Leading Article: A lesson from Radio 1's loss of listeners

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The Independent Online
RESEARCH confirms that radio is, for most people, a more intimate and personal medium than television. People tune in when driving, cooking, ironing - and often when in a bath or bed. The radio becomes a friend - and no one likes it when friends suddenly change. The BBC's management knows this well enough, and is proud of its listeners' loyalties. Yet it does not always seem very sensitive in the manner in which change is introduced (a failing of which this newspaper has probably also been guilty).

The most striking switch in listening habits revealed in yesterday's rating figures is Radio 1's drop from an audience share of 22.4 per cent in 1992 to 17.1 per cent last year. In the same period the corporation's other national, regional and local stations, including Radio 3, either held their own or increased their market share.

Admittedly Radio 1 was already in decline - and faced stiff competition from new commercial stations, including Virgin 1215, Richard Branson's national rock radio. But part of the slump in listeners is attributed to last year's brutal weeding out of several middle-aged but popular Radio 1 DJs, including Simon Bates and Dave Lee Travis.

The BBC argued, logically enough, that changes were needed to attract a new generation of listeners and make Radio 1 more distinctive (meaning, decoded, to save it from being privatised or obliged to take advertising). Perhaps, however, fewer faithful listeners would have been lost if change had been introduced more gradually.

A similar somewhat doctrinaire insensitivity was revealed in the BBC's plans, subsequently abandoned after vigorous protests, to use Radio 4 long wave for a continuous news network. Rolling news will now, with not much more explanation, supersede the educational component of the newish Radio 5. Change is necessary, but the BBC's own interests demand that due regard be paid to safeguarding that intimate relationship with listeners.