The One Before the Post Bashing Commercial Radio

After the attempted comedy post below, Frankie posted a comment with, I guess, his reasons why commercial radio is rubbish. Which is a shame. As it’s forced me to respond to his points, when actually I was going to make some points about where commercial radio should make some improvements. Right, that’s delayed again, here goes the rebuttal…

1. Adverts are annoying, interruptive and repetitive.

I have to declare an interest though, the reason I and many of my friends can eat and pay the rent is down to radio commercials, many, i’m shocked to reveal are for double-glazing firms.

Given the choice, listeners, viewers, whoever, would rather there weren’t any adverts on radio, television and online. They do however understand why they exist – and that’s to pay for the content.

I’ve been trying to find online some research that was presented to me by Arbitron. Arbitron do the radio ratings for many countries and they’ve recently been testing a people-meter, a device that measures per second consumption – something that’s perfect to see when people turn over (and what to). What was presented was that there was a far greater turn-off when the station played songs people didn’t like than there was for ad-breaks.

Indeed, if ads were such a turn-off, Capital’s reduction down to two ads in a row would have instantly transformed its output. Indeed the same thing would have happened to the ClearChannel stations who halved their ads. Did it? No.

2. DJs are mostly annoying, don’t care about the music (‘that was, this is’), and chat inane shit. 

Everyone’s very passionate about the radio. It’s not surprising really. Radio as a medium is consumed by 90% of the UK population and together listeners consume 1billion hours of it a week. That’s an average of 24 hours each week per person. Keep that in mind

In the UK we’re lucky to have a good selection of radio stations that provide a wide variety of different formats. Are there more opportunities to provide niches? Absolutely. Do we have analogue and DAB spectrum to cater for them all? Sadly not. So, lets have a look at what is consumed at the moment.

For simplicity, i’ve not-very-scientifically created three categories – BBC Pop, Commercial Pop and Speech. BBC Pop is quite simple and combines Radios 1 and 2. Commercial Masintream combines all the stations that take the network charts i.e. Hit40UK, The A List and Fresh 40. This would combine Kiss, Capital, local heritage FM stations, Heart etc. It’s not a perfect combination but they’re basically the local mainstream radio stations (youth to adult-contemporary). Speech combines Radio 4, Five Live, talkSPORT and all the BBC Locals. Now, I know these aren’t perfect combinations, some commercial stations are different and BBC locals have a lot of music shows too. However, it’s not a bad representation and together these groupings represent 87% of all radio listening.

  • Speech (28% share)
  • Radios 1 and 2 (26% share)
  • Commercial Mainstream (24% share)

What this crow-barring is also designed to prove is that, guess what, people like different types of radio. The three main groupings are quite close to each other in the number of hours generated, so to decry one grouping as being rubbish is a little unfair and insulting to the people who consume it.

Generally the ‘Commercial Mainstream’ group are the stations that Frankie’s referring to They’re the ones where the DJs are “mostly annoying, don’t care about the music (‘that was, this is’), and chat inane shit”. They’re also the ones where the “music comes from a restrictive playlist which is designed to give a predictable mix for anyone tuning in for an hour, but will drive anyone insane who listens all day long”.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with Frankie’s opinion, it’s just that it’s not shared by a big chunk of radio listeners. There’s a group of people who love to hear music with chat, something that Radios 1 and 2 do very well. They also have the scale to get (and pay for) the best talent. Moyles, Edith, Mills, Zane Lowe and Chris Evans are all great talent, they’re expensive and they’re all people who worked first in commercial radio. Anyway, part of the reason that commercial stations don’t have much chat and the “that was, that is” style is to provide a different choice to its main competitor. It’s also because many commercial radio stations have to squeeze in ten minutes of speech an hour in the form of adverts. Ads and R1/R2-style ‘chatter’ would mean the music would only make up about 35mins a hour, something that wouldn’t go down very well with most listeners. Massive chunks of listeners want ‘more music’ from their stations and that’s not a bad group to try and own.

3. Music comes from a restrictive playlist which is designed to give a predictable mix for anyone tuning in for an hour, but will drive anyone insane who listens all day long.

