It’s an old adage that radio listeners don’t like change. It’s the most intimate medium, and an ability to create a natural rapport means the audience can be fiercely loyal and resist change with equal ferocity. Yet radio today is undergoing a period of unprecedented change driven by technology, the audience and from within.
An astonishing 44 million of us – 88 per cent of all adults - listen to over one billion hours of radio every single week. Yet despite the proliferation of digital radios and smart speakers, that number is collapsing amongst youth audiences. Since 2010, over 800,000 15 to 24-year-olds have simply stopped listening altogether, and of those that do the amount of time they spend has dropped by almost a third. Streaming services are conversely surging in popularity, echoing what TV is going through with Netflix and the rest.
In response, the BBC has reconfigured iPlayer as BBC Sounds to tap in to new ‘time-shifted’ ways of listening and retain younger listeners. Past shows and podcasts now live side-by-side, with output from vastly differing stations’ now grouped together by theme or genre. Social media-streamed live videos, celebrity hosts and no need (or desire) for balance have pushed LBC and TalkRadio to record highs. Chris Evans’s new Virgin show has no adverts, but is instead entirely sponsored by Sky with the ginger one delivering regular on-air promos.
Chris Evans’s exit has been a part of unprecedented changes in front of the microphone at the BBC over the past 12 months. And two factors away from the airwaves may have shifted the tectonic plates more than most listeners realise.
In 2017, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ordered that the BBC must publish the salaries of any BBC stars earning more than £150,000 a year. This, the corporation argued would allow commercial rivals to poach its top talent. As well as Chris Evans, Radio 4’s Eddie Mair has since departed for LBC, reportedly at least in part prompted by a planned pay cut.
John Humphrys recently confirmed he’s leaving Radio 4’s flagship Today programme after 32 years. It will be interesting to see if he appears elsewhere. And these are unlikely to be the last in the big-name exodus.
The second factor, also from 2017, was that Ofcom was quietly given the power to externally scrutinise the BBC for the first time ever, and has set stringent requirements for each network. Radio 2, for example, has to ensure that, “in each Financial Year at least 40 per cent of the music in Daytime is from United Kingdom acts” and, “at least 20 per cent of the music in Daytime is New Music”.
More importantly, Ofcom now requires the BBC to “reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom” and to “make demonstrable year-on-year progress” in achieving this. Failure will result in a (very public) fine of up to £250,000. The inevitable reaction was a hasty shake-up of the schedules at many of its national stations, and Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6Music all have new breakfast show presenters.
Another move was to introduce Jo Whiley as a co-host on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Drivetime show. He has since described the brief, ill-fated and disastrously received co-hosting stint as “difficult” – a sentiment shared by many listeners. The result is that he has left Radio 2 after 17 years on the network, and Jo Whiley is back presenting solo in the evenings.
The government argues these changes are all part of BBC being more accountable, transparent and reflective of its audience, justifying the licence fee in the modern commercial world. As the UK’s most listened-to station, Radio 2 now has female breakfast and drivetime presenters for the first time in its history – which I’d argue is long overdue and all the better for it. Others though say that Auntie is being made to carry out self-immolation as a public service broadcaster in that very same world. As I said, listeners don’t take kindly to any, let alone a great raft of changes.
Simon Mayo clearly isn’t looking back. On 4 March, he will help launch brand-new station Scala Radio alongside the likes of Goldie and William Orbit, which promises to shake up the polite world of classical music radio with conversation and celebrity interviews. It’s a brave move and a sign of current confidence amongst commercial radio operators - although it is questionable how many listeners it will attract from BBC Radio 3; listeners are lamenting its own dumbing down.
One thing that can be relied on in the coming years is that we’re not done yet and the medium of radio - both public service and commercial - will continue to make changes both big and small at a rate we’ve not seen the likes of in our lifetimes. Stay tuned.