The Media Column: Commercial radio is enjoying a revival – and it’s not because of Chris Moyles

The balance of power has shifted.

Chris Moyles will no doubt seek credit for the fact that, for the first time in 15 years, commercial radio is attracting bigger audiences than BBC stations. The arrival of Moyles at Radio X in September coincided with a revival in the fortunes of the commercial sector, happily for a presenter who dubbed himself the “saviour of Radio 1” during his long reign at the BBC station once known as “the nation’s favourite”.

He has attracted 300,000 London listeners to his breakfast show at the Global-owned station (formerly called Xfm) but, more important, his launch campaign – based on The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” video – generated enough controversy and interest to put ad-funded radio back in the spotlight.

It’s not long ago that this was a stricken media sector, happy to present itself as cruelly shoved aside by the BBC, rather like those bruised pedestrians in Moyles’s aggressive Verve parody. It railed at the once fusty BBC Radio 2, which has become younger and bigger after filling its schedule with presenters familiar to television audiences: Dermot O’Leary, Jeremy Vine, Vanessa Feltz, Claudia Winkleman and, most of all, Chris Evans. 

When Evans took over the Radio 2 breakfast show from Terry Wogan in 2010 and quickly built a younger mass audience, commercial radio bleated that the BBC had stolen its bacon and eggs. Breakfast, along with drive-time, is the most important slot of the day for stations that are sustained  by advertising.

But the balance of power has shifted. Figures produced by industry body Rajar last week showed that commercial radio reached 35.1 million people in the final quarter of 2015, compared to a combined BBC audience of 34.9 million. It was the first time the ad-funded sector had beaten the public broadcaster since the end of 2000, shortly after BBC strategist Jim Moir began repositioning Radio 2.

So what is happening here? First,  Radio 1 is getting smaller – its audience  fell by a further 100,000 last year as it followed its remit of specifically targeting under-30s. Its controller, Ben Cooper,  likes to say at industry events that he is the only radio boss who gets congratulated for falling ratings, as older listeners set aside their baseball caps and shuffle off elsewhere.

Radio 1 still struggles to bring down its average listening age from 31, partly because Rajar doesn’t count its one million-strong audience of 10- to 14-year-olds, drawn in by the likes of Nick Grimshaw and Clara Amfo. But the station – which is as focused on the iPlayer and YouTube video platforms as it is on radio – has changed significantly since Moyles left in 2012.

The much criticised BBC Trust, which listened to commercial radio concerns over the BBC’s publicly funded expansion, deserves credit for its role in realigning Radio 1 and Radio 2. We see from the Rajar figures that commercial radio’s ratings at breakfast have improved considerably, with Absolute Radio’s Christian O’Connell and the Kiss breakfast team both delivering record audiences for Bauer Media Group. 

Bauer (alongside partners Arqiva and UTV Media) will this month launch the Sound Digital network, making 18 more stations available on national DAB radio, ranging from the children’s Fun Kids to Planet Rock and a Christian music channel. This is hardly the activity of a sector under threat.

Global, which operates from London’s Leicester Square and is the largest business in a much-consolidated industry, enjoyed record total audiences of 24.1 million in the last quarter.

These two commercial giants have been skilled in giving brands such as Capital and Heart (Global) and Kiss and Magic (Bauer) a national footprint through a network of stations, which each retain a distinct identity or regional voice.

The entire commercial radio gamut amounts to around 300 stations, compared with the BBC’s p ortfolio of 11 national stations and around 40 local ones. When you look at it like that, it’s not such a surprise that commercial radio has more listeners. BBC local radio, which mainly caters to an older audience and has not been immune to recent BBC budget cuts, has lost more than 300,000 listeners in the past year.

Figures released last week showed that advertising on radio rose by 3.6 per cent  in the third quarter of 2015, with 4.2 per cent growth expected this year. Compared with the newspaper industry, which is watching its ad revenues heading south, commercial radio has a stable future. It will further benefit from the increased availability of DAB radio in cars, with  easy-to-use converters being made available on the high street.

