Andy Parfitt’s departure from the station controller job at BBC Radio 1 after thirteen years marks a significant event for the UK radio sector. Parfitt’s accomplishments during his tenure were many, but did not extend to significantly turning around the station’s audience ratings.
At the time Parfitt took on the controller job in March 1998 at Radio 1: • its share of listening was 9.4%, compared to 8.7% in Q1 2011 • its adult weekly reach was 20%, compared to 23% in Q1 2011 • its average hours per listener per week were 8.1, compared to 7.8 in Q1 2011.
One metric did demonstrate a healthy increase – Radio 1’s absolute weekly reach was up from 9.7m adults in Q1 1998 to 11.8m in Q1 2011. However, part of that increase is attributable to the UK adult population having grown by 9% in the interim. Certainly, more adults listen to Radio 1 now than in 1998, but for shorter periods of time, and so the station’s share of total radio listening has declined.
Given this impasse to the improvement of Radio 1’s ratings, I was surprised to read in the BBC press release announcing Parfitt’s departure that: “Appointed Controller, BBC Radio 1, in March 1998, Andy has led Radio 1 and 1Xtra to record audience figures …”
… and surprised to read Parfitt’s boss, Tim Davie, declaring that: “Andy has been a fantastic Controller and leaves Radio 1 in rude health – with distinctive, high quality programmes and record listening figures …”
The one person still working at Radio 1 who should know for sure that “record audience figures” had not been achieved during the last quarter, last year, the last decade or during Parfitt’s entire tenure is Andy Parfitt. Why? Because, between 1993 and 1998, Parfitt had been chief assistant to then Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister, a turbulent period during which the station’s audience was decimated by a misguided set of programme policies that failed miserably to connect with listeners.
Between the end of 1992 and March 1998, when Parfitt took over from Bannister (whom the BBC had promoted to director of radio), Radio 1’s: • share of listening fell from 22.4% to 9.4% • adult weekly reach fell from 36% to 20% • average hours listened per week fell from 11.8 to 8.1 • absolute adult reach fell from 16.6m to 9.7m.
Radio 1 lost an incredible 58% of its listening, and 7m listeners, within that five-year period, a calamitous disaster from which the station has never recovered [see graph above]. Since then, Parfitt has kept the ship relatively steady, having been appointed in 1998 as a safe pair of BBC hands for Radio 1 after the tragedy of Bannister (who had come from Capital Radio via BBC GLR and had a fantastic track record in news radio, but not in music radio).
Never again will Radio 1 achieve a weekly audience of 17 million adults, as it had done in 1992. Those days are long gone. In recent years, fewer young people are listening to broadcast radio, and they are listening for shorter periods of time. Sadly, radio does not prove as exciting for them as the internet, games or social networking.
Of course, it would have been nice for any incumbent to leave the Radio 1 job on a ‘high.’ But, unfortunately, it was never going to happen with Parfitt, or probably with any successor. Radio 1’s ‘golden age’ was wilfully destroyed twenty years ago. Nevertheless, somewhere, somebody in the BBC must have decided to invoke the notion of Parfitt’s “record audience figures,” regardless or not of whether they were a fact.
What surprises me is that every BBC press release must have to pass through endless approvals – within the originating department, in the press office and in the lawyers’ office – before it reaches the public. Did nobody out of the dozens of people that must have checked this particular press release ask the simple question: can you substantiate this “record audience figures” claim?
RAJAR radio audience data are publicly available for all to see. Anyone from the BBC could have checked and found that, using every radio listening metric known to man, Radio 1’s “record audience figures” were all achieved two decades ago, rather than at any time during Parfitt’s tenure. Maybe they didn’t check. Or maybe they did, but pressed ahead anyway.
The ability to play fast and loose with numbers and statistics, particularly those that can be said to be at an ‘all time high,’ might appear to be endemic within the UK radio industry. I have highlighted similar instances of the industry’s abuse of statistics in other claims. Now that the consumer press only seems interested in ‘radio’ stories involving celebrities, and now that the media trade press has been reduced to recycling radio press releases, ‘myth’ can quite easily be propagated as ‘fact.’
I am reminded of a passage in my new book about KISS FM when, two decades ago, I had asked my station boss why an Evening Standard profile of him and his car had featured a vehicle that was not the one he owned or drove.
In his perceptive commentary on last quarter’s RAJAR radio audience figures, IPSOS’ research manager Andy Haylett noted:
“18.5 million adults are DAB owners, yet only an estimated 12.6 million are confirmed listeners. What are the other 6 million doing with their DAB sets? Further investigation shows that there are only 7.4 million listeners to digital-only stations, of which under half (3.3m) comes from DAB listening. This suggests that around three quarters of all DAB listeners are tuning to stations readily available on a traditional analogue transistor.”
This reiterates a point I have made previously in this blog [Feb 2009, Aug 2009, Feb 2010]. After more than a decade, it is a sad fact of life that digital radio stations on broadcast platforms have not succeeded in setting listeners’ hearts on fire:
* Only 4.6% of all radio listening is to digital radio stations
* 18.2% of all radio listening via digital platforms is to digital radio stations
* 7.4m adults per week listen to digital radio stations (14.3% of adults)
* 3.3m adults per week listen to digital radio stations via DAB (6.4% of adults).
Of course, the corollary is that digital platforms are being used predominantly for listening to radio stations that are already available to consumers on the analogue platform:
* 95.4% of all radio listening is to analogue radio stations
* 81.8% of all radio listening via digital platforms is to analogue radio stations
* 44.2m adults per week do NOT listen to digital radio stations (85.7% of adults).
These figures might have been understandable during the early years of DAB radio. But now? After more than a decade? Planet Rock launched in 1999; the BBC digital stations in 2002. Compared to the influence that digital terrestrial television stations have had in the UK over a shorter period, digital radio stations have had very little impact on radio listening patterns to date.
The overwhelming use of digital platforms to listen to analogue radio stations begs the question: so what is the point of DAB? There was never anything wrong with FM radio anyway, and there is no proposed alternate use for FM spectrum, so why is the government insisting that consumers and the radio industry both spend huge sums of money to enable the public to listen (on DAB) to exactly what is available already (on FM/AM)?
In the graph above, the listening to digital radio stations is shown in red (analogue stations in grey). It remains tiny. Despite BBC Radio 6 Music’s uplift after last year’s consumer campaign, it still languishes as the UK’s 18th most listened to national radio station. Fortunately for the BBC, the funding for its digital radio stations continues to come (for now) from the public purse.
For commercial radio, the funding for digital radio stations has to come from deep pockets. Not one digital radio station has yet made an operating profit. History is littered with commercial digital radio stations that used to be on the national DAB platform: ITN News, Talkmoney, The Storm, PrimeTime Radio, 3C, Capital Disney, Core, Virgin Radio Groove, Oneword, Capital Life, TheJazz, Fun Radio, Virgin Radio Xtreme and Panjab Radio.
Some of these digital radio stations had offered fantastic content unavailable elsewhere (PrimeTime, OneWord). Other digital stations had had very little thought put into their creation. Former GWR staffer Steve Orchard boasted that his company’s strategy for Planet Rock had been conceived in The Lamb Inn, Marlborough: “Going into a pub with Ralph Bernard, my boss, listening to the classic rock jukebox and coming out, several pints later, with Planet Rock sketched out on the back of an envelope.”
GCap Media sold Planet Rock in 2008 to an ‘outsider’ and it has been the commercial radio industry’s most listened to digital radio station since 2009. It speaks volumes that the entire UK commercial radio sector’s efforts at digital radio stations over more than a decade have been trumped by a music enthusiast with no previous radio sector experience.