Restrictive playlists are a pretty standard criticism of mainstream stations and for heavy listeners that can absolutely be a problem. However, as the audience figures say, on average people listen to about three hours a day of the radio and that’s mostly when they get up and then when they’re on the way home – that’s about an hour and half each way. And, you know what? When lots of people tune into the radio they want to hear their favourite songs. Which is why this week you’ll hear a lot of Take That’s Shine, Mika’s Grace Kelly, Kaiser Chief’s Ruby, Razorlight’s America and Kelis’ Little Star on commercial radio.

Once again there’s nothing wrong if you don’t like those songs or think they’re overplayed, but for a lot of people they’re the embodiment of current. They’re their favourite songs and they want to hear them on their favourite radio station.

4. Local traffic reports all the fucking time.

It’s a brave man that takes on travel news. It consistently ranks as one of the most important parts of any local radio station. It’s a key thing that makes people tune back as it provides essential information for huge amounts of people. As a Londoner your relationship with travel news is very different. The size of the coverage area for the main London stations (10m+) and the large public transport network make London travel reporting a very different kettle of fish. Escape to the local areas though and it’s very different. ‘Timely traffic’, for example, beat ‘best music’ and ‘best presenter’ for the reasons people tuned to breakfast radio in a market I recently looked at.

5. Crrraaazzzy competitions where the dj tries desperately to get the contestant to scream when they’ve won

When you’ve been plugging away getting listeners to guess the sound of a fence opening for eight days, you’ll want the buggers to scream their heads off when they’ve won.

6 thoughts on “The One Before the Post Bashing Commercial Radio”

  1. Hey, well done for responding to my slightly flippant and ashamedly-obvious piece of comment baiting with a well-argued rebuttal.

    Clearly, the fact that people do listen to commercial radio in large numbers is undeniable (although I’d be interested to know the overlap between BBC and commercial radio reach – how many people are commercial radio refuseniks?)

    Something that led me to my comment about the minimalistic commercial radio DJs was having recently heard Magic (in a cab I think) proudly announce ‘less chat, more music’. As it’s such a popular station, this seems to indicate that a major chunk of people want less DJ intervention and more nonstop music. Indeed, a few of my friends used to drive me incessantly mad by changing station everytime a DJ piped up, until they found one playing music again. This, combined with the popularity of big-name talent on R1 & R2 (and to a certain extent some of the big commercial brands too), suggests two diverging poles in the styles of radio: personality based ‘shows’ which you tune in specifically for, and devote more attention to, and music stations primarily listened to as the background to other activities (optimised for an average listening period, as you mention). Whilst both serve a purpose, I’d warrant that the latter is more vulnerable to displacement by music tv channels, iPods, and internet music streams.

    This is intuition though, and not based on the detailed research you’ve digested.

    As to traffic reports – you’re right that it’s the public-transport-using Londoner in me that finds them so alien. I never even understand most of the jargon and locations they mention…

    Look forward to your next post! 🙂


  2. People don’t dislike advertising. They dislike bad advertising. The answer is to make better ads.

    Copyright somebody else whose name escapes me but who is probably a copywriter.

  3. You say…

    If ads were such a turn-off, Capital’s reduction down to two ads in a row would have instantly transformed its output.

    Don’t believe the hype. What Capital’s reduction down to two ads in a row did, of course, was increase the amount of interruptions for ads. Hardly a winning programming idea; and one which has, to the best of my knowledge, never demonstrably shown any listener-figure increase anywhere in the world.

    While I agree with Steve’s point above, that the standard of many radio (and TV) ads are excreble – try for a particularly good example – it doesn’t also tell the whole story; but that’s a blog post for me to make, not one to bolster yours! 😉

  4. I work for one of those annoying local radio stations… Beacon Radio. And in my experience

    People don’t mind adverts as long they are about something they want to about hear/buy.

    People don’t mind hearing the same song over and over again as long as it’s the song they want to hear.

    People don’t mind listening to a DJ talk if he/she is telling them something that they talking about/interested in hearing an opinion.

    And People don’t mind hearing lots of traffic/news as long as they are being told stories that effect them personally be it taxes or busy roads.

    We programme radio stations for specific people/groups/tsa’s… if you don’t fall into the one a particular station is talking to then you won’t like it and turn over.


  5. Moonie, just wondering if English is your third language (nothing wrong with that mind you), or if you are just a total moron?

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