Media: How the Radio Times is a-changin'

The grand old lady of TV listings is having a facelift. But will that make it more attractive to a new breed of reader?
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It's not the most obvious source of breaking broadcast news. But with a controversial new agenda and, from this week, a comprehensive re- design, Radio Times is out to prove that despite turning 76 this month it's still a force to be reckoned with and has an increasingly important role in the digital age.

The first step was to sharpen its teeth. Recent months have seen a succession of controversial editorials including Ben Elton's rubbishing of so-called "Cool Britannia" and Anna Ford's criticism of her BBC bosses. This week, former ITN newsreader Michael Nicholson attacks the quality of TV journalism. Scoops alone, however, are not enough. So a review of Radio Times' readership, role and relevance was launched, resulting in this week's cleaner, contemporary re-design.

No self-respecting magazine can be without a slickly-named target demographic nowadays - and Radio Times is no exception. So, after "middle youth" - those thirtysomething women readers so cleverly identified by Red magazine - and "post-lad man" - the generation struggling to leave those booze `n' babes years behind helped by Later magazine - comes Radio Times' new target demographic: the "middle active".

To appeal to this group, the magazine has had to change its colours. While the familiar logo remains on the front cover, inside the style and layout has radically changed.

Most noticeable is a more logical structure, with sections more clearly marked, making them easier to navigate. Also, the removal of features from the advertising-rich back of the magazine and the introduction of new features, such as a Knowledge page to supplement existing regular sections on Health, Food and Gardening, and an Internet guide.

"We've been working on this for over a year - it's taken a lot of homework to understand and respond to the market and where it's going," says Radio Times editor Sue Robinson. The re-design is a response to the launch and imminent expansion of digital broadcasting although growing competition in the TV listings market means everyone must keep on their toes, she explains.

"We took the decision that Radio Times should remain a selective guide for our readership, developing its comprehensive listings on its Web site which has also been redesigned." Plans for a Radio Times-brand electronic programme guide are also moving ahead, she adds.

Being a "selective guide" means understanding the tastes and lifestyles of Radio Times' readership and catering for these people's needs. So, the BBC worked with research companies Millward Brown and the Henley Centre to better understand who its readers are today and how this might evolve over time.

"Radio Times' core readership are `infoholics'," marketing director Chris Gadsby explains. "By which I mean people who are conscious absorbers of information and view television accordingly. TV is a means of advancing themselves so they have a deeper relationship with it than those who regard TV just as entertainment."

Infoholics span a broad range of ages and backgrounds although are predominantly upmarket, he adds. Within this group, however, detailed analysis has identified a new type of reader Radio Times will now attempt to cultivate. "Middle actives are neither middle aged, or old - they're young in outlook and enjoy activities such as gardening, walking or sailing," Gadsby says. "They are the future of Radio Times because as they are out doing things their time is precious: while there is more TV they don't have any more time to watch it so we feel Radio Times could add particular value to them."

These are upmarket people in their late thirties and approaching 45 (the current average age of the Radio Times reader) who are not currently reading the magazine - the sort of people Radio Times must now attract to avoid an ageing readership profile. Both Robinson and Gadsby, however, are adamant this does not signify a narrowing of Radio Times' remit.

True, following deregulation of the UK TV listings market in 1991 new competition halved Radio Times' sales, but today it enjoys a stable circulation despite growing competition. Two new listings-based titles have launched so far this year but Radio Times claims to have been little affected. Heat, going for a far younger market, had little impact while TV Choice, with its low cover price, hit the cheaper end of the market hardest. In response to the latter, What's On TV (current sales: 1.8 million copies a week) last week permanently cut its cover price from 50p to 35p. Meanwhile, 1.39 million copies of Radio Times continue to be sold each week at 79p - the same sales figure as two years ago. While "infoholics" account for the largest proportion of Radio Times' readers, they're not the only group, Gadsby stresses.

"It would be a mistake to assume Radio Times is not a mass market title any more. We are: we have a whole spectrum of readers and produce a magazine to be read by a whole spectrum of readers," he says. "But we do have to be more focused on what Radio Times is, what it is saying and who it is trying to communicate with."

Which is why today's re-design has not extended to any significant changes to Radio Times' editorial tone or content. The team hope it can continue to make the headlines but don't rule out further modifications to meet readers' evolving needs. Only time will tell, how the grand old lady of TV listings will look when she turns 80 in four years' time.