“Digital listening at an all-time high,” shouted the headline of one online news story. Yes, it was the quarterly RAJAR radio ratings, offering opportunities for some journalists to pitch their stories just about any which way they wanted. The opening sentence of this particular report said:
“The digital revolution shows no signs of slowing down, and not even the radio airwaves are set to maintain their analogue tradition, as a new [RAJAR] study suggests.”
Hardly. This news story was interesting because it achieved two simultaneous feats of confusion: • ‘DAB radio’ and ‘digital radio’ are two different things. ‘DAB’ is the platform on which the UK radio industry bet the farm in the 1990s. ‘Digital radio’ is radio received on any platform that is not analogue (AM/FM) and includes the internet, smartphones, digital TV … and DAB • The fact that DAB listening is growing does not necessarily mean that it is replacing analogue listening at a rapid rate of attrition. Why? Because DAB listening, even after 12 years, is still at a remarkably low level.
These confusions are not accidental. At every opportunity, statements made by Digital Radio UK have sought to confuse the public by referring to ‘digital radio’ as if it means precisely the same as ‘DAB radio.’
A look at the graphs below of the latest RAJAR data illustrate clearly that the “analogue tradition” in radio remains so dominant that the real question to be asked is: how come DAB usage is still so low after so many years and after so much money has been invested in content, transmission systems and marketing?
The adage ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ has never been more true than with DAB/digital radio usage. The four graphs above – all taken from the industry’s latest RAJAR data – say it all by showing: • how little impact DAB radio has had on analogue radio usage in the UK • how slow the rate of growth is of DAB receiver take-up and of digital radio station listening.
Far from radio losing its “analogue tradition,” as the news article asserted, the old FM/AM platforms look, from these data, to be as strong as ever in the market.
One hint that some digital radio stations on the DAB platform could be on their way out is the BBC’s latest decision to aggregate listening for Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra in RAJAR. It had been doing this from the outset for Five Live and Five Live Sports Extra, on the premise that ‘Sports Extra’ was only a part-time broadcast station.
I would not be at all surprised to see the BBC: • similarly aggregate Radio 2 listening with 6 Music • similarly aggregate Radio 1 listening with 1Xtra • downgrade its digital radio stations from full-time DAB broadcast stations to online, on-demand ‘extra content’ available via RadioPlayer, iPlayer and applications.
The problem with national broadcast BBC radio stations, whether analogue or DAB, is that the BBC Charter insists they must be made available universally to all Licence Fee payers. Given the huge cost of extending the BBC’s national DAB transmission multiplex to near-universal coverage equivalent to FM radio, particularly at a time when the BBC is having to cut budgets massively, it would be more sensible to downgrade ‘1Xtra’, ‘2Xtra’ and ‘4Xtra’ to ‘red button’ status whereby they offer additional content on a part-time basis. The consumer would access these Extra ‘stations’ via a complementary platform (IP) rather than the BBC having to shoulder the financial burden of programming them as 24-hour broadcast entities.
It would prove a convenient solution for the BBC. As it found with 6 Music last year, public controversy surrounds any decision to close a radio station, however small its audience in absolute terms. Alternatively, by pursuing the ‘Extra’ route, the digital stations can be re-branded, re-purposed and re-platformed away from expensive, fixed-cost DAB and towards IP, where the cost of delivery varies proportionately with the number of people using it. What better way to deliver value for money to Licence Fee payers? And what better way not to face public wrath for ‘closing’ a digital radio station.
As BBC Radio 2 DJ Steve Wright said on today’s Broadcasting House show: “Maybe full digitisation [of radio from FM/AM to DAB] may well take thirty years …”
As the graphs above demonstrate, there IS slow growth in DAB usage, but the rate is insufficient to replace analogue radio as the dominant consumer platform any time soon. It’s time for BBC strategy to catch up with that reality.
