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That elusive Radio 4 audience // The politics of bans // A farewell

29 Jun 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
That elusive Radio 4 audience // The politics of bans // A farewell

Times Radio launch line-up

The Times Radio wants a slice of the BBC's audience, but Dominic Mills wonders if it's available, or even worth it. Plus: why the Facebook advertising boycott feels different this time; and parting ways with Mediatel News' editor

As you read this today (Monday 29 June), a new speech radio station launches: Times Radio.

But unless you read The Times you might not know, such is the lack of hoopla about the launch (unless I’ve simply missed it by tuning in to the wrong places).

The timing is hard to judge. Not everyone will have the good fortune of Disney+, launching just as lockdown starts with a video product aimed squarely at families. And radio advertising, as the Radiocentre made clear in its submission to MPs this week, was down around 50% in Q2 and more for local stations.

On the other hand, listening hours are up with more than a third of listeners tuning in for an additional 100+ minutes per week since lockdown, according to Radiocentre research.

And that might well be Times Radio’s short- to medium-term performance: good audiences, bugger-all cash.

But the one thing that we know about News UK is that it invests in editorial, invests in audio (the Wireless Group) and can take a long-term view — as demonstrated by its paywall strategy on The Times and Sunday Times.

It’s certainly thrown a lot of money at Times Radio, hiring a raft of high-profile presenters including John Pienaar, Carole Walker, Mariella Frostrup, Phil Williams and Aasmah Mir.

And if you notice anything about that list of presenters, it is that they’re all ex-BBC. This is the surest sign that Times Radio has a very clear audience in its sights — Radio 4.

As far as I can tell, this is the first time anyone has so explicitly gone after the Radio 4 audience on audio which in turn raises two questions: is it available and is it worth it?

I’ve listened to Radio 4 for many years and to me it seems, increasingly, a strange beast. Some of it is brilliant — news and magazine-type programmes — and some dire. Panel shows, unfunny 70s-style comedy, oh-so-earnest discussions about obscure topics populated by self-consciously clever participants all with distinct RP tones. Modern, or contemporary, it isn’t.

I turn off or switch over, thinking ‘who is this for (other than the commissioning editor and a few mates they wish to impress)?’ and ‘which part of the nation does this programming represent?’. And don’t even get me started on the faux-balancing efforts the BBC makes in news interviews to achieve the fig leaf of impartiality.

This stale programming is for people I surely do not recognise, which may explain why its audience is relatively old (average age 56) and also under pressure in terms of reach and listening hours.

Yes then, I think there is an audience out there that wants speech radio that carries intelligent, mainstream, modern, news, debate and comment with a journalistic edge. Indeed, The Times has proved with its audience growth that this kind of editorial package and stance works online and in print.

Is the audience valuable? For years, commercial operators have craved BBC-type audiences as a cohesive whole, and Radio 4 especially: over-indexing on education, earning power, curiosity and the like — all things advertisers say they want.

The question then is: does this audience want advertising, or to what extent is it prepared to tolerate it? After all, if you’re migrating from BBC radio, especially 4, the audience is going to be sensitive to an over-interruptive listening experience.

Here, Times Radio is playing an intelligent hand, promising to forgo spot advertising in favour of sponsorship. And given the current state of radio advertising, this may prove to be an even better listening experience than originally planned. (As I’m writing this 24 hours before launch, I can’t tell).

Meanwhile though, an even bigger — existential, one might say — question looms. How much does Times Radio fulfil the Murdoch family’s long-standing aim of undermining the BBC as a whole?

Every time someone says “You know what, I used to listen loads to the BBC but it's not nearly as much now’ the BBC’s position is damaged.

The politics of bans

Well, that felt like it was quick. Less than two weeks after a group of US civil rights supporters called for an advertiser ban on using Facebook for a month to pressure it into removing hateful political speech the platform announced a climbdown. And this despite an initial attempt by Mark Zuckerberg to hold its non-intervention stance on political ads.

Or so it seems. Facebook isn’t actually banning hate messaging, or that which breaks its rules, but labelling them instead.

Er right. Let’s say I break the speed limit enough times to get a ban. But the police don’t ban me, they just put a sticker on my car instead. That makes no sense.

And while the Facebook policy doesn’t make much sense, it now finds itself in the difficult position of deciding what constitutes a hate message. I don’t think this is easy at all. Just as one person’s lie is another’s truth, so another’s hateful position or argument is someone else’s robust stance or — if you want to take the extreme libertarian view — freedom of expression.

This is murky territory and, as Nick Clegg pointed out a few weeks ago in an earlier attempt to rebuff calls for bans, the power to decide has effectively been handed over to a private corporation. Do we really feel comfortable with that?

So where does this leave the many advertisers — Unilever, Verizon, Coke, Patagonia, North Face and so on — who said they would ‘pause’ their advertising for a month in support of the civil rights groups? Free to return or obliged to continue with their pause for the month?

As an aside, I found the idea of a 30-day pause odd. Surely, if they were serious, there’s no question of pausing. You’re either fully off until the thing you want to change changes, or you’re not?

Either way, I’m not convinced advertisers going public with their proposed pauses has led to Facebook’s change of heart. As various commentators noted, the real engine of Facebook’s advertising power comes from small companies, who didn’t add their voices to the call, not the few big names that did.

Previous attempts at bans have failed to shift Facebook. This time it feels very different. The wedge — thin end, of course — has got traction.

Farewell to my editor, David Pidgeon

I can’t end this column without noting that this week’s is the last that will go under the watchful eye of Mediatel editor David Pidgeon before he leaves.

We started at Mediatel more or less together — getting on for eight years ago — and through that time he has been a calm, steady, reassuring presence: always there when you need him, never short of an idea, gently correcting course deviations — ‘did you really mean to say that?’ -- eradicating stray errors, keeping us honest, and all with unfailing good humour.

I and my fellow columnists will all miss him, and we wish him well as he takes off in his Mazda Bongo (who knew there was such a model) for a summer of climbing and camping.

Cheers and the very best.

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05 Aug 2020 

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