Audio in 2023: Ken Bruce, new laws, and a news surge

Audio in 2023: Ken Bruce, new laws, and a news surge
Clockwise L-R: Ken Bruce on Greatest Hits Radio, LBC in 1973 and Spotify's AI DJ.
2023 in Review

The Media Leader asked audio media owners, specialists and trade bodies about the most significant changes in the sector and the biggest surprise of the year.

“It’s been a momentous year for radio and audio in lots of ways,” Matt Payton, CEO at Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio, tells The Media Leader.

Indeed, 2023 was full of important changes for the sector, as well as some significant markers that may seem even more ‘momentous’ in the years to come.

Commercial radio celebrated its 50th year and posted record audience figures, extending its lead over the BBC. And there was a range of new innovations to digital audio and podcasts.

But perhaps the most memorable story was more traditional in nature: a good, old-fashioned talent move which impacted the fortunes of a media owner.

Ken Bruce joins Greatest Hits Radio: like signing Messi?

Ken Bruce’s imminent arrival from BBC Radio 2 to Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio was announced in January.

After 31 years at the public service broadcaster, he started at Bauer in April and has more than doubled the show’s reach since. He added nearly a million listeners to the show in his first Rajar measuring period alone, which became The Media Leader‘s most-read story of the year.

Bauer hails ‘phenomenal’ Ken Bruce effect as Greatest Hits Radio gains 1m listeners

Payton said while radio and audio has seen some big surprises in recent years, especially in terms of talent moves like Chris Evans moving to Virgin Radio and Emily Maitlis to Global, he did not think anyone expected Ken Bruce to announce he would be moving to the commercial sector.

He added: “As the presenter of the radio show with the biggest audience in the UK, not to mention the host of the much-loved Popmaster quiz, you can understand why Ken was in demand. Although after 31 years at the BBC it was a real surprise to see him jump ship and announce a new chapter.

“At the time of the announcement on Ken’s move, his fellow GHR presenter Simon Mayo commented ‘it’s like signing Messi’ in terms of the potential impact. That might have sounded a bit like hype, but given that he has managed to more than double the audience for his mid-morning slot and help drive a record listening hours for the station, you can see what he means.”

Media Bill legacy

The draft Media Bill has been making its way through Parliament this year and includes key measures to support the prominence of UK radio on voice-activated devices like smart speakers.

Payton highlighted it has been 20 years since there was last any legislation focussing on media, so having this rare opportunity including measures to secure availability and viability of radio online and on smart speakers was particularly significant.

Simon Myciunka, Bauer Media Audio UK CEO, called the Government’s draft Media Bill “a very significant milestone this year” which protected and granted route to entry, and should it be passed by Parliament, it will mean listeners can continue to find content they expect on smart speakers.

Charlie Brookes, chief revenue officer Octave, echoed this as he called it “the most significant thing in audio this year”.

He explained: “The Bill means that large players such as Amazon and Google must allow free access to UK radio stations on smart speakers and not allow them to overlay their own ads on the content. Submitted as a draft in March, it was included in the King’s Speech in early November and then had its second reading in late November. As digital consumption of radio continues to rise, I’m sure we can all agree that this is a vital Bill which we hope will go through Parliament soon.”

Payton emphasised the importance of the future impact this legislation would have on audio.

“When we look back at 2023, I’m convinced that the biggest and most enduring legacy for audio will be the measures secured in the government’s Media Bill,” he said. “The inclusion of radio in the Media Bill is especially significant as it will help provide it with a foothold in a connected future, as radio becomes more reliant on tech platforms like Amazon and Google to reach audiences and provide solutions for advertisers.”

Are we in a golden age of audio? With Radiocentre CEO Matt Payton

Jason Brownlee, founder of Colourtext, said: “I hear that 40% of households now have got some sort of smart speaker, the majority of those being Amazon Alexas. In light of that it puts Amazon in a very powerful gatekeeper position. So I share the relief that many in the radio industry feel that the new Bill going through Parliament will help protect radio’s access to the listening market, particularly from foreign platforms like Amazon that would otherwise not really understand the way that our media ecosystem needs to work.”

The Media Bill is now expected to become law during 2024.

Commercial radio breaking records at 50

Commercial radio has been breaking records in the last year for audience reach, share, hours and revenues in its 50th year,.

Patrick Dolan, activation director at independent media agency the7stars, said one of the biggest changes he had seen was “an accelerated shift in favour of commercial radio”.

He explained: “The rate of change has seen commercial radio recording their highest-ever audience of 39.3m weekly listeners in Q3 according to Rajar– up by an impressive 3.4% year on year – great news for advertisers.”