The latest RAJAR ratings data for Q2 2011 demonstrate the continuing strength of the radio medium in recession Britain. Maybe if your TV or mobile subscriptions are having to be pruned, you turn to radio instead. In times of austerity, one of radio’s greatest attributes is that it appears to consumers to be available ‘free’ at the point-of-use.
‘All radio’ listening (1,076m hours per week) is at its highest since 2003. Adult weekly reach is 91.7%. Each listener spends an average 22.6 hours per week with ‘radio.’ These are impressive numbers. In this respect, it is important to remind ourselves that the RAJAR definition of ‘radio’ excludes: • ‘listen again’ consumption of broadcast radio (online catch-ups of ‘The Archers’, for example) • all podcasts • listening to pure online radio stations • listening to online music streaming services or personalised online radio (Last.fm, Spotify, etc).
If these additional ‘radio’ consumption sources could somehow be added to the RAJAR data, it looks likely that, using a wider definition, ‘radio’ would be performing at an all-time high. This is not at all surprising in our time-precious, multi-tasking world. Radio proves the perfect aural accompaniment to online social activities, whereas it is nigh impossible to watch television or read a newspaper at the same time as you browse the internet. Radio is a secondary medium – it never monopolises your time.
Commercial radio has benefited from this uplift in total radio listening. Total hours listened to commercial radio (470m per week) have risen from what is beginning to look like a nadir in early 2010.
During the last two quarters, commercial radio’s adult weekly reach has jumped above the 65% threshold (65.5% in Q2 2011) that had not been breached since 2003.
In absolute terms, commercial radio’s adult weekly reach has almost caught up with the UK population growth experienced since 1999, rising to 34m in Q2 2011, marginally below its all-time high the previous quarter.
The remaining stumbling block for commercial radio is that its average hours consumed per listener remain stubbornly low (13.8 in Q2 2011). As noted previously, young people are spending less time with radio [see my blog]. Commercial radio’s audience is considerably more youth-orientated than BBC radio, which is why the average length of time for all adults listening to commercial radio remains in the doldrums.
With all this good news for the commercial radio sector, you might imagine that its share of total radio listening had started gaining in leaps and bounds at the expense of the BBC. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The BBC has benefited just as much as commercial radio has from the overall increases in radio listening. As a result, everyone’s volumes are ‘up’ and the share of commercial radio versus BBC radio has remained relatively constant. In Q2 2011, commercial radio’s 43.7% share was certainly an improvement on the situation in 2008, when it had looked as if the 40% barrier might be plumbed for the first time.
In fact, the BBC’s sustained strength in radio is becoming increasingly understated as more and more ‘radio’ listening is attributable to ‘listen again’ on-demand usage and podcasts. The BBC dominates the content available on both these platforms, whilst commercial radio’s offerings remain relatively sparse. At present, neither platform is measured within RAJAR. If they were, commercial radio’s share would undoubtedly be diminished further.
At present, this status quo (using RAJAR’s anachronistic definition of ‘radio’ as purely live and broadcast) suits both parties. The BBC does not wish to be seen to be even more dominant than it already is (54.0% of radio listening in Q2 2011). Commercial radio does not wish to be seen to be weaker than it already is (43.7%) in comparison to the BBC.
And who pays for RAJAR? The BBC and commercial radio. So we are stuck with an old fashioned metric that does not measure radio consumption in the 21st century sense of what we now call ‘radio,’ but which keeps both its paymasters happy … particularly as neither the BBC nor commercial radio would currently wish to demonstrate publicly the increasing popularity of online ‘radio’ consumption – which remains the biggest long-term external threat to them both.
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 is good to know that radio is still an extremely popular medium in the UK, something borne out by the latest radio audience metrics published by industry body RAJAR for Q1 2011. However, in its determination to make every quarter’s results newsworthy, RAJAR has a track record of bending the truth to achieve press headlines [see my blog May 2010]. This latest quarter was no exception.
