The Existential Threat to the Future of Radio may be a Little Exaggerated

Radio Transmitter

If I had a pound for every time I have heard others present a dystopian vision of popular music radio in steep decline thanks to digital technology… well it would certainly pay for a good night out! The argument goes that the advent of streaming platforms with both curated and automated playlists, young people accessing music via their phones and tablets and the continuing advances in digital technology are collectively killing the concept of popular radio programming. Soon, these prophets of doom claim, radio as a vehicle for receiving new music will be confined to the great dustbin of history.

Since I am in the final stages of writing a book charting the history and evolution of popular music radio in the UK, cast in a wider socio-political and cultural context, you would expect this to be of interest to me. I have spent some considerable time researching this vast and fascinating subject. I have also been very fortunate to have fantastic input from people who have worked at the cutting edge of radio [and, in some cases, still do] including Tom Robinson and several former producers from national stations. 

Those predicting radio’s imminent demise might be surprised by much of what I have found. For example, the RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research) figures which monitor radio listening in the UK, show that, in the first quarter of 2020, 89% of over 15s listened to radio. Given that the figures do not take into account a few of the quite significant DAB stations nor any of the popular internet-only or student radio channels, it is reasonable to assume the actual figure is in excess of 90%. It is also reasonable to assume that, when the survey is published for the second quarter, when lockdown was introduced and was at its most intense, the figure will be higher. The government was right to identify [BBC] radio staff as key workers because, when the nation was largely forced to stay at home, we needed to be entertained. Radio stepped up to the plate!

There is also another matter of some interest which, for those of us who value diversity and the need for music to evolve and embrace change, will provide some relief. Namely that the BBC, our unique public service broadcasting organisation, continues to outperform commercial radio by a distance. BBC Radio 2 is easily the most popular station with 14 million listeners. Perhaps more significantly though, BBC Radio 1 comes a comfortable second making it, in essence, the nation’s favourite Pop station with 9 million listeners compared to Heart (7.7m), Capital (6.3m) and Hits (5.7m). To be clear these are national figures. Gone are the days when Heart and Capital were only broadcasting in London.

A great deal has changed about the landscape of UK Radio. Two giant corporations own virtually all the former Independent Local Radio (ILR) stations. Global owns Capital and Heart and has subsumed all the former Capital Radio Group city-based stations along with the entire formerly GWR-owned regional network into a uniform national network with playlists controlled from its headquarters in Leicester Square. There is no longer any specialist programming on these stations. They play current and former pop charts music twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That, of course, is their prerogative and they can no doubt produce survey results demonstrating that they are responding to what their core listeners want to hear.

Bauer Media owns Hits, Magic and the former EMAP stations like Kiss, Kerrang!, Q etc. Their reach is nothing like the size of Global’s but they nevertheless occupy a sizeable chunk of the radio pie. The third largest corporate group is Wireless who focus on news and talk on tabloid-style stations such as Talksport which act something like the radio equivalent of the Daily Mail! 

It is all the more impressive that the BBC performs so well considering that, unlike the corporate giants, it does continue to provide specialist programming across all its national stations. Following the advent of DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) at the start of the millennium, the BBC has established a group of national stations (Radio 1, 1Xtra, 6 Music & Asian Network) which, between them, make a good effort to cover the spectrum of popular contemporary genres and meet the needs of a socially and culturally diverse population. Each of those stations individually accommodates an impressive array of specialist programmes highlighting multiple genres and scenes. 

Sitting alongside this diverse and carefully curated group of stations is the BBC Introducing system which enables artists to submit up to two tracks a month that are assigned to the BBC local [or regional] stations relevant to their postcodes and to any individual BBC shows that play new music within the artists’ stated genre groups. Fresh on the Net, an entirely independent digital music platform, enables those artists to submit the same tracks for consideration for the Listening Post which, in turn, means their music will be heard by Tom Robinson who can consider them for the BBC 6 Music Introducing Mixtape show regardless of whether they make it past moderation. There is no other country in the world offering both this facility to get new music straight to people who might be prepared to play it on national radio and the range of programmes covering so many current styles and scenes.

What then of the perceived threat to radio from the digital revolution? It is certainly true that the numbers of people who stream music via one of the leading digital platforms (i.e. Spotify, Apple, Deezer etc.) has increased massively. According to a survey published by Statista magazine, streaming will account for around half of all sales of music by 2022. Playlists are big business now and more people than ever are relying on playlists to point them to music that reflects their tastes. People also curate their own but then, in essence, they always have. Back in my teenage years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I regularly made tapes of songs I liked to take with me on journeys or to listen to when relaxing. So did most of my friends. There are two main differences now. One is the ease with which one can create playlists drawn from an almost unlimited choice of tracks due to the subscription service provided by digital providers. The other is the existence of curated playlists that mean we no longer have to forage for interesting music because an ‘expert’ will do that for us [albeit that this removes the element of surprise that comes from sometimes liking music that sits outside our core tastes].

