Tackling radio’s youthquake

You join me on my way home from Copenhagen where I’ve had a great day with Peter Niegel from DR and Radiodays Europe, reviewing our Podcast Day 24 conference and planning for the next one.

Peter’s day job is looking after the research for DR – Denmark’s public broadcaster. It’s always fascinating to hear what they’ve been doing. As a developed western audio market I’m always intrigued how what’s happening there is different, or the same, to what’s happening here in the UK.

We had a good discussion about young listeners and what they’re consuming, from whom and on which device. Like many broadcasters they’re grappling with what’s broadcast, what sits on owned and operated platforms and what should be on third party destinations. It’s a conversation that could be replicated in pretty much every large audio operation in the world.

I was also telling Peter about my turn at the Radio Festival last week. I’m always very conscious that I occupy an odd place in the radio industry. I’m fortunate to have been involved with it for over 20 years, but I sit outside of the main operators – commercial and BBC – though the work we do at Folder often crosses over with some of their projects.

The industry has consolidated massively since I went to my first Radio Festival in Cardiff in the 90s and I think how the industry talks to each other has changed significantly too.

At one end it’s pretty collaborative. RAJAR, digital radio and Radioplayer is everyone, commercial and BBC, all collaborating. In the commercial world, there’s also pretty close alignment around regulatory discussions.

At the other end of things, where people speak publicly, there’s perhaps a more guarded discussion about the nature of the business. In the margins, and privately, there’s more openness about challenges that people are facing – but the difference between the two is sometimes quite striking.

There is, of course, a delicate balance between airing one’s dirty laundry in public and trying to have an honest discussion about working on challenges together.

I do think, though, there are some existential threats for the radio industry which can only really be tackled by a concerted cross-industry effort.

In my Radio Festival talk I spoke about the radio sector facing a youthquake.


Historically I’ve been quite bullish about radio’s youth performance. Whilst total hours have been dropping consistently, total reach for 15-24s has only seen a small decline, nothing particularly dramatic. As I mentioned the other week, Facebook had seen a much more worrying drop for young users – a decline of 13% in the last two years. Radio’s only seen around a 10% drop in five years.

However, with new RAJAR data out, I thought it would be worth more of a look. My key insight was splitting 15-24s into 15-19s (teenagers) and 20-24s. For the latter group, radio reach is actually up 7%, which hides the teenage performance – a 30% drop. That equates to around a million teens stopping tuning in.

Take that reach drop and combine it with less listening, and it means that 15-19’s total listening hours is down 40%.

I think that’s a pretty big problem.

At the same time the UK’s youth radio stations – Radio 1, Kiss and Capital – are much broader than just teenage stations. The profile of listening shows huge consumption by older listeners. For the commercial stations, this older audience is actually pretty essential to their business model. Their hours of listening turns directly into revenue.

For many of the stations on that list, 45 to 54s are bigger than 15-19s.

I feel for Radio 1, Kiss and Capital, they are broad younger focused stations. It’s unfair and unrealistic to task them with super-serving teens.

But with all three stations suffering 15-24 drop-offs, they are the first to feel the heat from the change in listening behaviour. I remarked to someone that they’re the equivalent of Barbados in the climate change discussion. The country that’s shouting to the others ‘hey there’s a problem you need to fix, it’s affecting us now’. The big countries (or radio stations) then go ‘yes, yes, we’ll obviously get to dealing with it’, whilst still enjoying their pre-change environments.

The reason why everyone should be concerned is this bingo-like grid below. What it looks at is the average hours a radio listener consumes at different years of their life. Here showing 15 to 34 year olds over a fifteen year period. What it effectively does is track a cohort of listeners as they get older, year to year.

I’ve highlighted in green a sample cohort and you can see that, roughly, the amount of hours they listen to when they’re 15 stays, just about, the same over much of the following years of their life. If you pick any starting year on the chart it more or less follows through the same way.

In other words the amount of radio that you listen to at 15 becomes the regular amount that you consume.

And no, people don’t ‘grow into’ radio as they join the workforce etc.

Therefore if you don’t work to engage with young audiences early on, it will affect how you do later on.

Teen Appeal

Now radio doesn’t have some god-given right to have teenagers tuning in. This is an audience with lots of media at their finger tips and lots of places that can replicate many of the mood states that radio can deliver. But the radio industry has to decide whether it wants to have a go at ensnaring this audience. And if it does want to do that, then I’m afraid that a radio group having a go at it on their own is unlikely to reap much of a dividend.

As has been demonstrated by DAB digital radio or Radioplayer, the radio sector can have a big impact on consumers when it works together to create a solution to a problem and then collectively sells it to consumers.

DAB has worked because the sector worked together on distribution and transmitters, the right regulatory environment and then a broad selection of new radio stations that include 6Music and Absolute 80s, 1Xtra and Kisstory. I think Teens need this same focus.

So to kick things off, two suggestion from me.

We need Radioplayer for Teens

A broad web, mobile and social platform that brings together all the content the sector makes that’s of interest to teenagers – audio, video, text and imagery. From Capital’s Jingle Bell Ball to Radio 1’s Surgery. Inclusion of all the groups’ radio stations and music streams. Radio, playlists and podcasts. All curated with an eye to those teens.

A radio station for teenagers.

Whether it’s the Global Academy, Bauer Academy, Wireless’ apprenticeships or the BBC’s talent outreach. The radio sector is doing a good job at training young people. Why not go a stage further and design an environment where teens can work on, and help to develop, a station for them.

It should live in the new Teen app, but also be available on BBC Sounds, Global Player et al. It should be well-funded, well-distributed and well-marketed and should hook into activities from all the stations. Why shouldn’t it be back stage at BBC’s Teen Awards or a Kiss New Year’s Eve party?

It should live and breathe the teen world – a secondary school world- co-opting the other environments that teens live digitally in.

There’s perhaps some better ideas and ways to engage with teenagers. A decent research project would probably help. But if radio wants to engage with this audience, it needs to do something different. Because the status quo isn’t really working.

You can watch my session from the Radio Festival, and the others, if you get a catch-up ticket from the Radio Academy.


As well as the Radio `Festival session, I talked a bit more about it on the RadioToday Programme podcast.

I’ve been a bit all over the place chatting to people at the RAJAR figures over the last week or so.

I popped up on Radio 4’s Media Show (with Miranda Sawyer, Dick Stone and Hot Pod editor Ashley Carmen), which you can listen to on BBC Sounds or watch the visualised version that went out on the BBC News Channel.

I also did a RAJAR catch-up with Ford Ennals from Digital Radio UK, that you can watch on their YouTube channel.

What’s happening to young listeners and what can be done about it (7min read)