According to the RAJAR headline: • “Total radio listening hours reach 1,058 million per week – new record.”^
RAJAR explained: • “The total number of radio listening hours broke all previous records to reach 1,058 hours per week …”^
Fantastic news! Except that this is not at all true. RAJAR’s own historical data tell a different story: • 1,088 million hours per week in Q2 2001 • 1,092 million hours per week in Q3 2001 • 1,092 million hours per week in Q4 2001 • 1,090 million hours per week in Q1 2002 • 1,072 million hours per week in Q4 2002 • 1,094 million hours per week in Q1 2003 • 1,066 million hours per week in Q3 2003 • 1,076 million hours per week in Q4 2003 • 1,086 million hours per week in Q1 2004 • 1,072 million hours per week in Q2 2004 • 1,068 million hours per week in Q3 2004 • 1,059 million hours per week in Q1 2005 • 1,068 million hours per week in Q2 2005 • 1,072 million hours per week in Q3 2005 • 1,060 million hours per week in Q4 2005 • 1,063 million hours per week in Q3 2006
During sixteen quarters between 2001 and 2006, total hours listened to radio were greater than they were last quarter. “New record?” No. “Broke all records”? Er, no.
The reality is that total radio listening has not yet returned to the level it had achieved in 2001. Except that, ten years ago, the UK adult population was 48.1 million, whereas now it is 51.6 million. So the population has increased by 7% over the last decade. Yet total UK radio listening is still less than it was then.
Most statisticians I know would refer to that as a like-for-like 7%+ decline in total hours listened to radio. However, to RAJAR, it is evidently a “new record” that “broke all previous records.”
Why does any of this matter? Because radio broadcasters have been progressively losing usage over most of the last decade. Initially, it was 15 to 24 year olds that were spending less time with radio. Increasingly, it is also 25 to 34 year olds. For a decade, the UK radio industry has desperately needed a coherent strategy to reverse this loss of listening. The decline in young adult listening to broadcast radio does not merely impact the NOW. If these consumers do not find anything in their youth worth listening to on the radio, they will grow old without the radio habit. Their radio listening patterns NOW are likely to influence radio listening for the next half-century.
This is why RAJAR’s continuing efforts to achieve yet another headline in the Daily Mail proclaiming “Radio listening at an all time high” are ultimately redundant. Those headlines do not impact the reality of the data collected from tens of thousands of radio listeners every month. Those data show incontrovertibly that listening is in significant long-term decline amongst younger demographics. And radio will be in mortal danger if it does not re-invent itself for the next generation.
You only have to listen to any pirate radio station in London to understand that the gulf between what young people are actually listening to and what the old fogies who run UK radio are giving them has never been wider. Chris Moyles is as passé as Dave Lee Travis was twenty years ago.
So, yes, RAJAR’s fibs and the resulting Daily Mail headline will be another opportunity for champagne corks to pop in radio boardrooms across the land. But if radio doesn’t start making itself exciting and relevant to young people, broadcast radio’s future role will be relegated to a soundtrack in old people’s homes. Complacency such as that propagated by RAJAR will only make many radio businesses redundant in the long run.
^ in a footnote this small, the RAJAR press release admits the caveat “since new methodology was introduced in Q2, 2007.”
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]
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.
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’.
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]
Ofcom quietly published its first Digital Radio Progress Report in July 2010, without fanfare or a press release. This report has been a remarkably long time coming, given that DAB radio has been with us more than a decade. During that time, Ofcom has published 26 Digital Television Progress Reports, starting in 2003.
Here was an opportunity for Ofcom to demonstrate that it is acting in the public interest by publishing solid, objective data about the progress of digital radio in the UK. Did it take that opportunity? No. Instead, Ofcom published a set of data that are so selective and so distorted that they misrepresent the progress (or lack of it) made to date in advancing the UK towards the ‘digital radio switchover’ that our government is determined to execute. Why? Because Ofcom (like the government’s DCMS department) seems determined to persuade us that its totally unrealistic plan for DAB radio has not been an unmitigated disaster with the citizen/consumers on whose behalf it is supposed to be working.
