Media: Radio Broadcasting - Radio days: The future looks even brighter

The advent of digital radio promises even better jobs for new entrants, writes Richard Cook
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When Thames Television, maker of Morecambe & Wise, Minder and Benny Hill, lost its ITV licence in the early Nineties, viewers were understandably upset. The new licensee, Carlton, was an unknown quantity, whereas Thames was a household name. A campaign of protest was begun when more than 100 letters of protest were fired off by irate viewers.

Two years later the London radio station LBC also lost its licence. Its audience had been in decline for some time, and even at its peak hardly approached Thames TV's viewing figures. And while Thames shared the ITV licence only with London Weekend, LBC had to compete with a raft of London- based stations, including Capital, Jazz FM, Kiss and Melody. Nevertheless, LBC immediately logged more than 80,000 letters and phone calls protesting about the decision. A later petition to save the station carried a staggering 350,000 signatures.

People get passionate about radio in a way that they don't readily about other media. After all, more people still start off their day by listening to the radio than the combined number who watch breakfast TV or read a newspaper or magazine. But it hasn't always been that way. When commercial radio launched in 1973, it did so with only three stations: Capital and LBC in London, and Clyde in Scotland. Today there are more than 150, with the prospect of many more when digital radio arrives. The first digital multiplex, for example, will carry not just the existing three national stations, Talk Radio, Classic FM and Virgin AM, but up to six others, when it launches sometime around September 1999.

The numbers already make impressive reading. Total commercial radio audiences have increased by more than 750,000 in the past three months alone. Overall commercial radio listening has occupied the top slot for more than a year. The growth has been fuelled in part by the growing professionalism of a medium that has seen ownership contract into the hands of larger and on the whole better-run companies. Groups such as Emap Radio have redefined the way in which the medium has developed - by investing in state-of-the- art marketing, programming and training.

The best news, though, is that alongside all this development have come more, and better-structured, job opportunities. "When I started in radio in 1978, it was basically a number of small cottage industries, with no real co-ordination between all the local stations," remembers Paul Robinson, managing director of Talk Radio. "Which, of course, made it difficult to talk of radio as a career at all." But then, it was not until 1980 that the 20th local licence was awarded, in Cardiff; the first national commercial licences, such as Talk, were awarded only in 1992.

Development since than has been rapid, helped considerably by the foundation of the Radio Advertising Bureau in the same year. This industry-wide body has helped sell the medium to advertisers, with the result that a medium that in the recent past had seemed destined to account for only 2 per cent of total advertising revenue has in fact been the fastest-growing medium for each of the past four years. The forecasts continue to be revised upwards. The target initially set for radio of 5 per cent of advertising revenue, arrived at as a suitably grand, medium-term objective, is already obsolete. This revenue growth has allowed employers to invest for the future. They can develop properly thought-out career and training goals.

"I started out as a lot of my generation did, as a DJ," says Robinson. "I had a marketing job during the day and worked as a rock DJ at night. What I remember chiefly is that when I took the plunge, gave up the day job and worked in radio full time, I had to take a huge pay cut. You still need to be passionate about radio to succeed, but fortunately the pay differences are no longer so substantial, and there is now the chance to make a career within a single company."

The presence of big players and the growth of radio's commercial importance is reflected in recruitment and training schemes that are the envy of many other media people. The same care is given whether applicants are interested in positions in broadcasting, promotions, sponsorship or sales, or on the technical and new media side. The likes of Capital and Emap operate graduate recruitment programmes, for example, that are geared at producing fast track radio professionals.

"We are aware of the need to offer a clear career path," says Tracey Reid, Capital Radio's head of human resources, "and now look to promote from within wherever possible and to identify stars of the future at an early age and fast-track them through. And every year the calibre of applicants seems to improve." Graduates taken on by Capital, Emap and other big groups can expect all the perks of big company employment, including competitive salaries, pension and share option schemes, and comprehensive training. Talk Radio, for example, runs individual appraisal systems that aim to match every member of staff with the appropriate skills course. But then, training is more important in radio than in many careers simply because of the variety of skills demanded. Flexibility and an ability to work across disciplines are now almost as important ingredients for success as the passion for radio that drives the applicants in the first place. "Individuals must possess a wide range of skills because the job may change even as the day goes on," reckons Simon Cooper, director of human resources at GWR, the company that operates Classic FM and a total of 28 local stations, and employs almost a quarter of the entire commercial radio workforce. "At one small commercial radio station, the afternoon presenter sells commercials in the morning. At another, one presenter makes commercials while her own programme is being broadcast through an automated playout system. The future radio person will be a jack of all trades and master of all."

They will also be a part of a success story that, with increasing competition and fragmentation, just keeps on growing.