How radio became a great media survivor

23 Jan 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
How radio became a great media survivor

Not so long ago analysts were predicting the death of radio. Oh, how they are now eating their words, writes Raymond Snoddy

Radio is on a roll. The media constellations have moved in mysterious ways and produced a series of unrelated hits for an often-overlooked medium - particularly for commercial radio.

Who would have imagined that Chris Evans would have voluntarily cast aside the mantle of Sir Terry Wogan, and with it 8.8 million regular Radio 2 listeners, and taken his caravan to Virgin Radio.

At least initially Evans will be talking to closer to 480,000.

Suddenly radio is interesting and generating headlines about Evans taking on the BBC at breakfast - and in particular his successor Zoe Ball.

In 2009 Enders Analysis, as is sometimes their way, stood back, took a long look, and predicted the long, slow death of a media industry - in this case radio - over the next 15 to 20 years.

We haven’t reached 2024-2029 yet but a couple of months ago Enders acknowledged, honourably, that when the facts change ideas and judgments must follow.

“Radio faces challenges from Spotify and other online radio propositions, while the radio “dial” is challenged by smart speakers and global tech. UK radio broadcasters have risen to the occasion through innovation,” was the Enders conclusion.

DAB stations had led to both record audiences and revenues and digital listening was now over 50 per cent.

Radio, or to be more precise audio across all devices, is flourishing and presumably we will not be hearing too much more about the death of the industry over the next five to 10 years.

You could try and make the technological case that old-fashioned listeners would increasingly be their own arrangers, schedulers and presenters of the music they want - cutting out the middleman or woman such as Evans and Ball.

You could, but it doesn’t seem to be how most people behave in the real world. They like the human contact, the personal, the quirky, a sense of presence and also live-human voices reacting to what is happening now.

Evans and his unrelenting, chirpy, optimistic cheerfulness is not to everyone’s taste but a lot of people obviously like it and keep tuning in to live radio.

As the Radiocentre happily points out more than 75 per cent of audio listening is live.

The radio marketing body is equally happy to emphasise that 36 million people listen to radio in the UK every week and claim that return on investment on radio is £7.70 for every pound spent.

It amounts to a very strange form of slow death.

It is another iteration of what is increasingly a truism - that traditional media can survive when they adapt and innovate.

Book publishing, for instance, is growing while e-books are not, but it is the combination of printed books and audio books that is making a difference.

But stories and a narrative are still vital to continue attracting attention in the overcrowded battle for eyes and ears in the media battlefield.

That is why the current musical chairs in radio and the resulting headlines are so important, even though the underlying causes are unrelated and verging on the unintended.

They range from the long overdue battle for pay and gender equality at the BBC to the political requirement to disclose top salaries which caused inevitable mayhem.

Who knows whether it was boredom and desire for a new adventure, or irritation about the disclosure of his salary that led to Evans announcing his departure live on his own show? But it created a big vacancy and led to innovation.

It’s not clear whether any other commercial radio group will follow the Virgin Radio example and go ad free. They probably shouldn’t consider it for long.

It will still be interesting to see how the Sky sponsorship of a show ultimately owned by Murdoch’s News UK works out and, in particular, whether listeners get tired eventually of what will have to be serious plugging of Sky shows.

There is little doubt that Eddie Mair’s departure from Radio 4’s PM programme was provoked by efforts by the BBC to persuade him to take a pay cut to help fund the forward march of women. Understandably he preferred a pay rise at LBC.

Cue more stories, more deadlines and questions about whether in the case of PM it is the presenter or the programme that is more important.

Simon Mayo’s decision to up sticks from Radio 2, after more three decades at the BBC, may just have had something to with what has been described as “a troubled year” sharing his afternoon slot with Jo Whiley.

Whether carrot or stick - more innovation for radio with Mayo becoming the public face of Scala, a new DAB and online classical music station to be launched in March by Bauer Media, owners of Absolute Radio and Kiss.

It represents more competition for Radio 3 and Classic FM although the real test for Scala is whether it can attract a new, younger audience for popular classical music. Bring it on.

If we are not careful here there will soon be talk about a golden age of radio on the way - instead of loose talk about slow death.

Who are going to be the winners and losers here?

We will probably need a couple of cycles of RAJAR results to get any real feel for how the great presenter manoeuvres are playing out in listener behaviour.

It would be surprising if the overall impact was not another step forward for commercial radio at the expense of the BBC, as the enforced replacements at the Corporation bed in.

Overall it could be a win for radio as a whole - as a result of all those headlines and all that unusual attention.

Two other headlines a month or so apart tell different but very moving stories that have nothing to do with presenter salaries.

The Daily Mail splashes on the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell and the attack by her father on Instagram, owners Facebook, for carrying pictures that glorified suicide and self-harm.

Nobody knows precisely why Molly killed herself but her father believes that her use of platform helped.

The tragedy brings to mind splendid headlines in December for live radio and TalkRadio late night host Iain Lee who had to deal with a caller called Chris who said he had overdosed with a cocktail of drugs.

Lee kept the suicidal caller talking until his location could be identified and emergency services dispatched and treatment successfully given.

Unrelated incidents maybe, but still one up for the power of live radio - certainly compared with social media.

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14 Feb 2019 

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