Commercial Radio Bleating


I saw this tweet and had mixed feelings. The whole issue has me a bit torn.

I’m not a big fan of commercial radio slagging off the BBC. The beeb makes excellent radio programmes. They’re made by passionate people and funded the tune of £460m a year. It combines this quality with an amazing distribution network (national analogue coverage, DAB coverage, digital television, streaming and listen again) and strong marketing on television, radio, outdoor and online. This results in high listening figures and strong audience appreciation. As it should.

Commercial radio, on the other hand… geez where to begin. All 250+ stations in the commercial radio network, generated, last year, in total,  £515m in revenue. For this money it has to run interruptions to its programmes – adverts, sponsorships etc. It also has to maintain over 100 more buildings than the BBC. It has to spend a great deal of money generating this revenue – sales people etc. It also has to make a profit (or at the least not make a loss). At the same time commercial radio has no national FM pop network. Indeed it only has one national FM network at all – a classical music service – Classic FM.

It takes on the BBC’s pop networks – Radio 1 and Radio 2 – in each local market. Due to the regulatory structure it has to field around 200 individual competitors to Moyles and Wogan in TSAs that range from 50k people to 10m. Listeners make no distinction between how stations are funded (why should they care) they just want to listen to what suits them best. The vast majority of commercial radio stations currently lose money.

If you own one of these local radio stations is it any wonder that you look at the BBC with envy? Don’t you think, if you could, you might try and remove one of the many clubs that beats you into the ground?

An easy response is “They knew what they were getting into when they bid for the licence”. Partly. There’s a recession on you know, that has somewhat affected how well stations do. Even the good ones. Plus the BBC’s stations can (and do) change quite significantly. When people won their licences, mostly around ten years ago, Radio 2 did something different. It was a radio station that attracted an older audience. It now adds younger listeners faster than any demographic. It is, without question, a younger sounding radio station than it was ten years ago. I’m sure a number of commercial radio business plans did not predict that the Radio 2 tanks would be so far on their lawn that the shed’s looking threatened.

I’m not denying that Radio 2 is an excellent radio station. It is! But you look at a show like Alan Carr and Emma Forbes’ ‘getting ready to go out’ show and it doesn’t exactly emit Reithian qualities, does it? If you run a TSA of 250k and run a ‘getting ready to go out’ show for 25 to 44s how are you expected to compete with a programme on the BBC that’s promoted on TV, ad free, presented by two well known and talented presenters, on any radio platform you may want to consume it on and plays songs, all of which, would appear on Heart.

So if you’re a commercial radio station you have the option of doing your own version or counter-scheduling. And should a commercial radio station, of which this kind of show is there bread and butter, be forced by Radio 2 to put on something else?

But, I suppose if we follow Nicky’s advice we should just let the DJ have more freedom and that would fix all the problems. Yeah right.

There are two reasons why local radio DJs don’t talk as much as presenters at BBC stations.

1. They’re not as good.

I’m not saying they’re rubbish at all. But if you’re on a national BBC network you are, of course, going to be better. Commercial radio will be playing catch up.

2. They have to play adverts.

Ads are interruptions to music. It’s not ads that listeners find annoying, it’s interruptions to the bits ‘they like’. This can be a duff song, an over-long link or a presenter they don’t like. In commercial radio we’re already doing ten (often more) minutes of interruption an hour, with the rest of the time, what are you going to do? You’re a music radio station. The most sensible thing to do is play more music – and that’s music that you know your listeners like. The alternative is to talk more and play a few more unfamiliar songs. This increases the chances of listeners finding more bits they don’t like. I’m over-simplifying this, but at a BBC station you have those ten minutes more to play with; to do things that might not work, or play a song that might not be familiar and still have the same level appreciation as a commercial radio station that has to be perfect in the ears of listeners for the other 50minutes.

This was only going to be a short post….

What BBC radio does cannot be compared to commercial radio. It’s like comparing apples and formica tables. Radio 1 online has  more staff than the whole of XFM and Capital FM’s on-air and on-line production team . I’m not saying that Radio 1 shouldn’t be allowed to make great websites, i’m just saying that the two sides are actually completely different industries.

There is no doubt that commercial radio could do a better job in some areas. However when you look at what’s stacked against it, it’s really amazing it can do as well as it does.

The reasons it complains about the BBC is because even if it succeeds in the smallest of its suggested changes the effects are  potentially huge. Moving Radio 2’s average age  just ten years older would probably allow a decent number of stations to return to profitability. We’re not talking about Murdoch-style dominance. We’re talking about local radio stations being able to exist.