One of the biggest drivers of this has been Ken Bruce’s move to GHR and Dolan expects this growth trend to carry on into 2024 as he sees “investment in audio continues to soar”.

This week: looking back on 50 years of commercial radio

Despite this listening growth, Myciunka lamented that audio was still not a top media platform of choice for most agencies and advertisers, who choose to look at digital, social and TV first.

“Commercial radio listening has increased dramatically this year – fuelled by large numbers of listeners migrating from BBC to commercial – so it’s a bit of a surprise to see that the investment in audio advertising has not followed the same trajectory,” he remarked. “The influx of new audiences presents huge commercial opportunity for advertisers to reach new audiences at scale that they weren’t able to previously, so we’re hopeful that audio will become a top media platform soon – bring on 2024!”

AI in the audio space

Ed Couchman, head of sales for UK and Northern Europe at Spotify, said the biggest surprise this year was how quickly AI is evolving in the digital audio space.

He explained: “AI has been the talk of the industry in 2023 and I don’t foresee that changing in 2024. At Spotify, we believe that AI has the potential to offer real benefits to the audio industry. It’s very early days in an incredibly fast-moving and developing space. But if implemented correctly, I think AI will enable many more people around the world a chance to further enhance their creativity.”

Spotify is “not new to this space” and in the last year has announced several AI-powered tools like AI DJ for music and Voice Translation for podcasts, the latter in particular bringing “a lot of potential for audio ad creation” in partnership with creators, according to Couchman.

Big Tech’s latest assault on ‘copying radio’ now features AI DJs

Dolan called the arrival of Spotify’s AI DJ ‘X “this year’s biggest story” after its launch in the US.

He said: “With a wealth of data at their disposal, ranging from basic demographics to advanced insights into personal (sometimes questionable) music tastes, Spotify is poised to explore commercial opportunities in 2024, as audio officially moves to a data led personalised focus. Who knew we could have our very own DJ in our pocket!”

Podcast momentum?

In the UK, podcasts have more than doubled weekly reach in the UK since 2017, according to the most recent Rajar’s measurement of internet-delivered audio services (Midas).

According to Midas, which covers total non-commercial and commercial audio combined, podcasts’ average weekly reach steadily rose from 10.3% to 22.1% between 2017 and 2023.

Rajar Midas: podcasts double weekly reach in six years

Ross Adams, Acast CEO, told The Media Leader: “I think the most significant thing this year is audio’s ability to weather the macroeconomic ups and downs. Podcasts are timeless, free to access and play a vital role in the audio landscape. The continued investment by brands and advertisers has helped give creators a platform to develop podcast ideas. You only have to look at the number of significant launches this year, not only from our Creator Network but other platforms this year, to prove that podcasting is a worthy investment during any potential recession.”

He also called out visual podcasting as an important trend to syndicate with podcasts, with significant production expenses going into filming podcasts that are shared on short-form video sites, with examples like Diary of a CEO.

Brookes highlighted the resurgence and popularity of news content in podcasting which helps “to change the narrative of trustworthy content and brand safety within the podcasting space”, which can help user engagement, monetisation and advertiser opportunities.

Katie Bowden, director of commercial for audio at Global, said she had seen “a huge surge for news content this year”, whether for radio brands like LBC which had doubled audience figures since 2014 or loyal audience to its original podcast The News Agents which has had 60 million downloads since its launch in August 2022.

Matt Deegan, founder of Folder Media, stressed it is now harder and more expensive for podcast shows to find audiences compared to a few years ago.

He explained: “It’s harder for producers to find audiences and growing a show is much more difficult, and actually much more expensive because, in the old days, you did not really have to spend money on marketing, whereas now like any other consumer products in the world, you need to spend money on marketing and audience growth to get listeners through the door. So you’re competing with lots of shows.”

Deegan predicted in 2024 “a decent decline” in a lot of shows because of tight economics, and while there will always be new shows, there will be “a rationalisation of shows”.

Audio and gaming

Bowden also called out the rise of audio advertising in mobile gaming, including in formats like word games and puzzles, as “the most significant trend” for the audio market this year.

She added: “With the market forecast to reach £1.7bn by 2026 according to the IAB UK, there is a fantastic opportunity for this ad platform to reach a vast and varied casual gaming audience. Audio ads in games are a non-intrusive way of reaching a target audience whilst allowing gameplay to continue, and players understand the value exchange in the model.”

Bowden gave the example of EE investing in mobile gaming with Global and its in-game audio partner Odeeo through its fibre optic broadband campaign which achieved “a significant rise in purchase intent and brand awareness”.

The Fishbowl: Katie Bowden, Global

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