Andy Parfitt leaves BBC Radio 1 on a high: separating the man from the myth

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.

“It seemed to make a better story,” he told me.

David vs Goliath: commercial radio spends £27 per hour on programmes, BBC Radio 2 spends £4,578

There has been an abundance of fighting talk from the commercial radio sector in the press in recent weeks. Commercial radio seems determined to pick another fight with BBC Radios 1 and 2, two of the three most listened to radio stations in the UK.

Guardian Media Group Radio announced that “by broadcasting on National DAB, Sky, Freeview and Freesat, Smooth Radio will provide a strong commercial alternative to BBC Radio 2.” Chief executive Stuart Taylor said:

“We are still at war with the BBC and we still compete for listeners tooth and nail, as we always will.”

The press headlines affirmed:
* “New national network makes a Smooth attack on Radio 2” (Telegraph);
* “Forget Radio 2: in five years’ time, we’ll all be going Smooth” (
Independent);
* “Smooth Radio takes on Radio 2 in national rollout” (
Marketing Week);
* “Radio Two faces fight, warns new Smooth news chief” (
Press Gazette).

Then, Global Radio announced that its local FM stations will be re-branded ‘Capital Radio’ in 2011. Chief executive Ashley Tabor said:

“With the launch of the Capital network, there will now be a big national commercial brand seriously competing with Radio 1.”

The press headlines responded:
* “Capital Radio will go national in bid to challenge Radio 1” (Evening Standard);
* “Capital Radio set to rival BBC Radio 1 in move to broadcast nationally” (
Daily Mail);
* “Global to take on Radio 1 with Capital Network” (
Marketing Week);
* “Capital Radio to form first national commercial radio station” (
ITN).

Both the GMG and Global Radio statements achieved the intended sabre-rattling headlines in the press though, for me, these sentiments are remarkably hollow. This ongoing phoney war between the BBC and commercial radio is like a war between a one-eyed giant and an over-exuberant mobile phone salesman. The giant will win every time. Commercial radio can huff and puff all it wants, but the BBC knows it is perfectly safe in its house built from Licence Fees. It can afford to chuckle loudly at every challenge like this lobbed at it by commercial radio. Why?

Firstly, you could only ever hope to seriously compete with the existing formats of BBC Network radio stations if you had access to their same abundance of resources. This is something that Channel 4 belatedly realised after having promised for two years that it would invent a new commercial radio station to compete with BBC Radio 4. Then it scrapped its radio plans altogether.


The huge gulf between the funding of commercial radio content and BBC Network Radio content makes direct competition simply pointless. In a recent report for the BBC Trust, I noted that commercial radio spends an average £27 per hour on its content, while BBC Radio spends an average £1,255 per hour. There is no way that commercial radio can make programmes that will sound like Radio 2 on a budget that is 170th of the latter’s £4,578 per hour.

Secondly, what sort of message do these press headlines send to consumers? To me, they say ‘we realise that Radios 1 and 2 are fantastically successful, so we want a slice of their action’. Or maybe even ‘you really like Radios 1 and 2, don’t you? Try us, because we want to be just like them.’ So where is the Unique Selling Point [USP] for your own product? Don’t you have enough faith in it to tell us why it is so good, rather than comparing it to your much bigger, much more successful rival? Or is this the Dannii Minogue method of marketing?

I had always been taught that the cardinal sin of radio was to mention your competitors to your audience. Every reference to your competitor tells the audience how much you respect them and their success. Ignore them! Pretend your competitor does not even exist! Plough your own furrow and concentrate on making a radio station that is genuinely unique. Then you will create a brand that has a genuine USP, rather than being merely a pale imitation of Radio 1 or 2 without their big budgets. ‘I can’t believe it’s not Radio 2’ is not a tagline to which to aspire.

