Will Radio 1 wake up to ads?

The BBC's pop station could be a money-spinner if it went commercial. It's a tempting prospect for the cash-strapped corporation, says Edwin Riddell
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Pity the poor Radio 1 Controller. There he sits, brow furrowed in Olympian concentration. Should he up the techno-rap in Mark's show? What about that promo for Dave Pearce? How to convince the chairman that Chris Evans's "In Bed With Your Boyfriend" is public service?

And all this before breakfast. After which, it's on with the director- of-radio suit and off to sort out the future of the World Service. Not to mention the small matters of Radios 2 to 5. Or digital audio broadcasting, DAB for short.

Matthew Bannister could be forgiven for reflecting that life was much simpler when he worked in commercial radio. The way things are going, it may be again. For in John Birt's increasingly strident call for more cash, Radio 1 looks a prime candidate for the role of milch cow.

Consider the facts. The latest RAJAR audience figures, under jointly agreed commercial and BBC rules, show that Radio 1 has 11 million listeners. This compares with 11.1 million at the same time last year, when Chris Evans was brought in, and 12.3 million in 1994.

On the face of it, this is disappointing. However, the feeling among the research fraternity is that the long-term decline of Radio 1's audience may now be tailing off as it stabilises around its core audience of 15- to 25-year-olds. If so, it's a prospect the advertising agencies positively salivate over.

"The environment is one advertisers would undoubtedly find attractive," says Yvonne Scullion, head of radio at Zenith Media. "It's a well-regarded national station and has a profile that's very well skewed to the under- 35s. It's a very young format when you consider what it used to sound like five years ago. The nearest equivalent is Virgin, which is much more mainstream and a lot older. Radio 1 has moved itself much younger. We've certainly got some clients who'd be very interested in using it."

"The concept of Radio 1 as an advertising medium is immensely powerful," enthuses Clive Howse, head of radio at The Media Business. Howse estimates that, based on current commercial radio comparisons, Radio 1 has the potential to earn up to pounds 100m a year from advertising. One obvious source is the music industry itself. "Look how much effort the record companies put into trying to get their product played on Radio 1 - to be able to advertise on it would be a knee-jerk reaction."

The fact is that the BBC has always felt uncomfortable with Radio 1. It was set up in the 1960s on the instigation of Harold Wilson as a sop for the government closure of the pirate radio ships. It reigned virtually unchallenged in all things pop until 1973, when commercial radio came on scene. Ever since, with increasing difficulty, it's been trying to justify its existence as a public service funded by licence fee.

Radio 1 started losing audience to Capital and the other local commercial stations in the late 1970s. It fought back with the advantages of being national, promoted by BBC TV and having recourse to lots of licence money.

The record industry liked Radio 1 because the BBC was generally the first to agree to hikes in the so-called "needle time" rates paid by broadcasters for using commercially recorded music. By the late 1980s this source of income had replaced record sales themselves as the main revenue for record companies in Britain. High rates for music had the added advantage of making life difficult for the cash-strapped local commercial stations.

It's at least arguable that Radio 1 severely hampered commercial radio development. What is beyond doubt is that it prevented commercial radio from taking a national form. Even today, there is no nationwide commercial pop station on FM.

The BBC has always argued that it needs Radio 1 to nurture a young audience. There is little evidence, though, that Radio 1 listeners go on to listen to Radio 4 or even Radio 2. Another argument used is that new British bands wouldn't be able to break through without Radio 1. Not to deny this helping hand, it raises the question of how bands such as Nirvana or Alice in Chains broke through the totally commercial radio system in the United States.

Radio 1 has always laboured under the image of the youth station run by middle-aged men in Sta-press trousers and roly-poly T-shirts who'll take away the ping-pong bats if things get out of hand. It is especially vulnerable to the peculiar Catch-22 of Corporation thinking over ratings. It goes something like this: "If we don't get high ratings, we won't get the licence fee to continue as a public service. But in order to get the licence fee, we have to do things which, self-evidently, are not public service."

This has tempted the social planners within the BBC to try to use Radio 1 as a concealed educational weapon. Slipping in a bit of health advice here, tickling the ribs with a dig at "meaningful speech" there.

Recent listening suggests that Radio 1 is at its best when just playing the music. The sore thumb is the breakfast show, in which Chris Evans and co write the scripts and also get to choose the music. This probably accounts for the grinding shift of gear after 9am when the station moves into an altogether more confident and distinctive pattern of music. At its worst, notably at peak speech periods such as breakfast time, Radio 1 is an uncertain mix of self-promotion and tacky innuendo, with occasional disturbing echoes of Wicked Uncle Ernie in Tommy.

These problems would have to be solved if Radio 1 did go commercial. The Radio Authority's chief executive, Tony Stoller, indicated at the recent Birmingham radio festival that Evans wouldn't be allowed to get away with it under their system of fines and ultimate licence revocation. For advertisers, agrees Zenith's Yvonne Scullion, "the controversial side would have to be toned down."

Privatisation outside the BBC would put a huge price-tag on Radio 1. But it wouldn't be much help to the corporation. The prospect of Radio 1 earning enough revenue to pay for virtually all the BBC's other national services, however, must be sorely tempting.