Actually I think what annoys me most about Nicky’s tweet (and the other BBC staffers who re-tweeted it) is what they’re actually doing is dismissing as idiots the people who are trying to make entertaining radio on miniscule budgets in super-small areas in a massive recession.

I own a loss-making, little radio station. It’s currently losing less money than it’s ever lost before and with a prevailing wind i’d hope we could turn that into a small profit by the end of the year. We are a national radio station for children under ten. We try not to bleat about ‘the situation we’re in’, we, like most people in commercial radio just get on with trying to do what we can and make an interesting, popular radio station. I try not to think too much about the BBC’s kids radio output. What they do is excellent and what they spend on it (compared to what we can afford to spend) is Brewsters-Millions-style huge. I can’t think about it too much, otherwise the envy would become all-consuming. And to exist, it’s something I have to compete with.

The BBC recently moved the majority of their kids radio programming to breakfast time.  This is, potentially, like most commercial stations, the slot where we can make the most money. There was no consultation for the programme change or a market-value test investigating whether they should be allowed to concentrate the majority (of the large amount) of money that they spend into a show that competes directly with the most important part of the only commercial radio competitor.

Nicky – letting my DJs ‘be more creative’ won’t help me fix this new problem.

I have not ‘bleated’ about this – until now. I’d hope you’d allow us (and other radio stations who have to satisfy different audiences, in different ways, to survive) to be able to suggest (with evidence) that it’s not your existence that threatens us it’s your ability to change, grow and get stronger, whilst simultaneously being able to pull the rug from under our feet, using our money.

6 thoughts on “Commercial Radio Bleating”

  1. Nice post, and – like some political blogs – far more reasonable than the attack dogs representing the organisation at the top (be it party or RadioCentre.)

    Gloria Hunniford expresses shock about Chris Evans being too young for R2 breakfast. He’s 43. She was 41 when she started on R2 (and Wogan was an oft-quoted 34 when he started). R2 is still doing radio by and for 40-somethings.. it’s just that they’ve changed (hugely) in the past quarter century.

    In short.. I don’t think Radio 2’s changed any more than the middle-aged (and increasingly the elderly) population as a whole. It’s the one which is sticking to its turf. Commercial radio had a hell of a job attracting 40+ before the Gold splits of the late 80s. It now has a market position among them and maybe there’s an argument for saying R2 should just wither and die with its current audience: deal with the market failure and abandon populism.

    But I reckon it’s disingenuous to claim it’s making huge strides ever younger.

  2. A great considered piece. The points you make could be debated endlessly, and probably will as long as we have BBC radio which we all pay something towards.

    Even as a commercial radio fanboy (because I think that’s what I am) I have ‘tweated’ many times along the same lines as Nicky Campbell this week (and the clock’s only just moved to Wednesday). But my reason to get the ‘bleaters’ to shut up is that the commercial radio industry is coming across so poorly it would be better saying nothing. Seriously, tell your colleagues to shut up.

    It’s a shame I’m saying that because this much radio chatter hasn’t been in the news for years. But Commercial Radio is a commercial business and it’s killing itself every time it’s quoted somewhere. It doesn’t need the BBC, Wogan, Moyles or Evans to do it; it’s doing it to itself.

    The week started with Richard Park effectively suggesting that he’d love to take Jamie & Harriet national at breakfast but can’t and that blasted BBC etc. etc. If you’re a listener to Heart in, say, Norwich, what did that suggest to you that the boss of your local radio station thinks about the shows he’s putting on for you? If you’re a local advertiser in Norwich what impression does it give of the radio station you’re thinking about spending some of your limited marketing budget on? If you’re an agency-type in London you now think you should stick your cash on Heart London and forget the network (because it’s not as good as the London programme, is it?). And if you’re The City aren’t you glad Global Radio isn’t traded because your investment might have just tanked.

    Then we have the Moyles longest-innings, Wogan going, they-won’t-like Evans stories. Commercial Radio continues to complain about BBC salaries, changing targets of Radios 1 & 2 and how Moyles v Evans is bad for ‘the listener’. Nick Farrari sat on Newsnight last night moaning about the BBC; going as far as to suggest the BBC would show a promo for one of their stations after the programme which wasn’t very fair, competition wise. If I was any of those listeners, advertisers or agency people I would have come away thinking commercial radio can’t be very good can it? Ferrari’s a talk radio broadcaster used to twisting the point to say what he has to say and he had a prime(ish)-time national slot. He should have been championing the fantastic programming on commercial radio and how it was brilliant that all this great programming cost the listener nothing.

