Same Old, Same Old?

The UK radio industry is dominated by four groups – the BBC, GCap, EMAP and Global Radio. They’ve got the highest distribution of scarce spectrum and (for the commercial ones) a hold on most of the ad revenue. They also have, I suppose quite naturally, a disproportionate influence on government, regulators etc as they make up a big part of the ‘industry’.

This means that when the ‘industry’ catches a bit of a cold, everyone’s tarred with the same brush. Just because the BBC is downsizing, GCap is restructuring, EMAP is being sold and Global have new management that needs time to think about what they’re going to do, we end up with ‘radio in trouble’ headlines. When, in fact, lots of other people are having a good time. GMG‘s rolling out a new brand and has great support from their parent company, TLRC are increasing audience and revenue and Town and Country have amazingly strong audiences and is expanding into new areas.

And that’s just the traditional ‘radio’ companies. Lots of other people from other sectors are excited about getting into radio whether that’s Channel 4 launching three big national stations or a Polish group who’ve just gone on-air in London on DAB. My firm, Folder Media, is working with lots of different existing operators about digital expansion and they’re all quite excited – no doom and gloom there.

Now i’m not saying that the big groups are rubbish, far from it. I think they’re producing some excellent content both on-air and on-line and that listeners have never had it so good from them. Their businesses though are still struggling to evolve fast enough in the face of rapid consumer change and that’s what’s causing some pain (as the largest heritage operators they’re of course affected the most). However, I don’t think the rest of us should be that worried. Well, we certainly shouldn’t be worried about them. Their job is to change or die. And if they were to die, well that’s a shame, but there’s more than enough interest to cover what they’re already doing and drive it forward.

I think one of the issues with the larger operators is that they haven’t been through much recent creative renewal. The people at the top are, generally, the same people who were there over ten years ago, many even longer. That was in an age that was pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-multi-channel and really, pre-competition.

Indeed, today, part of me sighed a little when it was announced that David Mansfield is to become Chair of RAJAR (the radio listening figures body). Now, David’s hugely knowledgeable about the radio industry and TV too. He knows what it’s like to be a radio operator and has a strong understanding of the advertising world as well. But part of me thinks that that’s just not good enough any more. The route RAJAR’s going down, with more electronic measurement and multi-platform analysis is going to cause a lot of trouble. You can’t after all change the methodology and just expect the results to stay the same. It’s going to drive advertisers and stations absolutely bonkers. And good. The media world’s changing much faster than any one in it would like. The result is that the old-schoolers hold up change, slow it down, make it not so revolutionary. Great for the short-term and absolutely rubbish for the long-term. Whilst radio is arguing about how to combine pagers and diaries, online is steaming ahead with excellent metrics across all demographics. Maybe David can straddle this challenge, but maybe the Chair could have been someone more revolutionary who doesn’t really care about the old ways and is more interested in the best ways, for the future.

I feel a bit mean picking on RAJAR and David Mansfield. I think you could substitute them both for many companies (and individuals) that make up the old radio industry. If the people running the big radio companies can’t keep up with their consumers is it time for them all to move on?