However excellent it is, Planet Rock alone cannot save the DAB platform from continuing consumer disinterest. It would require a dozen stations of this calibre to create a portfolio of sufficient interest to stir consumers. Worse, for those consumers who have tried DAB and given up due to the platform’s other issues (poor reception, lack of mobility, lo-fi audio, expensive hardware), even a dozen stations might not tempt them back.
It is understandable, therefore, that Planet Rock’s owner, Malcolm Bluemel, should be frustrated with the rest of the radio industry for not following in his wake. This month, he said:
“I’ve only been in the radio industry about two and a half years now and I’ve never actually come across an industry that has such a collection of self-interest in discussing this matter [digital switchover]. I’m quite amazed at this need for certainty around the future of business. I came from an era where, to get a decent radio [station], I had to stick my AM transistor under the bedclothes and listen to Kid Jensen from Luxembourg at night. Well, now we’ve got people saying ‘Well, I want to know this, I want to know that, I want to know that my radio stations will be this, and I can have that, and I want it all, and I want it all now.’
It’s fairly obvious to me that, as an industry, we should be all sticking together. Digital is here. It’s not a question of a switchover date. Digital is out there. It’s being listened to. There’s 1.1 million people listening to 6 Music, there’s 827,000 people listening to Planet Rock on digital radio NOW. So why don’t we just accept the fact that digital is here and all get together and say ‘Right, how are we going to make this work for the industry?’ For all those people with their self-interest and their stupid press statements over ‘20 years [until digital switchover]’ or whatever it is (how ridiculous is that?), and just get together and have a consensus of opinion about how we are best going to do this, but collectively for the radio industry, and stop fighting amongst ourselves because of our own petty little grievances.”
Planet Rock’s 827,000 weekly reach last quarter is a remarkable achievement. Compare this to the dismal performances of some analogue commercial radio stations. Absolute Radio, with the benefit of a national AM licence and a London FM licence, reached only 1,375,000 adults per week. Xfm reached 938,000 adults nationally with the benefit of a London FM licence. Choice FM reached 734,000 adults nationally with the benefit of a London FM licence.
By comparison, Planet Rock has performed miracles, given that the only broadcast platform it has access to is DAB. As Bluemel identified, paradoxically, the thing that is stopping him from turning Planet Rock into the profitable radio station that it should be is the very industry in which he is working. Whilst (post-GCap Media) Planet Rock is doing all the right things for all the right reasons, the rest of the industry, where DAB is concerned, continues to do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, the barriers to Planet Rock’s commercial success are the outcomes of the sad history of the DAB platform:
* The commercial radio sector initially invested in DAB to control the platform, not to create successful digital radio stations
* The BBC decided to launch minority interest digital radio stations that would not cannibalise its existing national analogue networks
* The commercial DAB multiplex owners (aka the largest commercial radio groups) did not want upstart independents creating successful digital radio stations on their DAB platform
* The industry’s ‘build it and they will come’ strategy for DAB failed because consumers are driven by content, not by platforms
* If you wanted to persuade consumers to buy relatively expensive DAB radios, you should have inspired them with new content rather than have threatened them with FM switch-off
* Radio listeners are loyal and do not like losing access to content they once enjoyed (the closure of digital radio stations)
* DAB radio reception, for many, is still not as robust as FM or AM.
The best solution for Planet Rock would be a national analogue licence. Or, at least, a London FM licence. However, the radio regulatory system we have in the UK militates against that possibility. Why? Because politicians, civil servants and regulators have ensured that those who already own (what were once) commercial radio ‘licences to print money’ get to keep them, seemingly in perpetuity.
It is the existing radio industry itself which is limiting Planet Rock’s opportunities for greater success. We do not enjoy an openly competitive radio market that allows new entrants such as Bluemel to shake up our stagnant radio industry with new, exciting ideas. Instead, ‘outsiders’ have to stand around on the sidelines while the owners of stations such as Absolute Radio, Xfm and Choice FM continue to run them into the ground. So why don’t they just sell them?
Sell their stations? Of course not! When you are part of a commercial radio oligopoly, why would you want to encourage an insurgent, who might actually understand how to create a successful radio station, to camp right on your analogue doorstep? Not only might he show you up, but he might even steal listeners from your other stations. Instead, the current philosophy is to let ‘outsiders’ bleed to death financially on the DAB platform, while the incumbents continue to divide up (what is left of) the spoils of FM/AM radio between them.
So we listeners get the (analogue) mediocrity they think we deserve.
[blog headline adapted from Andy Haylett’s of IPSOS]
Q. Who will decide if/when digital radio switchover ever happens? The public. Who says so?
In July 2009, BBC ‘head of radio’ Tim Davie had said: “… the idea that we would move to formally engaging [digital radio] switchover without talking to listeners, getting listener satisfaction numbers, all the various things we do, would be not our plan in any way.”
In August 2009, BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons had said: “It is an extraordinarily ambitious suggestion, as colleagues have referred to, that by 2015 we will all be ready for [digital radio switchover]. So you can’t move faster than the British public want you to move on any issue.”
In July 2010, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey had said: “If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready, we will support a 2015 switchover date. But, as I have already said, it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover.”
Q. What is the BBC’s strategy for digital radio switchover?
In July 2010, the BBC Trust told the BBC Executive that it: “should draw up an overarching strategy for digital radio.”
Q. What is the public’s opinion of DAB radio?
Research published this week by the BBC Trust for the Strategy Review collated opinions voiced in 20 focus groups held in September 2010 in ten locations. Below are excerpts that relate consumers’ experiences with DAB radio and the BBC’s digital radio stations. They make sobering reading ….
The availability of radio services on the move (especially in-car and for those working outdoors) was felt to be of continued high importance. People expect radio to stay portable – at least the range of stations they currently have available on analogue, including local stations which are critically important in-car for their local travel information. In this context especially there was strong resistance to the idea of analogue radio switch-off, and considerable scepticism as to whether or not this will actually happen.
4.2 The range of services provided by the BBC
“Rather than spending money on Radio 57 or whatever, invest more money on the core main programmes.” 35-44, Male, C2DE, Crowthorne
4.3 Attitudes to DAB radio
Many of the distribution issues we set out to discuss in the groups related to the availability of DAB (or of certain stations on DAB). However, what became clear in the groups was that, although we did speak to some real fans of DAB, most licence fee payers we spoke to do not yet view DAB as an essential service in the way they do Freeview, for example. This certainly coloured their reaction to some of the trade-offs they encountered between funding distribution and content.