It might appear pedantic to pick over the details of data represented in this feeble 24-page Ofcom report. However, it must be stressed that this is no nitpicking exercise. The Digital Economy Act 2010 insists that this very document submitted by Ofcom (and another by the BBC) to the government will decide whether the UK will progress to ‘digital radio switchover’. It is these data that will decide whether we can continue to receive BBC network radio stations on the 100 million analogue radios that are out there. It is these data that could mean we have to replace perfectly satisfactory analogue radio receivers in every household across the country, at a cost of millions to consumers.
To note the issues in the order they appear in the Ofcom report:
FIGURE 1: This Ofcom graph purports to show that: * Digital platforms’ share of radio listening increased from 12.8% to 24.0% between 2007 and 2010 (this is TRUE); * Analogue platforms’ share of listening decreased from 87.2% to 76.0% between 2007 and 2010 (this is FALSE).
The four figures cited in Figure 1 for the analogue platform – 87.2% in 2007, 82.2% in 2008, 79.9% in 2009 and 76.0% in 2010 – are an Ofcom invention. These false data seek to demonstrate that a rapid decline in analogue listening has taken place. This is not true. As the graph below shows, analogue listening has remained remarkably static over this timeframe.
The situation is complicated by two facts: a significant proportion of radio listening remains ‘unspecified’ by respondents in RAJAR listening surveys, and that this proportion has varied greatly in size in different surveys. However, this does not detract from the falsehood of Ofcom’s attempt to demonstrate that analogue listening is in sharp decline.
FIGURE 2: This Ofcom graph purports to show that: * 54% of 15-24 year olds use digital radio; * 57% of 25-34 year olds use digital radio; * 56% of 55-64 year olds use digital radio; * 46% of 65-74 year olds use digital radio; * 29% of 75+ year olds use digital radio.
In fact, the fine print explains that Ofcom had asked the question ‘Have you ever used digital radio?’ This ensured that the results were almost meaningless because they tell us nothing whatsoever about current usage of digital radio. For example, a 68-year old who, on a single occasion ten years ago, had listened to digital radio for 10 minutes will have answered ‘yes’, despite having made no further usage during the last decade.
Ofcom’s objective here seems to have been to highlight the large size of the resulting numbers, without indicating that they derive from an almost useless question (garbage in, garbage out). If you were to ask people ‘Have you ever bought a banana?’, almost 100% would respond ‘yes’. Their answers tell you absolutely nothing about the current market for bananas. Exactly the same is true of digital radio usage. In this context, the resulting numbers seem remarkably low because only half the population has ever tried digital radio (even once in their lifetime).
FIGURE 3: This Ofcom graph purports to show that: * 53% of adults use digital radio; * 63% of adults in socio-economic groups AB use digital radio; * 55% of adults in socio-economic group C1 use digital radio; * 48% of adults in socio-economic group C2 use digital radio; * 42% of adults in socio-economic groups DE use digital radio.
Just as in Figure 2, the fine print explains that Ofcom had asked the question ‘Have you ever used digital radio? The same issues apply here as with Figure 2.
FIGURE 5: This Ofcom graph shows digital platforms’ share of total radio listening, but the data omit: * A comparison with the analogue platform; * A time sequence to show how fast the market is changing.
The following graph demonstrates the slow growth of digital platforms and their low level in comparison with analogue. It also demonstrates that a proportion of the growth in digital platform usage is the result of a statistical technicality caused by a reduction of ‘unspecified’ listening in recent quarters.
The following graph demonstrates the slow growth of individual digital platforms since 2007, using the same scale as applied in the preceding graph.
FIGURE 8: This Ofcom graph purports to show that: * “five digital-only services generated a weekly reach of 1 million+ listeners in Q1 2010.”
However, the fine print explains that the Ofcom data refer to “all listeners [aged] 4+”, whereas the radio industry’s standard metric is and always has been ‘adults 15+’. Indeed, all RAJAR audience data used in this same Ofcom report refer to ‘adults 15+’, except for Figure 8.