    Now you may argue that this is really a lobbying exercise. Listeners & advertisers won’t take these words to heart (excuse the pun) but the government may hear. But Commercial Radio is leaving the impression (intended or otherwise) to 5 million Evans listeners and 7 million Moyles listeners that they shouldn’t have those shows. That could be 12 million people who don’t listen to Commercial Radio hearing somebody suggesting the programmes they love shouldn’t be there. Commercial Radio won’t be helped by alienating 12 million people, many of whom may come out saying to their MP – possibly in an election year – that Radios 1 & 2 should be kept as they are.

    By its very nature Commercial Radio is a business and no business has a right to exist. It has to prove itself worthy of its customers. It has to show it provides something somebody wants. And, moreover, Commercial Radio is a media business. Any forward-thinking business, when faced with a glut of news about its industry would be spinning the positives; proving why we should be sampling their product and selling themselves. But, as Nicky Campbell said, Commercial Radio is bleating about how unfair the world is.

    Lobby in private. In public shout about great Commercial Radio is.

  3. Hi Matt,

    Enjoyed reading this post, but think you might have Campbell wrong on one point, which changes the context of his argument. Did he not mean the RadioCentre should stop bleating, rather than everyone in commercial radio should stop bleating?

    The RadioCentre is certainly bleating at the moment, and if Nicky didn’t mean them, then I’d be hard pressed to work out who else in commercial radio he could be talking about. Maybe Richard Park, as he’s been the most vocal recently about the BBC.

    The thing is, you are certainly not, and that’s why if someone like you were a spokesman for commercial radio, it would have a lot more credibility. Not wanting to sound like a brown nose, you have an obvious enthusiasm, drive and positivity – qualities that the current leaders of the commercial radio sector do not have. They lack inspiration.

    And because of that, that’s why I think both Nicky AND yourself are right.

    The RadioCentre *do* need to change the record, because whether they are right or wrong, their current position is clearly having NO effect on matters. And where I think you’re wrong is that the argument about local stations knowing what they’re getting into from the start does stand up. They are a business, and they know there will be bad times and good. If local stations couldn’t see that they could be affected by the BBC changing the formats of their stations 10 years ago, then how did they not see what had happened to Radio 1 and the old Radio 5 at the start of the 90s?

    And while the BBC has an income, it doesn’t stop the cost of the paper for the photocopier, the utility bills and other overheads increasing – so unless there’s a rise in the licence fee, the programming spend could be hit too, just like the commercials (though I don’t know the intricate details of how the BBC’s accounting works, so this is just an expectation).

    Alan Carr and Emma Forbes isn’t a Reithian programme by any yardstick (or even a good programme, going by my first experience of the programme last weekend, but that’s just my opinion), but the BBC has a duty to entertain as well as educate and inform. As long as the schedule has a mix of programmes with those Reithian values in it, then I think that is a fair balance. Commercial radio HAD Emma Forbes on their books and let her go. Can anyone see Alan Carr signing up for commercial radio in Plymouth, Wales or Kettering? ‘Stars’ of that nature are realistically only going to sign for London stations or national stations – and not necessarily for salary reasons – profile and location are more often than not equally, if not more important factors. Is that the BBC’s fault too?

    And the point about commercials having 10 minutes less an hour to connect with a listener, resulting in more music – I can see the thinking in this argument, but that is where the problem lies.

    All the talk at radio conferences is ‘We have to take more risks’. Well, here’s your opportunity. Either claim back some of that 10 minutes an hour for interesting content, OR leave that 10 minutes as it is, and try things in the other 50 minutes in the hour. Yes, it will either cost some money or listeners. But it doesn’t have to be forever, and it is a RISK that radio leaders always say they should be taking.

    But that doesn’t happen, and a great place to experiment – overnights and early breakfasts – often have no advertising, but they become mainly networked and automated wastelands. But if it’s so hard to experiment in other areas of the schedule, why not here?

    I don’t know the size of Radio 1’s online team is. But even if it is bigger than XFM and Capital’s team: 1. Why have Global decided to expect good radio programmes without producers? 2. Someone (the BBC? the Trust? the Government?) have decided that one of the BBC’s priorities should be to help develop a digital Britain. They have also correctly identified what they need to do prepare for the future in creating an online presence which is why there is money invested in that area, and that includes Radio 1.

    I think what I am saying here, is that I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but disagree with what you see as the causal factors. The best thing, and where I really have to congratulate you is that you are doing exactly what the rest of the commercial industry should be doing – not bleating, doing something interesting, different, doing it cleverly and being individual – and being better than the BBC on limited resources. Honestly, you do kids radio better than they do, and Nights on Fun Kids is great as well. I think it would be unfair if Nicky Campbell was including you in the bleaters, but I really think the point he was making was at the RadioCentre, and the industry leaders in commercial radio, but even if he wasn’t, those criticisms could hardly be leveled at you, as I think you are doing exactly what he would suggest.