“I think they should improve the Freeview signal before they start worrying about the radio. Radio is fine.” 18-24, Female, ABC1, Inverness
These attitudes were coloured by a number of factors: · Limited awareness of what DAB is and what it offers · Limited awareness and uptake of the BBC’s digital-only radio stations (most digital radio listeners within the groups were using digital radio as a means of listening to stations they would otherwise be able to receive via analogue) · Most DAB set owners we spoke to had received them as presents – they hadn’t necessarily had a compelling reason to buy one · Many trialists of DAB in the groups had been frustrated with their experiences – e.g. intermittent/non-existent signals, limited range of their favourite stations available · Some doubts as to whether DAB technology will be around in the long term
“I did have a DAB radio but I didn’t notice it being any better” 18-24, Female, C2DE, Cheddar
“I find DAB radio can be quite troublesome although that’s not BBC specific. The signal seems to interrupt quite regularly” 45-59, Female, ABC1, Crowthorne
“I don’t find that DAB radio is achieving a lot for me. It’s supposed to be better quality, but because of the size of the set I’ve got, it doesn’t really make any difference.” 55+, C2DE, Derby
“Aren’t we the only ones to use DAB? Europe uses a different system and America too – I don’t see the point of it now so many people have the internet as it’s as cheap to get an internet radio as it is a DAB radio and you can listen to far more stations on it” 25-44, ABC1, Fort William
“You can’t get much [on DAB in the car] – no Radio 1, no Radio 2, no Radio 5 live, no Radio 4, you just get a message saying ‘no reception’. You need to be on top of a mountain to receive it. It’s a complete waste of time.” 55+, C2DE, Derby
There was real confusion and in some cases concern about the idea of a digital switchover for radio, and some debate as to whether the mooted date of 2015 was realistic or not. Certainly in the current circumstances there would be much resistance among participants in these groups to the idea of switching off analogue radio, especially those for whom in-car listening was an important (or the dominant) part of their radio listening.
“They can’t switch off analogue radio – people are really not going to be happy with that” 18-24, Male, C2DE, Belfast
“The idea of making all radios into digital is just ridiculous… It’s not persuading you – it’s just pushing you” 18-24, Female, C2DE, Cheddar
“What about all the car radios – surely we’re not going to replace all those?” 25-34, Female, ABC1, Caernarfon
“Are you telling me my radios will be totally obsolete if they do this? That’s outrageous” 60+, Female, ABC1, Newry
5.1 Availability of services
“I’m going to sound old fashioned but the core product is BBC One, BBC Two and Radios 1 to 5” 35-44, Male, C2DE, Crowthorne
The digital-only radio stations were considered of significantly lesser importance (awareness of these was limited, and listening to them was quite sporadic through the sample). In fact in several groups it was suggested that one solution to the complex problems of making access to digital radio more easily available to people would be to get rid of the stations altogether!
“I don’t think anyone really cares about the digital channels and they won’t until all the non-digital signals have been turned off” 25-34, Male, C2DE, Newry
“It’s limited because digital radio hasn’t really taken off.. they’re talking about changing over in 2015… if it’s half the hassle of the digital [TV] switchover, it will be a dead loss” 45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil
6.1 Availability of platform choice
There was also a general consensus across the groups that, although the convergence of platforms has started to offer useful additional means of consuming ‘broadcast’ services, as a minimum the BBC’s television services should be available via a television set, and the main radio services via a radio set.
“It’s good enough to be able to get main stations on analogue radio and the others through the TV – I don’t think they need to be able to get all these radio stations on radio only.” 25-34, Female, ABC1, Caernarfon
Lack of availability of BBC Radio Derby on DAB
Local radio was considered to fulfil an important community service, particularly by those in the older group, who remarked that there had been a decline in the range of local media available (local newspapers closing, and the ITV regional television coverage now being focused on Birmingham).
As such, BBC Radio Derby was felt to be important to giving the city a sense of identity. Sports coverage was an integral part of this (for the men especially), and Derby-specific coverage was felt to help ensure that they don’t live in the shadow of nearby Nottingham. Frequently, they felt, Derby is treated like a poor relation next to Nottingham; the availability of BBC Radio Nottingham (but not BBC Radio Derby) on DAB was yet another manifestation of this, they believed.
A number of them had bought DAB radio specifically with the intention of listening to BBC Radio Derby and had thus been extremely disappointed not to be able to find it.
“I asked for a DAB set for Christmas, specifically so I would be able to listen to Radio Derby, nice and clear, around the house – not realising that you can’t get Radio Derby on DAB at all… I only found out when I pressed the ‘auto-scan’ button… Leicester, Nottingham, loud and clear, but no Derby… I felt really let down.” 55+, C2DE, Derby
“My wife bought me one for Christmas. It wouldn’t work next to the bed – we thought it was broken. We ended up just using it as an alarm clock. It never occurred to me that it might not work depending on where you live.” 40-54, ABC1, Derby
There was little awareness or understanding of the reasons why this is the case (the lack of a local commercial multiplex operator), so some participants were upset that the BBC appeared to be viewing Derby as a lower priority than neighbouring areas. Others had assumed that this was a technical issue (reception problems), rather than the station not being broadcast on DAB. (There was some awareness of a promised launch date of July 2010, but they claimed that this date had been and gone with no further update on what was happening.)
“What makes me angry is that Radio Derby comes out as one of the best local news stations in the country, but it’s not available on the latest technology.” 55+, C2DE, Derby
“If you can get the others, you’d just assume that you can get Radio Derby as well. Whose decision is it not to have it?” 40-54, ABC1, Derby
Some of the participants had experimented with some of the BBC’s digital-only stations on DAB. Radio 7 in particular was well-liked by some of the participants in the older group, and some of the younger men had used 5 live Sports Extra, but their overall impression with DAB was one of disappointment. The absence of BBC Radio Derby was a significant contributor to this, along with poor reception quality.
“The way they sell DAB it was going to be the be-all-and-end-all of radio listening, but it’s just been a great disappointment.” 55+, C2DE, Derby
Although many were disappointed with DAB in general, the absence of BBC Radio Derby from DAB was not felt to be a major problem for them as long as the station remains available on analogue (many were listening out of home in any case – traffic reports in the car, or match commentary when out and about at the weekend).
However, in line with most other groups, these participants would be extremely upset if the analogue signal were switched off and BBC Derby only then available online.
Radio Foyle on DAB
Many participants felt that they get a better reception with DAB than on analogue (in the home). Many of the older group in particular claimed to have experienced reception problems with Radio Foyle in particular on analogue, especially in bad weather. However it was not a case of a having had a desperate need to get a digital radio because they got no analogue signal previously, more that the sound was not always great and they sometimes experienced reception problems.
“DAB radio… I got it out of curiosity… everybody said it was better than analogue… the analogue sometimes you can’t tune in because you have got high pressure or rain or wind. The DAB you can pick it up.” 50+, ABC1, Londonderry
Most assumed that Radio Foyle was already on DAB, as they insisted they were listening to it on their DAB radios – it is not entirely clear whether this is confusion between DAB and analogue signals on the same set, or they have been experiencing the ‘dynamuxing’ test.
“No I didn’t know that because when I press it comes up on my DAB radio so I thought it was. I just took it that all the stations I can pick up on my DAB are digital.” 50+, ABC1, Londonderry
“Foyle on an ordinary radio is still poor I think. I am right in Derry. On the digital they do both seem clear to me.” 30-49, C2DE, Londonderry
When it was explained to them that ‘dynamuxing’ the two stations would result in two mono (as opposed to one stereo) stations, reactions were somewhat mixed. Although some participants were adamant that going from stereo to mono would compromise their listening experience, particularly when listening to music, others admitted that they were not sure what mono sound is, and probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference! It is also worth noting that, from the description they gave of their DAB sets, the majority of participants in the groups were listening to DAB on mono-only sets anyway.
On balance, all participants would prefer both stations to be available, even if this meant mono-only broadcasting. The younger group, who were more loyal Foyle listeners, were happy enough with the availability of Foyle on analogue only, but would be concerned by the prospect of an analogue radio switch-off, in which case continued availability of Foyle would be vital.
Poor DAB coverage (in Fort William)
Most of the participants in the groups are used to struggling with coverage issues. Lack of DAB coverage is just the latest manifestation of issues they have experienced historically with analogue television and radio signals.