Once the graph is re-worked using ’15+’ instead of ‘4+’ data (see above), it is evident that: * Only three digital-only radio stations generate a weekly reach of 1million+ adult listeners; * BBC World Service was included in the Ofcom graph (and was one of the five stations cited as exceeding 1m weekly reach) even though it is not digital-only, being available across a large part of the UK on 648AM; * BBC Asian Network was omitted from the Ofcom graph (also available on analogue but limited to the Midlands); * Not only are Panjab Radio and NME Radio no longer available on the national DAB platform (as the Ofcom text notes), but Q Radio is no longer on DAB, and the BBC has proposed the closure of Asian Network; * These weekly reach data for digital-only stations should be considered in the context of analogue radio stations – for example, BBC Radio 2 has a weekly adult reach of 14.6million.
FIGURE 9: This Ofcom graph purports to show that: * Digital radio’s current share of listening is “broadly in line with the organic growth outlined on the [government’s] forecast chart.”
Bizarrely, the Ofcom graph displays the government forecasts but has omitted the historical data that would show how successfully the forecast has been achieved to date.
The forecast published in June 2009 predicted that, by year-end 2009 (a mere six months later), digital platforms would account for 24% or 26%, the latter the result of a concerted ‘drive to digital.’ In fact, the year-end figure was 21%. The likely reason that Ofcom has failed to include the historical data is that neither of the two forecasts (‘organic growth’ or the ‘drive to digital’) has any chance of being realised. If the current growth rate is extrapolated, the 50% criterion will be reached by year-end 2018, and certainly not by either 2013 or 2015, as the forecast (credited to Value Partners) predicted.
FIGURE 14: This Ofcom graph and accompanying text assert that: * “DAB sets made up over a fifth (21%) of all radio sales by volume” in the year to Q1 2010; * “In the portable market, DAB sets accounted for 65% of sales.”
However, Ofcom omitted to point out that: * Fewer DAB radios had been sold in 2009 than in 2008; * DAB radios were a lower proportion of total radios sold in 2009 than in 2008; * Its reference to “the portable market” is limited strictly to ‘portable radios’ of the type used in kitchens. There is not a single mobile phone on sale in the UK that includes DAB radio, and the vast majority of portable media players that include radio do not have DAB radio.
In fact, the data in the graph above demonstrate that: * DAB radio receiver sales volumes peaked in 2007/8 at 2.2million per annum and have declined 13% since then to 1.9million per annum; * Analogue radios contributed a greater proportion of total radio receiver sales in 2009 (79%) than they had in 2008 (78%); * DAB has not invigorated the market for radios, with fewer radios sold now than ever, perhaps due to evident consumer confusion about ‘digital radio switchover’.
FIGURE 17: The Ofcom graph shows that: * 17% of adults say they are likely to buy a DAB radio in the next 12 months.
However, the Ofcom graph does not offer a historical perspective. The graph above demonstrates that the propensity to purchase a DAB radio has diminished over time. In 2006, 17% of respondents said they would be likely to buy a DAB radio within the next six months. In 2010, 17% said they would be likely to buy a DAB radio within the next 12 months. This would translate into a significant reduction in DAB radio receiver sales. Additionally, the proportion of respondents who say they do not know if they will purchase a DAB radio continues to increase over time, perhaps a further symptom of market confusion or DAB indifference.
———— Given that Ofcom has had the luxury of several years to prepare this first Digital Radio Progress Report, the result is a travesty. It should not be the regulator’s role to selectively highlight and distort data that support its own policies in a document specifically requested by government in order to inform a parliamentary decision on digital radio switchover. We deserve better from our public servants. Otherwise, they might as well go and work for Digital Radio UK, the lobby group (funded by commercial interests and the BBC) busy pumping out propaganda to try and persuade consumers that they need DAB radio.
On page 5 of this first Digital Radio Progress Report, Ofcom notes:
“Our principal general duty, when carrying out our radio functions, is … to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters.”
Exactly how are citizens’ interests being furthered by Ofcom distorting the facts about digital radio take-up?
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.