    Sorry, it’s late and got a bit carried away…

  4. Good points – but just to clarify: I have a sneaky feeling that the Radio 1 online team have significantly more staff than the entire Interactive and Online teams of most large Commercial operators.

    I guess the only way to cope with that situation is a combination of concentrating on core editorial as well as doing some innovative stuff.

    Commercial radio has an advantage over the Beeb in this area in that it *can* move a lot faster to do new things.

  5. I’m a freelancer who’s only ever done this for the love of it, which is just as well because I’ve never earnt any money other than exenses. Having seen both sides of the Beeb/ILR divide I wholeheartedly agree with your comparisons/differences between the two. I would still rather be at the Beeb any day. What might allow its editorial and production input to be generally more creative, the lack of outside commercials pressure, equally makes it lazy. How many local BBC stations are still stuck in the dark ages, aiming at a very limited, ageing demographic?
    One other thought. Back in the early noughties, I remember vividly a conversation with the station manager at the ILR I freelanced for. He was striving for ways to improve his listening figures (aren’t we all) and the phrase \a local version of Radio 2\ was , it seemed to me, the perfect starting point. However, and it seems this is the case in many ILRs around the country, he instead took the tried and trusted route – cut your overheads (staff), play more of the same old same old music and hope your advertisers keep on board. Needless to say it didn’t work.
    The Beeb just needs to think about spreading it huge budget more widely around the country, if it really wants to make programmers feel valued

  6. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for a really insightful post, and I’d echo what others have said that it’s this level of debate that needs to be occurring.

    I’m ex-*BBC*, so I probably broadly fall into their camp; but equally I’m *ex*-BBC (a decision I made, I up’d sticks and left) because I didn’t like what I saw happening.

    I’d make the following points:

    The commercial sector needs to justify why it should be allowed to exist. Would we have any time for the private school sector if they ran to government complaining because state schools were too good and putting them out of business? If, as recent research suggests, a majority of the population are generally happy with paying their licence fee in return for the output the BBC provides, is it right that it should be ‘damaged’ because it is hurting a competing service?

    Within that, I think there needs to be clarity about what commercial vs the BBC actually means. BBC output is made by a range of commercial organisations, who compete to produce that content. There’s an argument that says that should be increased, but the notion that commercial organisations do not prosper under the BBC is a misnomer.

    But, let’s take competing radio stations…

    For this argument to be fair, there needs to be justification that the spot-ads/sponsorship approach to making commercial radio successful will actually work. If Rupert Murdoch is pulling back from freely-distributed media, albeit different ‘platforms’ and ITV and Channel 4 are both struggling (and not just because of the recession) then I’d say there has to be concern about whether the structure is viable. Damaging the BBC just to maintain an outdated model of commercial operation isn’t fair either.

    And, I’d argue, you can’t simply say this is an argument of BBC vs commercial radio. You need to include the new music services like Last.FM and Spotify; music stations on TV; not to mention hardware such as the iPod/mp3 player and even listening to music stored on a computer. Because, personally speaking, they are my go-to destinations if I want music to distract me throughout the day. A job that radio used to do.

    It’s not just music either. How long are traffic bulletins really going to continue to get broadcast on the radio, when SatNav’s with live-traffic information become universal? Etc, etc…

    My point being that commercial radio’s loss of audience isn’t wholly to do with the BBC. It’s unfair that the BBC should have to take the blame in the way the RadioCentre have presented it.

    From a personal point of view, I’ve tried listening to commercial radio station. I really have. But, aside from a few exceptions, I really struggle to listen for long because of the adverts. They are shouty and endlessly repetitive. Maybe years ago we weren’t so annoyed by them, but now (with preset buttons and a control panel on my steering column) I’ll flick between stations and CDs when the adverts get too much. So, other than Jonathan Ross and the Mark Radcliffe/Stuart Maconie shows that I opt to listen to, most of my Radio 2 listening is because I end up there having got annoyed by the competition. Even Spotify is annoying me and I’ve gone back to Last.Fm because it is advert free.

    So my question is, do you think a reduction in BBC listening would equal a like-for-like increase in commercial radio listening? I certainly think it would rise, but I struggle to believe that if Radios 1 & 2 were shut down everyone who listened to them would start listening to commercial radio.

    And, if that is the case, I’m not sure who that benefits.


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