“I live over in a rural area completely surrounded by hills so there is no radio reception at all so all our radio listening is done through the TV box or the internet” 25-44, ABC1, Fort William
“I tried a DAB radio but it wasn’t very good – it would go for a bit then completely cut out and we have no FM signal at all out in the glens where I am” 45-64, C2DE, Fort William
As a result, satellite (by which most really meant Sky, as awareness of Freesat was very low) had become the default standard for most to receive television, especially for those outside the main town of Fort William itself, and many were increasingly using the good broadband services that are now available to them as a more reliable means of accessing media content.
“We’ve been up there seven years now and when we first moved we had a reasonable medium wave signal for Radio Scotland but then that tailed off but we get no FM and there was no TV until satellite came on stream… We had very young children at the time and they were happy just watching DVDs… There are about 250 people in our village and many of the surrounding communities have the same issues… There used to be a mast for the TV but that was turned off and now everyone has a satellite dish… satellite has been a godsend for us – especially for the radio – but we are now even more likely to be listening online. Our broadband is excellent – 8Meg – and now we even have wi-fi radios in the house.” 25-44, ABC1, Fort William
Some participants in the groups had been drawn to DAB, but left frustrated by the experience.
“I won a DAB in a Radio Scotland competition and I was really excited about being able to listen to 6 Music but there was absolutely no signal so I gave it to my dad down in Glasgow and he’s really happy with it” 25-44, ABC1, Fort William
Limited availability of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru on DAB
In common with many of the research locations across the country, issues surrounding the lack of availability of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru were caught up in other issues around the quality of DAB signal in general.
While some participants (for example, one lived near a mast) were experiencing extremely good reception via digital, others were having problems based on their location and even the prevailing weather conditions.
“If you get a rain cloud overhead, or worse than that the snow, you might as well chuck it in the bin.” 45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil
“People who live in the dips – they can’t get any kind of digital radio reception at all… they’ve got to do something to help them.” 25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil
This frustration was a manifestation of a broader dissatisfaction with digital reception in general. Many were experiencing problems with their television reception (especially, but not exclusively through Freeview). Lack of a reliable television signal was seen by most as a more significant problem than lack of a reliable radio signal.
“They said the digital signal was going to be better – that you’d be able to get S4C and Channel 4 – but it’s actually worse.” 25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil
“Wales has always got problems, we get worse service with the digital, the broadband, the post… We pay the same, we have a right to the same service.” 25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil
As a result many in the groups considered themselves to be disgruntled licence fee payers.
Most could understand that there are diminishing returns in terms of building out the transmitter network, and that those in the more mountainous parts of central Wales (for example) might not be able to have access to the same choices as people in more densely populated areas. However, in these groups the argument was most strongly made that people in these areas should have some kind of discount from their licence fee in recognition of the reduced service they receive.
“They [the BBC] can’t please everyone, they’re doing the best they can, but If people can’t get the service, why should they pay the full money.” 45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil
“You shouldn’t be penalised for living in an area where they can’t provide these services, because we have to pay extra to get Sky, for example, to be able to receive it.” 45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil
The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 22 November 2010 @ 0735 Ford Ennals, chief executive, Digital Radio UK [FE]
Q:Doubts persist over this particular digital standard [DAB], don’t they? Let’s just go through some. First of all: that it’s a stop-gap and that we’d all be better off with internet radio, which will become possible in cars and all over the place, and that there will really be no need for DAB at all.
FE:Well, look, what is certain is that the future of radio in the UK, and right across Europe, is digital. And what that’s going to bring is more choice, more competition, and more innovation …
Q: [interrupts] But your particular ‘digital’ is DAB digital, isn’t it …
FE: [interrupts] Well, no. It’s …
Q:… and there are other technologies available?
FE:No, not at all. We’re here to support and promote the transition to digital radio in all its forms, whether it be online, whether it be on TV, or whether it be DAB. DAB is one of those platforms. But, what we do see is great certainty that DAB is, if you like, the broadcast transmission backbone of radio, not just in the UK, but in Europe. There are 40% of all your listeners this morning listen to this programme, are listening on a DAB radio. And, I think, the simple fact is that, if they were all listening online, it couldn’t be supported and the internet would crash. So, right now, IP, as you call it, or online, just isn’t the right technology. It can’t sustain broadcast transmission of radio, and it’s not cost-effective, and it isn’t an option in the short or medium term.
Q: [incredulous] 40% of our listeners are listening on digital? Does that include listeners in cars, because I don’t know a single person who has got a digital radio in their car, I don’t think?
FE:Well, I think you have highlighted the real opportunity here. Car manufacturers have been slow to put digital radios in cars but, since the passage of the Digital Economy Act and the launch of the Digital Radio Action Programme [sic], they’ve now committed to having all new cars with digital radios in by 2013, and we’ve started to see Ford and Vauxhall and Mini putting them in. And I think that’s very important because …
Q: [interrupts] The ‘40%.’ Sorry, though. The ‘40%’ figure – did that include people in cars?
FE:Yes, urm. The 40% does include people in cars …
FE:… and the targets that government have set also includes people in cars. So, what government is saying is, and I think supported by industry, is that we want to see 50% of listening to a digital platform, including DAB, before we take a firm decision about a switchover date.
Q:Mmm. Last quarter, digital listening was actually down, wasn’t it? It sort of implies that the message isn’t getting through.
FE:Well, actually, as I said, 40% of listeners are listening on digital. That’s over 20 million people every week listening to digital. This year, we’ve seen it grow by 20%. So, typically, what we see is growth in the first half-year, it slows down in the second half, and then steps up again in the second half [sic]. So, actually, quarter-on-quarter, we’ve seen moderate growth, but 20% growth year-on-year, and we’re looking for a major step at the beginning of next year. And, what I would say to people, if you’re buying a radio for a present this Christmas, make sure it’s a digital radio.
I was shocked to hear Ford Ennals, chief executive of lobby group Digital Radio UK, proclaim on your programme that:
“there are 40% of all your listeners this morning listen to this programme, are listening on a DAB radio.”
This statement is not merely an exaggeration, it is wholly untrue. The radio industry’s audience data (produced by RAJAR, published by Ofcom for Q1 2010) show that 27% of listening to Radio 4 is via all digital platforms, which include digital television, the internet … and DAB. See graph below.
In-car listening accounts for 19% of total radio usage, but this proportion is likely to be considerably higher during the morning commute period. Because DAB radios are installed in less than 1% of cars, it is probable that much, much less than 27% of listening to the ‘Today’ programme is via DAB.
Ford Ennals’ untruthful statement is only the latest in a long line of disinformation perpetuated by commercial forces that will gain financially from DAB take-up, and which are designed to mislead the public into buying DAB radios.
Sometimes it seems as if the UK radio industry operates in two parallel universes. On the one hand, there is the virtual world of the DAB radio lobbyists, a reality that only seems to exist within the confines of their Soho office and its funders. On the other hand, there is the real world of the 47 million people in the UK who listen to the industry’s radio stations each week, spread far and wide across this green and still largely analogue land.
It was only last week that Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital Radio UK, was telling anybody who would listen that:
* “There is now real momentum in the transition to digital radio…”; * “… significant progress towards building momentum for digital radio…”; * Digital radio switchover is a “matter of when, not if”; * “We have set a course to double listening and expand coverage by 2013, and to switchover by the end of 2015”; * “We do believe it is possible to get there in the four- to five-year time period…”.
Yet, today, RAJAR published the latest listening figures for UK radio. None of Ennals’ statements are in any way supported by the official radio listening data. “Momentum”? No. “Real momentum”? No. “To double [digital] listening by 2013”? You have to be joking.
