How commercial radio is modernising 50 years on

How commercial radio is modernising 50 years on
Feature: 50 Years of Commercial Radio

This month is commercial radio’s 50th anniversary in the UK.

On a previous episode of The Media Leader Podcast, Matt Payton, CEO of Radiocentre, the trade body for commercial radio, discussed how audio listening habits have changed rapidly in recent years, to the benefit of commercial radio, and why he thinks the best is yet to come.

Listen to the clip, or read a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity, below.

Jack Benjamin: [Ella], you’ve reported throughout the year that UK commercial radio has hit several milestones recently. How have audiences been growing?

Ella Sagar: It’s really interesting, every time Rajar, which is the quarterly audience figures, come out, commercial radio’s share of listening, its average hours per week spent, it keeps on going up. And obviously there will be some stations that perform better than others, and that’s always quite interesting to see what’s going on, but it’s overtaken the BBC in terms of weekly reach and share of listening in the last year, which hasn’t happened for more than 20 years, correct me if I’m wrong, Matt.

So it’s just kind of showing that there’s a real appetite, and I think there’s a narrative as well that in the pandemic, people really rediscovered a love of audio. People that maybe had never tried podcasts started listening to podcasts; those sorts of audio habits haven’t dissipated from the pandemic.

There’s so many different things to unpick, like digital listening and internet-connected listening, and in terms of how commercial radio just seems to be every quarter going from strength to strength.

Matt Payton: It’s interesting because as you say, the last couple of years that’s the picture, and it’s a reflection of what’s going on with audiences and what’s going on with the choice that they have and how popular it is.

It hasn’t always been like that. I’ve been around and following Rajars for long enough to remember when the BBC was well over 50%, high-50% share. Now they’re kind of middle-40% and we’re over 50%. So what’s happened over that last 10 years to change the picture?

Well, I think in commercial radio, the range, the choice of stations that they’re now able to offer on not just broadcast FM, but DAB radio and online, you look at the range and choice of content that’s out there, and that’s really started to level the playing field.

In the old world, the BBC had the vast majority of distribution because they had all the big FM frequencies. But actually with the increasing popularity of DAB, commercial radio was able to offer more services, more brand extensions. Absolute Radio was the famous example, being introduced in the ’80s and ’90s stations, and then you saw that with different genres of music and different content as well.

So, the choice that’s been available has exploded in the last few years, and that’s really started to reflect in the audience. And I think we’re no longer in the world where the BBC has a much greater share of that distribution. DAB levels things out, and online is not a walled garden, it’s a much bigger competitive set you’re up against. But actually I think what commercial radio is trying to do is leverage that strength and popularity into this new world. And as you say, that’s what you’re seeing both in the terms of the choice that’s available, the listening.

And I think what you said about the pandemic is interesting as well because we followed audience habits very closely during that time, and as you say, what’s been interesting is the way that that’s sustained. People got used to spending time at home. What can you do whilst doing other things and consume media to help your mood and increase your general sense of wellbeing? Well, you have the radio on, and that’s happened in a big way.

JB: Radiocentre recently expanded its remit to include podcasts, meaning podcasts by any commercial radio operator that they’re publishing on streaming. I’m curious, Matt, what are your thoughts on first of all, the expanded remit, how’s it been going; it’s only been a few weeks since you announced that, but you’ve been working on this for quite some time.

MP: That’s exactly right. I think, really, in terms of what has changed and why, Radiocentre’s remit was traditionally focused, as our industry was focused, on broadcast radio stations from our members companies. But as we’ve been saying, the world has changed. For commercial radio, I think around 29% of the listening time now is on connected devices already. That’s actually bigger than FM now, which is unthinkable a few years ago.

That’s just for linear radio, before you start thinking about the investments they’re making in podcasts, the investments they’re making in on-demand streaming and their own platforms.

Now, radio is still the biggest part of commercial audio, as we know, I think the Rajar Midas figures estimate about 84% of commercial audio (audio which you can actually advertise) is live radio. So, if you’re going to invest in an audio advertising strategy, you need to have radio at its heart.

But the developments we’ve all been talking about, the exciting podcasts and music streaming, which fulfil these different ‘need states,’ which some of our research has looked into, couldn’t really be ignored. So, as the industry body, we’re having to reflect that shift. We’ve been doing that incrementally over the last few years, but what I felt was it’s about time we made a statement about that to clarify what our role is.

Just talking about radio in the world that has developed and the listening habits that have developed and the advertiser habits that have developed, just felt too narrow. So we’ve wanted to broaden that out, and hopefully it gives clarity over our role, it gives a more holistic view of audio.

They’ll be more to come, is all I can say at the moment in terms of other things we want to do in terms of our research, in terms of the tools that we’ll offer to advertisers to ensure that they’re achieving the best advertising outcomes they can using audio as a whole.

JB: And you got a nice little fancy rebrand as well.

MP: Yes, we did. But ‘industry body has new logo’ is not that exciting. What we wanted to do was package this all up together, because the point of the rebrand, the point of the new look is to say that we as an organisation are modernising, developing, looking to the future, and we wanted to do that at a point of the 50th anniversary since the first commercial radio stations came on air.

Because while we’re very respectful of the heritage and what went before, I think the easy trap to fall into is to talk about the good old days, whereas actually right now radio and audio, we think, is stronger than ever. It’s stronger than ever in terms of audiences, in terms of revenues last year.

It’s taking this moment and saying actually, we’re in a bit of a golden age of audio. So let’s think about building on the innovation and developments up until now and focus on the future. That’s how we’ve tried to package it all up together.

Listen to whole episode below and hit ‘subscribe’ to download the episode on your favourite podcast player, as well as get notified about future episodes:

New look Radiocentre: ‘We are not just about linear radio anymore’

Adwanted UK are the audio experts operating at the centre of audio trading, distribution and analytic processing. Contact us for more information on J-ET, Audiotrack or our RAJAR data engine. To access our audio industry directory, visit audioscape.info and to find your new job in audio visit The Media Leader Jobs, a dedicated marketplace for media, advertising and adtech roles.

Media Jobs