All radio stations are not created equal. Talent, content budgets, marketing, positioning, distribution, coverage and heritage all vary. For stations to grow, these elements have to exist in the right quantities, alongside a decent dollop of luck too.
Like anything, we often analyse failure but rarely interrogate success. We’re so relieved that something’s gone well, we just celebrate it. For disaster on the other hand, we have post-mortems, lessons learned and blame storming sessions. It seems that’s probably the wrong way round. Understanding why something works is probably significantly more valuable.
For a few years I had a standard section I trotted out when I went to speak at radio conferences around the world. It was a good ‘bit’ because pretty much every market in the world was the same, and audiences could (hopefully) relate to what as I was saying. I also got to have a bit of a go at the audience, always fun, before I then won them all back. Mostly.
The bit talked about how in the analogue world I felt that most stations had put way too much emphasis on their success coming from their programming, and less about how they were usually the monopoly provider of a format, sitting on a platform with virtually no competition. That perhaps really they weren’t the best at what they were doing, and just merely the least worst option.
Of course this isn’t really a problem when you don’t have any competition, it’s only when you do, that you start to realise what you think is a beautiful palace, is actually built on shifting sands.
In the last 15 years, the growth in competition from more broadcast radio, streaming, digital platforms and the explosion of choice on the internet has generally made stations more focused on their audiences and taking a more analytical approach to their programming. But I worry that radio’s changing nature still leaves some stations generally complacent.
Some stations seem pretty invincible. Large audiences, long-term success. You look at their RAJAR figures and think “jeez, they could put tone out and still do well”. It’s generally stations with a large heritage position, that haven’t had direct competition that occupy this position. Today it also seems that they’re stations with older audiences, who are, or at least seem to be, less movable. You see this with Radios 2, 3 and 4, Classic FM, and some of the heritage ILRs in areas with little competition.
If I was at those stations, the big question I would have is how many of these listeners are attached to the button compared to those who seek out their content.
What I mean by this is what proportion of your listeners feel there isn’t anything for them anywhere else, and so will stick around regardless? It’s not quite like you could put out tone, but there isn’t much listening elasticity in their choices.
Take Chris Evans at Radio 2. He was Europe’s most successful breakfast show, well-liked, 10million listeners (give or take). However when he moved to Virgin Radio UK he only managed to take 1 million across. 9 million stuck around pressing the button they were used to.
Now, Radio 2 is no slouch and there’s lots of things that make it successful, including the music, vast array of other talent and handily no ads either. But how much is brand saliency and how much is just immovable button pushers?
Just like those analogue stations of the past, it’s easy to see why they shouldn’t think too hard, a listener’s a listener after all?
I think the big problem though is it can inhibit the onboarding of new listeners and you end up with the ageing of the existing ones. How do you know you’re attracting anyone fresh? Is your brand and programming in line with what non-listeners may like, or are you just playing to your established choir?
My partner has always had Radio 4 as part of her repertoire, I’ve never really been much of a listener. I have however sat through many network commissioning presentations about the need to find ‘replenishers’, their in-house term for new and younger listeners. They point to successes on this front each year, but there’s not real evidence of any large change.
And to be honest, they’ve never really needed to worry. Deep down they know that people get older, and (mainly) the more upmarket ones, will get more into speech radio, find there’s little else out there, so they’ll end up at Radio 4. This strategy has been far more successful than the replenisher one.
The big problem is that the ‘growing in to speech radio’ thing and ‘little else upmarket out there’ is now under serious threat.
A large section of the future Radio 4 listeners are actually getting into speech radio earlier. Particularly through podcasts. They get access to lots of high quality material, both from the UK and overseas that they incorporate into their lives. This is not going to change as they get older. There will be no future hole that they need the only upmarket speech radio station to fill.
Indeed, it’s still early days, and there hasn’t been any audience figures yet for it, but Times Radio will be a fine substitute to Radio 4’s news and current affairs programming for many.
For me, Radio 4’s issue is that they make it almost impossible to welcome new listeners to the network. As someone who has now been exposed to quite a lot of it, and not entirely out of choice, it seems to constantly force you to work at understanding how it operates. It’s like they’ve based the whole place on a feature from one of their own programmes - Mornington Crescent.
Listening to the Today programme I often wonder how it’s evolved into the structure it has and with strange features and revolving presenters. In the 8am hour a ten minute news bulletin with packages from a large cast of corespondents, a hard to listen to forensic interview that delights in a skewer more than anything else, sports bulletins with gambling tips (half of which still sound like a presenter is stuck down a well), a random package, a soft interview with some real people and faux interest from the anchors, followed by something to the top of the hour that overruns. Every. Single. Day. And it ends with a rushed finish before the pips. “Can I just ask you one more question”, Nick says at 8:59 and 21 seconds. What?
Ah, but they say, that’s the programme, you don’t understand it, that’s its charm. It’s all so very British. Well, exactly. I don’t particularly question the quality of it or the journalism, the problem is the structure, packaging and ‘in’ nature of it, makes it incredibly hard for anyone new to understand and like it.
Now, of course, yes, in the old days, this probably wouldn’t have mattered. There was no other choice. You were forced to acclimatise yourself to Today, Woman’s Hour, You and Yours, the Archers, a drama, a documentary, the food programme, PM, a panel show that’s run for 50 years etc. There was no other option.
Now though, does that assumption work? There are lots of audio options that scratch those itches, but don’t require you having to learn a station’s peculiarities.
It’s also why podcasts are perhaps a double-edged sword for the network. Much of their material works well as a podcast - speech, high quality, regular - but the danger is that instead of being an on-ramp to Radio 4 it’s really more free parking, meaning that you don’t have to engage with the rest of the board.
Now, of course, if I was at Radio 4, looking at it’s RAJAR, I probably wouldn’t worry that much and I’m sure I could point to many new programming successes. The big issue, is just like that step change when analogue radio was faced with real competition, I think we’re at a point again when the quality of content and it’s distribution means that how listeners consume radio as they get older is changing.
For any station that leans on heritage and older listeners, all the data would surely point to the fact that the expected listeners may no longer appear. Rather than following what seemed like a well worn track, this trail now seems a little more abandoned, with listeners instead happy to take different roads, perhaps oblivious to the fact they’re bypassing some old palaces.
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I know this isn't really relevant to this conversation but referring to it leads me to wondering whether after the break due to coronavirus RAJAR will still be seen as fit for purpose.