The headlines for all radio listening via platforms in Q3 2010 were:
* Analogue radio’s share of listening up from 67.0% to 67.6% quarter-on quarter;
* Digital radio’s share of listening up from 24.6% to 24.8% quarter-on-quarter;
* DAB radio’s share of listening down from 15.8% to 15.3% quarter-on-quarter.
At its current long-term growth rate, the government criterion of 50% of radio listening via digital platforms would not be achieved until year-end 2018. The statistical probability of that 50% threshold being reached by 2013, the achievement of which Ennals is supremely confident, is zero. Even Derren Brown could not pull off that stunt.
And so these two radio worlds continue on their parallel paths. Digital Radio UK continues to insist that everything in the digital radio switchover garden is sweetness and light, whilst wilfully oblivious to the fact that the majority of radio listeners simply could not care less about DAB – even after more than a decade of being told by the government, Ofcom and the largest broadcasters that DAB is ‘the future of radio’.
The verdict of UK radio listeners on DAB seems perfectly transparent in the RAJAR data, though many in the radio industry still refuse to listen. On the other hand, the activities of Digital Radio UK, still trying to persuade us of DAB’s virtues, are anything but transparent. After 10 months of existence, its web site remains empty. And the web site of its forerunner, the Digital Radio Development Bureau, has been conveniently deleted so that all the empty promises, inaccurate forecasts and ridiculous propaganda that were generated about DAB over the last eight years are no longer publicly available.
Those with experience in the radio industry understand perfectly what happens to radio stations that refuse to listen to their listeners, radio stations that refuse to engage in truthful dialogue with their audience, and radio stations that are still broadcasting exactly the same tired messages as they did a decade ago. They die … and nobody misses them when they are gone.
UK commercial radio has been in the doldrums for the last decade. Its audiences have been battered by competition from the BBC, revenues have been declining, and some local stations have been forced to close or merge (sorry, ‘co-locate’). So, when a piece of good news comes along, it is natural that it will be celebrated. The latest RAJAR audience survey for Q2 2010 provided just one such fillip of positivity for the commercial radio sector. But, sometimes, what should have been a small private party gets turned into a showy public display of excess by the celebrants.
This appears to have been the case with commercial radio’s take on its latest audience figures. Maybe it was the effects of too much champagne, but the RadioCentre press release stated:
“This is a fantastic set of results for the commercial radio sector showing long-term and sustained growth by every measure.”
This might have been an appropriate thing to say to a roomful of cheering partygoers but, in the sober light of day, sticking this claim in a press release was bound to invite closer scrutiny. In the following graphs, the main RAJAR metrics for UK commercial radio are put in historical perspective. In these graphs, we are seeking what RadioCentre told us is “long-term and sustained growth” in “every measure.”
UK commercial radio adult weekly reach hit an all-time low of 60.9% as recently as Q3 2009, then subsequently made gains in three consecutive quarters to 63.7% in Q2 2010. Growth? Yes (three consecutive quarters). Sustained growth? Not really. Long-term growth? No.
UK commercial radio total adult listening hit an all-time low the previous quarter (Q1 2010) of 419m hours per week, then bounced back in Q2 2010 to 445m hours per week. Growth? Yes (one quarter). Sustained growth? No. Long-term growth? No.
UK commercial radio average hours listened per adult listener hit an all-time low of 13.0 hours per week the previous quarter (Q1 2010), then bounced back in Q2 2010 to 13.5 hours per week. Growth? Yes (one quarter). Sustained growth? No. Long-term growth? No.
UK commercial radio’s share of adult listening hit an all-time low of 41.1% in Q1 2008 and, since then, has bounced up and down. Last quarter (Q1 2010), it had hit its second lowest level ever (41.3%) before rebounding to 43.2% in Q2 2010. Growth? Yes (one quarter). Sustained growth? No. Long-term growth? No.
UK commercial radio absolute adult reach is the only metric that is presently at an all-time high of 32.9m adults per week in Q2 2010. It jumped up that quarter because once a year, in Q2, RAJAR increases all its adult totals to account for the 1% per annum UK population increase. It is positive that more people are listening to commercial radio but, at the same time, as the result of population growth, there are also more people listening to BBC radio, and more people not listening to radio at all. However, commercial radio’s absolute reach has not grown sufficiently in the long term to even keep pace with the increasing UK population.
So, in total, it seems impossible to locate commercial radio’s “long-term and sustained growth” in the latest RAJAR data. I point out these facts because I want to see commercial radio succeed. The sector desperately needs to attract more hours listened in the long term if it is to improve revenues and return to profitability. This has not yet happened. There is no point pretending that it has.
As for RadioCentre, an inaccurate statement of fact is an inaccurate statement of fact is an inaccurate statement of fact. Telling the world that your industry is enjoying “long-term and sustained growth” might be good propaganda for rallying your troops, but surely it must undermine the commercial radio industry trade body’s credibility with the rest of the world if it clearly is not true.
What is to be achieved for the radio sector by the RadioCentre press release crossing that line between hype and untruth?
In July 2010, Ofcom had published its first annual report on the progress made in the UK with take-up and usage of digital radio. I criticised the report in this blog for being selective with data and distorting the real picture of the slow take-up of DAB radio.
Ofcom responded to two of my criticisms in a subsequent news article in Media Week. Ofcom explained that it had “categorised ‘unspecified’ listening as ‘analogue’ rather than ‘digital’ listening because it did not want to exaggerate ‘digital’ listening.” What?
This response seems only to confirm my assertion that Ofcom invented the numbers it published. There are two possible scenarios: either Ofcom did not realise that deliberately mis-stating the results of market research breaches the Code of Conduct of the Market Research Society; or Ofcom did realise this but decided to do it anyway. I am uncertain which scenario is scarier. If Ofcom’s invented RAJAR statistics had been included in an advertisement, it would be banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. Adding the ‘don’t know’ answers to either the ‘for’ or the ‘against’ totals in any consumer survey is a crime against statistics.
Secondly, Ofcom responded to my criticism that it had not published historical data to demonstrate how close we are to achieving the 50% digital listening criterion set by government. Ofcom said that it “did not set historical figures next to the forecasts because they are not formal criteria”. What?
I suggest that Ofcom stops daydreaming about a DAB future and starts listening to the words of its government paymasters. To take just one example of dozens, on 8 July 2010, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said very plainly:
“We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital or, to put it another way, when analogue listening is in the minority.”
Besides, Ofcom’s report itself had noted (in two places) that:
“A decision on switchover could only made once two criteria had been fulfilled [sic]: * when 50% of all radio listening is via digital platforms; and * when national DAB coverage is comparable to FM …”
The Ofcom Digital Radio Progress Report published last month was required by the Digital Economy Act 2010 to inform the government how close the UK is to achieving this 50% criterion. Yet, bizarrely, the very numbers the government wanted to see were missing from the relevant Ofcom graph.
In the spirit of constructive action, I have collated a short collection of graphs and tables in a presentation titled The First Annual Not ‘The Ofcom Digital Radio Progress Report’ Report. It can be downloaded here for free. All of the data within are derived from freely published industry sources to which Ofcom had access.
The first section of the report demonstrates that none of the radio industry forecasts for UK digital radio take-up stand a chance of being achieved, whether those predictions were made by the government, its committees, Ofcom, RadioCentre, Value Partners or whomever. These forecasts were not just wrong – they were wildly wrong.