Thirdly, neither Capital Radio nor Smooth will be genuinely ‘national’ stations, as in capable of being received on an analogue FM/AM radio from one end of the country to the other. So why pretend to consumers and advertisers that they are ‘national’? In the case of Capital, its proposed FM network presently covers 57% of the UK adult population. In the case of Smooth, RAJAR tells us that DAB receiver penetration is presently 35%. Just how little of the UK population can you cover and yet still describe yourself as ‘national’?


Fourthly, don’t keep looking at Radio 1 and 2’s huge audience figures and dreaming of how much money you could make if only you could monetise their listenership. Part of the reason older listeners probably like Radio 2 is because there are no advertisements. Accept the fact that Radios 1 and 2 together account for a quarter of all radio listening in the UK. Compared to those mammoths of radio, both Capital and Smooth are mere termites. Live with that fact and, instead, seek out commercial clients who are not merely frustrated because they cannot advertise on BBC Radio, but who actively want to use your radio station because your audience is intrinsically valuable to them.

Finally, invest the time and money to develop your own on-air talent rather than simply hanging on the coattails of others’ successes. Whatever his next gig might be, Chris Moyles will forever be remembered as ‘the saviour of Radio 1’, just as Chris Evans will always be remembered for his Radio 1 breakfast show, not for his subsequent time at Virgin Radio. Find new people who are good at radio and put your faith in them. Why does Smooth’s schedule have to resemble Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together with a bit here from Radio 1 in the 80s, and a bit there from Radio 2 last month?

What your radio station should be doing is not competing with Radio This or Radio That for listeners, but competing directly for consumers to spend time with you because you are ‘you’. Radio is not like selling soap powder or yoghurt pots, where your business model can be built upon undercutting the price of a competitor’s product, however low-quality your own cheapo version might be. There is no price of admission in radio. Your content needs to be ‘different’ rather than ‘the same’ and it needs to create its own unique place in the market.

You should not think of your market competitors as radio stations, but as each and every opportunity a consumer is presented with to pass their leisure time. A winning station must be able to convince a consumer to listen to it, rather than watch television, read a book or simply sit in silence. Because radio is ‘free’, the competition for radio is everything else that is also free to consumers at the point-of-use.

To offer a practical example, when I worked on the launch of India’s first commercial radio network, Radio City, the advertising agency produced an excellent marketing campaign that extolled the virtues of the station over other radio stations. But the campaign had to be rejected and the agency briefed in more detail. Why? Because we were launching the very first radio station on the FM dial in a city such as Bangalore, so the overriding challenge was to persuade people to use ‘radio’ at all, or to persuade people to buy an FM radio for the first time, or to persuade people to switch off their television and turn to radio instead.

This philosophy seems to be a million miles away from the current UK commercial radio strategy which seems to focus on berating BBC radio for being too successful, whilst wanting to somehow achieve part of that success through osmosis. If only half this war effort was put into developing policies to make the commercial sector’s stations successful on their own account, the BBC would soon cease to matter.

Instead, RadioCentre is now demanding that commercial radio be allowed to re-broadcast old Proms concerts recorded by BBC Radio 3. But how many of our 300 commercial radio stations play classical music? One. And which Proms concert do you recall that would fit into Classic FM’s playlist of short musical extracts? What next? Will Capital FM be asking the BBC for the rights to re-broadcast some old Zoe Ball Radio 1 breakfast shows?

In September 2010, the government’s Consumer Expert Group criticised RadioCentre for having proposed a policy for the BBC’s Strategy Review that, it felt, would have “bullied” listeners.

Trying to bully listeners? Trying to bully the BBC? This is the war of the playground, not of a mature media industry that has a strategy of its own making, a plan, a roadmap for its future success. “It’s not fair. Your willy is bigger than mine.” No, it probably isn’t fair, but life deals you a hand, you have to stop whining, get on with it and make the best of what you’ve got.

Just accept this reality: commercial radio’s willy is never going to be as big as the BBC’s. So competing directly on size alone is a complete waste of time when, instead, you should be developing your own individual ‘technique’.