Technological changes have brought challenges in the shape of new competition from the plethora of online radio stations broadcasting from coffee shops, restaurants and back bedrooms, and from global music streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer.

But radio is a medium that’s suited to modern multitasking lifestyles, and ratings have no doubt benefited from the ubiquity of smartphones and the fashion for designer headphones. “It’s interesting that, with the explosion of choice and music streaming, the 15- to 24-year-olds are still using radio as a first way of discovering music,” says Siobhan Kenny, chief executive of RadioCentre, the body that campaigns for the commercial industry.

The sector has genuine bugbears. You can understand why it is lobbying Brussels to end those ridiculous garbled terms and conditions that conclude so many radio ads, and replace them with something more audible and succinct.

But at the same time we should be wary of giving too much credence to claims by RadioCentre, in a submission to the BBC’s Charter renewal process, that the BBC’s output is insufficiently distinctive. Radio 1’s service to the UK music industry (which supplies 60 per cent of its music) is simply not matched by commercial stations, which give more prominence to global pop. In June last year, for instance, Radio 1 played 4,000 different tracks, compared with Capital’s 400, according to one BBC study.

Radio 2 features arts and documentaries alongside a breadth of music genres that you won’t find anywhere in the commercial world. And let’s not forget that the BBC’s work on iPlayer paved the way for the popular Radioplayer platform, which hosts 400 UK stations.

Industry analyst Matthew Hook, MD at the media agency Carat, says that the BBC’s public service remit, free of money-making pressures, has helped it to pioneer services that the commercial sector is now able to capitalise on.

But he said that the BBC, awaiting a government White Paper on its future, “has lost some of its momentum owing to budget pressures, political pressures and funding uncertainties”. While ad-funded radio is “more buoyant and able to invest in talent and new stations”, the BBC’s hiring of big-name presenters “is under heavy scrutiny”.

The BBC has many rivals and plenty are looking to take advantage of its current vulnerability. Commercial radio, an old adversary, should not be among them – it is coping well enough.

Arise News struggles to stay awake

Arise News, the ambitious global news channel set up in studios overlooking Trafalgar Square by the flamboyant media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, appears to be in its death throes. Having stuttered on and off air in recent weeks, it has vanished from the Sky electronic programme guide, on channel 519, just below Russia Today and other news channels it was set up to emulate.

Arise – which also had studios in New York and Lagos – went on air in 2013 and assembled an experienced team of British journalists, many of whom now fear they will not receive around £1m in unpaid wages. More than 60 are taking legal action against Mr Obaigbena, cases that he is contesting. He is also being pursued in the courts by Reuters and the London-based production company DMA Media, whose chairman is the former BBC News chief Richard Sambrook.

“What a tragic end,” said one contributor to a Facebook page for Arise workers. “We had the best team in the business.” 

Mr Obaigbena, who has been pictured with Tony Blair and George W Bush, was recently questioned by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission over the diversion of money from a £2.1bn investment fund intended for arms procurement. He denies any wrongdoing and says he received government money in compensation for a terror attack by Boko Haram on his business.

In what has become a familiar refrain,  the man known as “The Duke” has promised Arise workers that the station will be “back next week”.

An Abell return for the TLS?

The Sun delivered a good scoop last week, exposing the cosy relationship between the charity Age UK and energy supplier E.on. It was the kind of serious but populist news story that would appeal to Tony Gallagher, the new editor. 

But the paper might be about to lose Stig Abell, the managing editor, who, for the past two and a half years, has fought hard to protect the red top’s reputation during turbulent times at publisher News UK.

Rumours suggest the bookish Abell, a former director of the old Press Complaints Commission regulator, will stay within the company and move to the Times Literary Supplement, for which he once wrote reviews. Abell, who also hosts a Sunday morning show on the national talk radio station LBC, said he “can’t possibly comment” on the speculation.

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