The inability of forecasters to observe the reality of slowing DAB radio take-up in the UK was underlined by a forecast published in August 2010 by a US company that predicted:
“By 2015, the worldwide installed base of digital radio receivers, excluding handsets, is expected to reach nearly 200 million units. … ‘The adoption of DAB radios in Europe has been led primarily by tabletop radio sales in the UK,’ says [Sam] Rosen. In addition to the US and the UK, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway all have significant broadcast infrastructure in place, with Australia, Germany and France to complete the majority of their infrastructure in 2011.”
Yes, and pigs will fly. It has taken a decade for 11 million DAB radios to be sold in the UK, and they still only account for 16% of radio listening. Far from the UK’s DAB broadcast infrastructure being almost complete, there is an impasse about who will stump up the money to render it fit for purpose. France is still debating whether to go digital at all. Germany abandoned its first effort and is planning a second attempt. Besides, the US, UK, French and Australian technology systems for digital terrestrial radio are each mutually exclusive. There is no globally agreed standard for digital terrestrial radio, so there is no universal ‘digital radio’ receiver, and nothing like 200 million digital radios (of all types) will be sold by 2015.
But a woefully inaccurate, over-optimistic forecast is always a good excuse for writing fantasy news. In the US, Media Post reported:
“HD digital radio is poised for rapid growth over the next few years … with much of the increase coming abroad, especially in Europe, where various governments have established HD radio as the national standard. … US consumers have purchased 4 million HD radio sets, while European consumers – led by the UK – have purchased about 13.5 million.”
Oh dear. Lie One: the American HD radio system is not a national standard in any European country. Lie Two: not a single HD radio has been sold in the UK. Lie Three: maybe 13 HD radios have been sold in Europe, but certainly not 13 million.
Consequently, US broadcast industry trade body NAB summarised this completely inaccurate news story (“… the real growth is happening overseas, where governments have already established HD [radio] as a standard technology”) and sent it to everyone on its mailing list. The whole of the US radio sector must be amazed that Europe, led by the UK, has embraced American HD radio technology so warmly, while it is failing so dismally in its homeland. Wrong! In reality, no consumer in Europe has even heard of HD radio (except for a few techies testing it in Switzerland).
Closer to home, the continuing failure of the DAB digital radio system to impress European consumers seems to have impacted thinking at the European Broadcasting Union [EBU], which has supported Europe-wide implementation of DAB since 1986. In outlining the agenda of its fourth Digital Radio Conference [DRC10], the EBU came close to acknowledging that DAB is no longer ‘the future of radio’:
“Where previous [conference] editions have focused on the relative merits of the different digital radio platforms and their roll-out across Europe, DRC10 will focus on radio’s position within a pluralistic distribution model. That the discussion of digital radio’s future has, to date, been weighted towards different platforms is understandable given the uneven pace of Eureka 147 (DAB/DAB+/DMB) adoption and the rapid deployment of internet to European homes. Indeed, technical development has now reached something of a plateau. … The debate has moved forward from which platform might ‘win’ to how best to chart a digital future for radio on multiple platforms. … A more fundamental question then is ‘what is the case for digital radio?’. This is about business and social arguments for and against the development of digital radio in all its forms. It involves the economics of radio revenues and costs, the social value, the mix of public and commercial broadcasters, as well as the quality and variety of the offering.”
“Uneven pace”? “Plateau”? “Multiple platforms”? Am I the only one to smell EBU back-peddling here on the DAB issue? At last year’s EBU conference, I seemed to be the only speaker exploring “the economics of radio revenues and costs” amongst a sea of technologists whose enthusiasm for DAB remained unsullied by the constraints of the economics of radio. Maybe the penny has dropped – a platform remains no more than a platform if you cannot afford to fill it with compelling, exclusive radio content, and convince consumers to use it, and generate a profit from it.
Here in the UK, while the biggest commercial radio owners have already baled out of most of their DAB commitments (and the BBC is trying to close two of its digital stations), the digital minnows are left suffering the economic consequences of a platform that has effectively been thrown to the dogs. Passion For The Planet, an independent digital-only station that has persevered on the DAB platform since 2002, announced in August 2010 that it will no longer broadcast on DAB in London. Managing director Chantal Cooke explained:
“DAB is a great medium for radio, but squabbling within the industry and a lack of clarity and direction from Ofcom leaves us worried that radio may well have missed a great opportunity. I believe London has too many stations, and the signal on the ‘London 3’ multiplex has always been, and continues to be, very poor. The lack of a robust signal has hampered independent services from the start, yet neither the multiplex operators nor Ofcom has taken the problem seriously. Passion for the Planet has spent a small fortune broadcasting on ‘London 3’ because we believed in the platform but, while there are still so many issues to be rectified, further investment in DAB in London has become increasingly difficult to support.”
The writing on the wall for DAB’s impending failure is writ so large now that Ofcom staff must have to leave work under cover of darkness not to see it. Large parts of the radio industry evidently have no faith in DAB ever replacing analogue radio. However, over at Ofcom HQ, the futile work continues to try and convince consumers and the government that DAB is still ‘the future of radio’. We will probably never know how much public money and time has been wasted on these foolish endeavours.
[many thanks to John Catlett and Eivind Engberg for their valuable contributions]
This week’s publication of the latest UK radio listening figures begs the question as to what RAJAR’s function is:
* Is RAJAR a cheerleader for radio, to convince Licence Fee payers and advertisers how successful radio is? Or, * Is RAJAR a serious research agency providing objective data to advertisers and advertising agencies about radio audiences?
I ask because this week’s media coverage of the latest RAJAR results seemed to result entirely from the cheerleader role, while the objective data role was nowhere to be seen.
The Guardian headline said: “Radio’s booming”. The BBC News headline said: “Radio listening soars”. The Media Week headline said: “Radio industry buoyed by strong Q1”. The Drum headline said: “All time radio high”.
So the radio sector is apparently performing better than ever? Well, if you believe the opening statements of the RAJAR press release: * “Radio listening reaches an all time high as 46.5 million adults tune in to radio”; * “Radio listening in the UK has reached an all time high as 46.5 million adults, or 90.6% of the UK population (15+), tuned in to their favourite radio station each week”.
The question is: who is this press release for? Certainly, it is not for the people who use RAJAR data for their work – buyers in advertising agencies and advertisers – who know from their daily examination of the detailed numbers that “radio listening” is certainly not at all at an all-time high. Rather, the volume of radio listening has been in decline since 2003, a long-term trend that shows no sign of abating.
The RAJAR press release is deliberately misleading in its use of wording. This is by no means the first time. Previous RAJAR press releases have claimed that radio listening has hit some kind of high. In RAJAR-land, every day seems to be a sunny day. This is the kind of PR puff we come to expect from commercial companies. But RAJAR is not selling anything. It is meant to be providing objective radio listening data to the media sector. It is funded jointly by the BBC Licence Fee and commercial radio.
In fact, the “all time high” assertion in the RAJAR press release derives solely from the fact that more people are listening to radio than ever before. This is good news, but the number of people listening to radio is at an “all time high” for the same reason that hospitals have more patients than ever, schools have more children than ever, and public transport has more users than ever. The adult population of the UK is increasing by around 1% per annum. More people = more people using things.
So from where does the RAJAR assertion “radio listening reaches an all time high” derive? It is nothing more than hot air. If, in using the phrase “radio listening”, RAJAR had meant to imply “the volume of radio listening”, then it is a plain lie.
