, this was a format for 'reluctant adults', because these 40 year olds probably felt younger than any 40 year olds had ever felt.

Was this move any different from the many '60s and 70s' oldies stations which the original tier of commercial stations had spawned on AM in the 1980s? After all, the time elapsed between the 1960s and those 'gold' format launches was about the same as between the 1980s and the launch of Absolute 80s.

Whilst there are similarities, there are differences too. Absolute 80s had a tighter year focus and a clearly titled brand extension. Whilst some of the original gold format oldies stations had shared a brand (Capital Gold), others did not (Xtra, GEM AM) - and some kept changing their minds. Significantly, DAB radios were by no means universal in 2009 and the station’s audience had not grown up relying upon digital. In a sense too, whereas many excellent gold stations sounded a little like a punchy 1960s pirate, the 80s stations enjoy more contemporary production values. They felt more like a station from today which just happened to play the songs you grew up with.

There is arguably a fondness for the energy of the 1980s as a decade, just as the white heat of the 1960s, with free market economics and an exciting national mood.

Computers invaded pop - and today's artists cite the influences of Madonna and Jackson.

In a sense too, 80s music has never really gone away which affords this format longevity. Years ago, back in the land of few radio stations and no music streaming or downloads, new songs were played on radio, before being retired, with just a few bouncing back as occasional oldies. Now, a whole new generation has grown up with an AC station which played the Bangles incessantly for two decades - and people can readily access for themselves any song ever recorded should they wish. Witness the rowdy nights in pubs when a thirty year old banger comes on and the kids far too young to recall its release belt out every word.

80s music has been enormously powerful. I recall time and time again testing the decade's songs in research, praying we could chuck away the tired 80s tracks on our CHR formats, only to discover they remained annoyingly familiar and loved. Only comparatively recently has even the AC format, both here and abroad, grown up into a more rhythmic focus.

Tracking the progress of the 80s format audiences is a challenge, given the digital platforms on which they are carried have themselves blossomed - but there is no doubt of its pull. Little Absolute 80s, with comparatively little investment or specific marketing muscle (and now carried on the DAB multiplex with lesser national coverage) is currently bigger than young Scala - and the impressive early performance of Evans's Virgin. Weekly, about as many people listen as watched the Prince Andrew interview last night. The average age of its audience has grown marginally older in ten years but not appreciably - just nudging from very late thirty-somethings to very early forties.

Heart 80s followed on a couple of years ago, with a sweeter flavour of 80s choons – now attracting almost as many listeners as Absolute’s version - 1.6m - and of a similar age. Just under a third of their listeners dip into both.

Both 80s stations show a half-hour daytime listening curve which is a little different from the weekday audience ski slope with which we’re familiar, suggesting something about how the stations are used by their audiences. This is despite contrasting approaches to breakfast, with Absolute 80s borrowing early morning personality content from its main channel - a canny move and elegantly delivered.

Marketing wisdom suggests you brand with consumer benefits not ingredients. The brand extension allows for that. Where you've invested a lot in what Heart, Magic, Smooth, Kiss or Absolute stands for, you benefit from that stature and equity - and just add a flavour alongside: 70s, Anthems, Mellow. Clearly, the brand must be sufficiently agile to be able to lay legitimate claim to its offshoot.

The decade channels provide a very simple cost-efficient way of delivering brand bulk - without specific marketing investment owing to their clear labelling. And, I guess we accept that in audience research by recall, some subsidiary channel listening may just be attributed by busy listeners to the main channel instead.

When you want some 80s music NOW and will shout at your smart speaker (or whatever succeeds it) until it plays you some – UK radio wants to be sure it’s them who are providing it. In a World of limitless choice and segmented markets, UK radio is perhaps seeking to become, amongst other things, like the Coca Cola Freestyle approach machine with its multitude of flavours. No need to go anywhere else, your favourite flavour is right here – and you can trust the people behind it.

So – well done, Clive. An Absolutely genius move.

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