Radio enters a new golden age as digital use takes off

The digital revolution and the expansion of new ways of accessing information through the internet has given a huge boost to one of the older and more traditional forms of electronic media - the radio.

According to figures released yesterday, the digital age has created a new golden age of radio, with the number of listeners in Britain at a record high of more than 45 millionevery week.

The figure for the last three months of 2006 is the highest since Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar) began compiling records in 1992, and is attributed to growing numbers of people tuning in on the internet, digital television and mobile phones.

Rajar said almost 8 per cent of people aged 15 and above listen to the radio on their mobile phones, a 24 per cent increase over the same period of 2005. A quarter of 15- to 24-year-olds said they tuned in this way. Listening over the internet rose by 10 per cent and by 9 per cent on digital television.

Podcasts are also more popular. More than two million people, the equivalent of 17 per cent of all owners of MP3 players, listen to the audio downloads - a rise of 15 per cent on the previous three months. The figures are likely to rise as more content is made available as a podcast.

Jenny Abramsky, the BBC's director of audio and music, said: "It proves radio still plays an incredibly important part in people's lives and, despite the range of new media available, listeners continue to value the close relationship they have with radio."

The figures show a small decline in audiences for long-established BBC Radio 4 favourites The Archers and Desert Island Discs, programmes which have suffered recent upheavals and whose listeners are renowned for their loyalty and resistance to change. The Rajar figures show The Archers' weekly audience is 4.4 million, 169,000 down on the previous quarter and 197,000 less than this time last year. Desert Island Discs also registered a shortfall, with 2.54 million tuning in compared with 2.69 million 12 months ago.

However, the falls were brushed aside by the Radio 4 controller, Mark Damazer, who said such fluctuations during the year were normal. "We're very happy with the performance of the shows," he said. Radio 4's audience was 9.34 million.

Radio 2 remains the nation's favourite station with an audience of 13.27 million - up 530,000 in three months. Terry Wogan added 330,000 listeners at the end of last year, lifting the total audience for his breakfast show from 7.65 million to 7.98 million. The afternoon presenter Steve Wright added 360,000 listeners in the last quarter, taking the audience for his show from 6.15 million to 6.51 million.

Radio 1's audience of 10.26 million was down 320,000 on the previous quarter, which the station attributed to a seasonal dip. The breakfast presenter Chris Moyles bucked the trend by adding 100,000 listeners in that period to reach 6.82 million.

Jane Thynne, a broadcasting critic and writer, said BBC radio was benefiting more from the digital era than television. "The figures show that early adopters are prepared to embrace what has traditionally been seen as the more fustier of mediums.

"Radio, as something which is intensely personal, is also a much more suitable medium for podcasting than television... It's essentially what radio has been doing for a long while anyway."

The winners and losers

Winners

* Radio 2 increased its audience by 530,000 in the last three months of 2006, reaching 13.27 million listeners, the largest in the UK.

* Terry Wogan, the breakfast DJ, added 330,000 listeners, taking his total audience to 7.98m. Steve Wright, the afternoon presenter, added 360,000 listeners, taking the audience for his show to 6.51 million.

* In London, Jamie Theakston and Harriet Scott have become the capital's most popular commercial breakfast hosts, with 948,000 listeners to their Heart FM show, up 180,000.

Losers

* Kirsty Young has lost listeners since taking over from Sue Lawley as host of Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in October. Her audience was 2.54 million, compared with 2.67 million for the previous three months when Lawley was at the helm, and down from 2.69 million for the same period of 2005.

* The Archers' weekly audience on Radio 4 dropped by 169,000 to 4.44 million, down 197,000 year on year.

* Capital Radio saw its audience fall from 1.8 million in the last quarter of 2005 to 1.4 million in the same period in 2006, a drop of almost 19 per cent.

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