More people are listening to the radio, but they are listening for less and less time. The volume of radio listening, the total number of hours that all UK adults spend listening to the radio, has been declining since 2003. Here is a graph of RAJAR’s own data that shows it.
The average amount of time adult radio listeners spend listening to the radio has been declining dramatically over the same period. Here is a graph of RAJAR’s own data that shows it.
Are either of these facts, from the same research, mentioned in the latest RAJAR press release? Of course not. Why? Because RAJAR’s cheerleader role seems to require it to publicise a metric for radio listening that shows an increase: the absolute number of people listening, in this press release.
Here is a graph that shows the increase in the UK adult population and the number of people listening to radio. When the estimated population goes up, the estimated number of radio listeners goes up!
The airtime buyers in advertising agencies who have to use RAJAR data on a day-to-day basis probably chuckle at the preposterousness of the RAJAR press releases, laugh at how gullible the media are to simply reprint their headlines, and then go back to their work.
For some people (like me, having analysed radio audience data for 30 years), it creates market confusion. Clients are understandably puzzled and baffled when they see a presentation that clearly shows radio listening is in decline in the UK. They inevitably ask with suspicion: “But didn’t RAJAR just say that radio listening is at an all-time high?”
So why is RAJAR hell bent on this policy of trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes? Why does it need to be a public cheerleader for radio when we already have RadioCentre, the Radio Advertising Bureau and the BBC Press Office, each issuing their own PR puff on the RAJAR results? The RAJAR press releases might convince journalists, but they certainly don’t fool the media industry players. Instead, the opposite effect is probably the case.
How can the radio industry expect to be treated seriously within the wider media sector when its industry ratings body, charged with publishing objective listening data, insists upon grabbing headlines with misleading facts about radio audiences?
The latest RAJAR radio audience data demonstrated one thing clearly: the UK radio industry’s strategy for its digital stations is in tatters. Audiences for digital radio fell off a cliff during the last quarter of 2009. This did not appear to be the result of any specific strategy shift (no station closures, only one minor format change) but more the result of increasing public malaise about the whole DAB platform and the radio content that is presently being offered on it (plus a little Q4 seasonality) . The figures speak for themselves.
Total listening to digital radio stations is back down to the level it achieved in 2007, following a period of sustained growth between 2000 and 2007. Far from moving towards some kind of exponential growth spurt as the industry had expected, total listening now seems to have plateau-ed. It appears that market saturation has already been reached for much of the content presently available on digital radio platforms, considerably earlier than had been anticipated, and at a level of listening that cannot justify these stations’ existences for their commercial or BBC owners.
In the commercial sector, only Planet Rock has maintained its momentum, probably a reflection of its commitment to offering its listeners genuinely unique content. Elsewhere, the jukebox music stations have suffered massive falls in listening, possibly a result of their ease of substitution by online offerings such as Spotify and Last.fm, and of owner Bauer’s policy to curb investment in digital radio broadcast platforms and content.
Commercial radio has talked the digital talk for years about striving to make DAB a successful platform, vaguely promising new digital radio ‘content’ that it has still not delivered. Instead, it has spent the last few years cutting costs, consolidating, lobbying the government, complaining about the BBC, closing its digital stations and contracting out its DAB capacity to marginalised broadcasters (religious, ethnic, government-funded and listener-supported stations) that will never attract mainstream audiences to the platform (and whose listening is not even measured in the RAJAR audience survey).
From the listener’s perspective, the only thing that has happened to the DAB platform in recent years is the disappearance of commercial digital stations such as OneWord, TheJazz, Core, Capital Life and Virgin Radio Groove. For the average consumer, the arrival of Traffic Radio, Premier Christian Radio or British Forces Broadcasting Service are hardly replacements.
A report commissioned by RadioCentre from Ingenious Consulting in January 2009 concluded:
“Commercial radio is now at a crossroads with respect to DAB. It needs either to accept that the commercial challenges of DAB are insuperable and retreat from it – such a retreat, because of contractual and regulatory commitments, would be slow and painful; or strongly drive to digital.”
In the year since this report was prepared, commercial radio has done neither. Instead, it has spent a small fortune on parliamentary lobbying, not one iota of which has had a direct impact on 10 million increasingly baffled DAB radio receiver owners. These latest RAJAR data convey their clear message that content is their only concern.
For the BBC, the problem is somewhat similar. With the exception of Radio 7, listening to its digital radio stations remains unimpressive, despite them benefiting from massive BBC cross-promotion over many years. Some stations are outright disasters – Asian Network is listened to less now than it was almost seven years ago, when only 158,000 DAB radios had been sold. Some stations are simply not suited to the DAB platform – 1Xtra targets a youth audience who listen to a lot of radio online and via digital TV, but who have little interest in DAB (particularly as DAB is not available in mobile phones). Some stations will become redundant in an increasingly on-demand world – Radio 7 would eventually be little more than a shopfront for the huge pick’n’mix BBC radio archive to be made available to consumers online.
For the BBC, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify spending, for example, £12.1m per annum on the Asian Network when its peak audience nationally is only 31,000 adults. Broadcast platforms such as FM attract huge audiences for a fixed cost, making them the most efficient distribution system for mass market live content. As a result, Radio 1 costs us only 0.6p per listener hour. By comparison, the Asian Network is costing 6.9p per listener hour, probably making it more expensive to ‘broadcast’ than to send each listener a weekly e-mail attaching the five hours of Asian Network shows they enjoy.
The BBC should still be congratulated for creating new digital radio services in 2002 that attempted to fill very specific gaps in the market which commercial radio was unlikely to ever find commercially attractive. This is precisely why we value a public broadcaster in the UK. However, the BBC digital radio strategy over the last decade has suffered from: * The BBC’s evident inability to successfully execute the launch of genuinely creative, innovative radio channels that connect with listeners (GLR, the ‘new’ Radio 1, the original Radio 5); and * The BBC pre-occupation with constantly creating new ‘broadcast channels’ when most niche content is more suited to narrowcasting and delivery to its audience via IP (live, on-demand or downloaded).
For the UK radio industry, its digital ‘moment of truth’ has belatedly arrived. A new strategy now has to be adopted which does not continue to raise the DAB platform to the level of a ‘god’ that has to be worshipped above all others. The future of radio is inevitably multiple-platform and the industry’s focus has to be returned to producing content, rather than trying to control the platforms on which that content is carried.
I suspect that Tim Davie, director of BBC Audio & Music, will eventually lead these winds of change, following in the wake of director general Mark Thompson’s pronouncements at the end of this month as to where the internal financial axe will fall. Where the BBC leads, commercial radio will inevitably (have to) follow.
The future digital radio strategy is likely to be ‘horses for courses’. Rather than all radio content being delivered via all available platforms, it will in future be delivered only where, how and when it is most demanded by listeners. Our economic times make this mandatory. The DAB platform’s mass market failure will make it necessary.
It was a surprise to find that the entire front page of the most recent issue of the World DMB Forum’s global newsletter (‘Eureka!’) was filled with an article that did not extol the virtues of the DAB/DMB platform, but instead tackled the online radio platform and drew the conclusion that the internet “will NOT replace traditional broadcasting”. The article, entitled “The Future Of Radio”, sought to debunk the assertion that “the internet is the future of radio”.
It stated that the BBC iPlayer “allows the UK public to access almost all of its radio and TV programmes broadcast during the previous seven days”. This is inaccurate. The iPlayer offers nothing like “almost all” the BBC’s radio and TV output. Indeed, for some of the BBC’s radio and TV networks, the selection of content remains remarkably thin (mostly due to rights issues).
