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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

What's happened to BBC local radio's audience?

Today, we learn of a drop in BBC local radio weekly audiences of over a third of a million listeners - and compared to this time last year, more than a million appear to have decided that BBC local radio is no longer for them.

I hear that there are those running BBC local radio who feel that local radio is dying so they may as well stamp on it now.

So, were the doom-mongers correct? Or have they simply engineered their own reality?

The audience performance is worthy of further study. The last five years have been pretty stable in terms of audience reach. It’s not now. What’s likely been happening?

Audiences can be notoriously loyal. They love a station and stay with it through change - even though it’s not quite their thing any more. Like lovers, you don’t leave them just when one thing starts to annoy you. Things build up. Then you meet someone new who seems a lot nicer.

Rajar too is a slow-moving currency – the data you see today for this set of stations started to be collected in September last year. And it uses a recall methodology; people tick the stations they think they recall listening to – and their usual stations remain top of mind.

A behavioural change takes time – as does audience measurement. Many a station has lost its star and not faced the immediate decline predicted. And gaining audience from competitors is a long haul.

Another thing to watch is audience loyalty: listening hours. And its derivative – the average length of time a listener spends with the station each week. For a station with much talk and companionship, with a very distinctive, unsubstitutable offering, you’d expect decent loyalty.

Four years ago, BBC local across England used to command average weekly listening hours of well over 8. Of late it’s been much closer to 7. Some stations have been closer to 5 – and for this format, any radio programmer would agree, that suggests serious issues. The figures indicate people have been falling out of love with these stations.

Whilst there are jewels in the network which buck the trend, and particular excellent presenters who utterly own their patches even on the poorly performing stations, they’d probably agree that they succeed in spite of the environment around them not because of it. They have been struggling on valiantly in recent months in a horrible working climate.

Today, almost 80% of BBC local radio listening is amongst those aged 55+. And they’re not happy.

The stations used to be targeted 50+. Some did it well, others were all over the place. But at least there was a sense of a target audience, impacting on the choice of music and topics. That was dispensed with in favour of a strategy than no-one at the BBC has yet been able to explain to me.

I’ve always said that Radio 2‘s shift of approach is understandable – their licence is 35+. Its PR makes sure people are well-aware of its change of flavour and they deliver the product well.

But, as ever, one must think of all this BBC shift from the listener’s perspective. The listener cares not a jot about strategy. Where does the 64 year old who used to love Radio 2 go? The answer might have been BBC local – but it’s not now. They feel the BBC appears simply not to care about them – even though they very much do not feel old. That's been the driver - on a national level - for our own Boom Radio.

BBC local radio’s listeners are identifying it is no longer for them. They turn up at the party and the music does not suit them - and many of the friends they got on with are no longer there. Many more are about to bid a tearful farewell. It’s turning into a party the listener really doesn’t want to be at for very long. Eventually, they won’t turn up at all.

Puzzlingly, those in BBC radio seem to regard listening hours (the volume of actual listening as opposed to just the number of people listening) sniffily as ‘a commercial radio thing’. It’s correct they are the trading currency - but they are also a measure of loyalty. Loyalty dictates how audiences accumulate through the day – and indeed how many people are around to hear the expensive news bulletins. I’d have thought that may be of concern to the BBC.

Is radio dying overall? Well, audience habits are changing, media is changing. But at the moment, 88% of adults in the UK listen to it weekly. It was 89%/90% ten years ago.

And, of all demographics, BBC local radio’s 55+ audience remains an avid consumer. 92% listen to radio. They spend over 25 hours each week of their lives with this beautiful medium.

Are other older targeted stations showing similar trends to BBC local radio?

Gold’s an older targeted music format – punching a record reach figure in the latest figures. The mighty Smooth does not seem to be too worried. Its reach is higher than it was right across 2019. And our own Boom Radio has made a more than healthy start on minuscule budgets – growing to 635,000 reach from a standing start.

With regionalisation and the discarding of familiar names in one fell swoop BBC local radio’s audience will not grow - it will decline further.

That’s not because radio is dying - it’s because it’s been badly run.

It is moving from something targeted, trusted, and companionable to something utterly replaceable. Its value beyond news no longer understood. Its presence in its community eroded. Its public value diminished.

Post Covid, there was a chance to re-think local radio for this century. What is it? Who is it for? What can it be? A chance to examine the map - why does City X has an inferior service to Y. Why are these counties welded together arbitrarily? Which areas would really respond to local radio and which less so? How can it be operated much more efficiently? What is the right approach to premises and technology? What are the ingredients of the most successful services? What’s the right management structure? How can we make the best people delivering the service feel valued? How do we recruit more like them?

I maintain if you gave anyone sensible even half of an existing BBC local radio station’s overall budget and their freedom – they’d increase the audiences and both listeners and staff would be a damn sight happier.

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