The article continued: “Given the outstanding success of the BBC’s iPlayer, it is surprising to learn from RAJAR’s latest audience figures that ‘radio via the Internet’ (in all its forms: live streaming; on-demand services and podcasting) accounts for only 2.2% of radio listening in the UK.”
This is untrue. The RAJAR 2.2% share figure ONLY includes simulcast live streams of the BBC and UK commercial broadcasters. It does not include on-demand services; it does not include podcasts; it does not include listening to online radio services such as Last.fm, Spotify and Rhapsody; and it does not include listening to audio from overseas broadcasters. There is a detailed section on the RAJAR web site that explains these facts. RAJAR has never claimed that its data for ‘internet’ listening includes anything other than simulcast live streams of BBC and UK commercial radio stations.
The article then drew the conclusion: “Taking these differences in penetration into account shows that DAB listening in the UK is 10 times more popular than listening via digital TV or via the internet.” However, it is unclear what the phrase “10 times more popular” is trying to imply. Is that ‘10 times more listening’? Or maybe ‘10 times more reach’?
Interestingly, exploring the latter metric, RAJAR’s own research (as part of its MIDAS survey, rather than the main diary survey) found in December 2008 that the weekly reach of all internet-delivered radio content in the UK was 14%, compared to the DAB platform’s weekly reach of 17.8% during the same quarter (see graph below). Ten times more popular? The platforms were almost neck-and-neck in the ‘reach’ metric. I wrote about this research a year ago. It is the closest we have for now to a like-for-like comparison that includes all forms of audio delivered by the internet.
The most recent reach data for the internet platform in the above graph derives from Q3 2008 because RAJAR has not publicly released comparative data derived from its two subsequent MIDAS surveys (which are now only available on subscription).
RAJAR was keen to stress in its press release accompanying this week’s latest MIDAS 5 survey that:
“74% of those Listen Again listeners said the service has no impact on the amount of live radio to which they listen, while half said they are now listening to radio programmes to which they did not listen previously”.
Somehow, the Daily Mail managed to mangle this factual statement into something that, yet again, portrayed the internet platform as an aggressor against DAB:
“Rajar says the figures do not mean people are abandoning traditional or DAB radio sets but that more Britons are trying and using online stations as well.”
The problem the radio industry faces with the RAJAR audience metric is that it cannot have its cake and eat it. Either it chooses:
* to restrict RAJAR to measuring ‘traditional’, live radio and accepts that, as a result, the data will inevitably show that listening to ‘traditional’ radio is in continuing decline (which is RAJAR today, see graph above); or
* to expand the RAJAR metric to measure ‘audio’ consumption that includes on-demand and podcast content, as well as non-traditional radio such as Spotify and Last.fm, thus demonstrating that total listening is not at all in decline but, on the contrary, has been enhanced by audio content increasingly consumed via non-broadcast platforms and ‘on the go’.
For the BBC, Director of Audio & Music Tim Davie hinted at the last RadioCentre conference that he would be interested to see RAJAR extended to encompass time-shifted and downloaded audio, both of which account for an increasing proportion of BBC radio listening.
For its part, commercial radio has shown no interest in advocating such a re-definition of the RAJAR metric. Not only do its offerings of time-shifted and downloadable audio remain miniscule compared to the BBC, but it is locked into a strategy to maintain its ‘walled garden’. Understandably, it has no desire to demonstrate to the world that it is losing listening to competitors’ time-shifted audio and online ‘radio’. UK commercial radio has enjoyed a nice little over-the-air duopoly from 1973 until recently – best just to pretend that it remains one of only two games in town.
The paradox here is that commercial radio is busy presenting advertising agencies and potential advertisers with RAJAR data that only tell part of the story of how and what audio people are listening to in 2009. However, once their meetings with commercial radio people are over, those same advertisers and agencies will inevitably be busy booking advertising with all sorts of online media, including Last.fm and Spotify. They know precisely what opportunities are out there in the wide world beyond traditional broadcasting.
Simply ignoring new businesses that are competing for your listeners’ attentions is not going to make them go away. Sticking your head in the sand can only have the effect of devaluing RAJAR as a useful and accurate metric in the long term.
I was interested to see your article in The Guardian, on behalf of the BBC Trust, defending Radio Two from accusations made by the commercial radio sector that the station has deliberately sought a younger audience. You say:
“What about the challenge that Radio 2 is getting younger? We found that Radio 2’s under-35 audience did grow significantly between 1999/00 and 2004/5 (albeit from a low base). However, over the past five years, the age profile of the station has remained stable and there’s been no increase in reach to under-35s.”
Your analysis here focuses on two specific metrics – under 35’s and Radio 2’s ‘reach’ – whereas the important issues raised by commercial radio rightly concentrate on: • Commercial radio’s ‘heartland audience’ of 15 to 44 year olds, which it has pursued for many years as a result of advertiser demand to reach this segment of the population; • ‘Share of listening’ as the appropriate metric because there is a direct correlation between this figure (how many hours are listened to commercial radio) and how much revenue the sector generates.
The graph below, taken from RAJAR data, shows the ‘share of listening’ attracted by BBC radio stations amongst 15-44 year olds since 1999.
It is evident that the listening share of most BBC stations has remained relatively static over this period. The exception is Radio Two, whose share of listening amongst 15-44 year olds has more than doubled from 4.9% to 10.5% over the last decade. It is true that this growth has started to level out in recent years, as your article asserts, but there is no denying that the damage has already been done.
The graph shows clearly that this significant increase in listening has not been achieved by migration from competing BBC radio services to Radio 2. On the contrary, the BBC’s overall share of listening amongst 15-44 year olds has increased from 36.5% to 44.7% during the last decade and, most importantly for commercial radio, is continuing to grow year-on-year.
The graph below demonstrates clearly that it is commercial radio which has lost listening share, from both its local and national stations, that has migrated to the BBC. As a result, commercial radio’s listening share amongst 15-44 year olds has fallen from 61.7% to 52.1% over the last decade.
The danger for the commercial radio sector is that, if its market share falls below 50%, potential advertisers might no longer consider radio to be the ‘powerhouse’ delivery platform amongst 15-44 year olds that it used to be. The impact will not simply be a proportional loss in advertising revenues, but a significant loss of confidence in radio as an advertising medium to reach 15-44 year olds.
This is why, inside the BBC and Radio Two, a change in strategic policy might look as if it only results in an increase in BBC market share of a percentage point or two. For the commercial sector, not only does that single percentage point lead directly to a proportional loss of revenue but, sustained in the longer term, it can potentially undermine the medium’s ability to convince advertisers to use radio rather than, say, digital TV or the internet.
This is why the promise you make that “Radio 2 listeners won’t get any younger” is little comfort to a sector that has already been damaged by BBC strategic policies and which is continuing to lose market share year-on-year amongst its ‘heartland audience’ to BBC radio as a whole.
Of course, some of this listening loss can be attributed to commercial radio’s own competitive (in)ability to compete with the BBC – I would be first in line to argue that case – but unless its downward spiral of diminishing listening and diminishing revenues can be reversed, commercial radio could be decimated to the point where it can no longer be a financially viable business.
I write to you not to criticise Radio Two, which is a remarkable station, nor to apologise for the commercial radio sector, which has to shoulder considerable blame for losing touch with its audience. I write to illustrate that the industry’s own data clearly shows the BBC continuing to eat away at commercial radio’s ‘heartland audience’, and I write so that the BBC Trust might understand the consequences if the migration of radio listening to the BBC continues at its current rate.