So why is radio thriving despite the advances in digital technology? The chief answer is probably quite a simple one. Most of us want to be entertained. It is not enough to listen to a playlist. We want human beings who bring a certain style, humour, empathy or just a reassuringly appealing radio voice. We are nowhere near at the stage where an algorithm can imitate the fast-moving, sometimes laconic humour of presenters like [Mark] Radcliffe and [Stuart] Maconie or Shaun Keaveney. Nor the combination of deep love and knowledge of music we get from Tom Robinson, Mary Anne Hobbs, Clara Amfo, Don Letts, Trevor Nelson etc. An algorithm cannot communicate, respond to messages and tweets or provide intelligent commentary on music, events, people, history and so on. Maybe that will eventually change as Artificial Intelligence continues to develop. But as I write, in 2020, it remains the stuff of Sci Fi movies.

In the meantime, as the RAJAR figures amply demonstrate, popular music radio in the UK remains in rude health. BBC 6 Music, a station once earmarked for closure by the Coalition Government of 2010, continues to report record figures and now has in excess of 2.5 million listeners, making it the most popular DAB-only station in the UK. Not bad for a broadly alternative, non-mainstream music station. BBC 1Xtra is narrowly outperformed by Capital Xtra but this needs to be seen in the context that 1Xtra offers a mouth watering range of specialist programmes while Capital Xtra plays popular mainstream Hip Hop and R’n’B throughout every day.

There is also the growth in internet-only radio to consider. Better, faster broadband and WiFi reliability has meant internet stations no longer face the quality and signal issues that plagued the pirate stations in the twentieth century. Statistics are few and not of great quality but there is evidence from providers like Radio King that a substantial audience chooses to listen to internet stations, many of them playing high volumes of new music by aspiring artists. Given my own role in presenting both a live ‘new music’ show and a midweek pre-recorded podcast on Exile FM, I am frequently and pleasantly surprised by the audience statistics for my show and others on the station. Amazing Radio is a prime example of an internet-only station with a well-deserved reputation for supporting new music. United DJs provides first class support to a lot of music that sits outside the mainstream too.

Student Radio, helped by the existence of its umbrella body the Student Radio Association (SRA), now offers opportunities to aspiring artists and operates flexibly around a published central playlist. The SRA also hosts an annual awards ceremony sponsored by the BBC and Global and is viewed by the industry as a breeding ground for future broadcasters and production staff. Hospital Radio, once seen as a dead end, has also moved forward with many hospital-based stations enjoying worldwide online audiences. Community Radio offers another option, often combining unique and unusual shows with local news and stories. The long-existent Resonance FM continues to broadcast niche shows and accommodate a lot of new music that sits well outside the pop mainstream. So too does NTS Radio.

On DAB Radio there are also a number of genre-specific shows broadcasting to national audiences and achieving respectable engagement. They include Kerrang! (Rock), Mi-Soul (Soul & House), Reprezent (Dance & Urban), Radio X (Indie & Related), Jazz FM, Country Hits and others.

RAJAR’s own website contains a survey that reinforces the sense that people are content to mix and match between utlising streaming and playlist facilities while still enjoying radio shows. Live radio accounts for 74% of all audio consumption while listen-back services account for 1.5% of radio use. Podcasts account for 7% and the figure is increasing annually. 38% of radio listening takes place on non-radio digital devices with 11% preferring laptops or PCs and 8% using phones. Live radio accounts for 84% of in-car listening.

A cynic might point out that, with young people less likely to listen to radio, the future might still be bleak in the longer term. It might but then it is up to radio stations to continuously review and assess their operations and consider how best to engage those who want to listen to music while being entertained. Leaving statistics to one side, my own experience as one who began listening to radio in the early seventies is that radio in 2020 is virtually unrecognisable from how it was in 1972. No doubt it will be very different again by 2068! 

For now though, any perceived threat to the immediate future of popular music radio in the UK is greatly exaggerated. We can mourn the passing of small specialist FM stations and question the role of Ofcom in allowing aggressive takeovers and trashing of specialist programming by commercially-driven corporations. But nevertheless there has never been greater diversity and choice. As a nation we still love the radio and there are good reasons why that is so.

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

Neil March

Neil March is a Composer & Artist with a PhD and Masters in music composition from Goldsmiths University, who has pursued careers in the contemporary classical and pop worlds, and has been supported by BBC Introducing, for whom he performed with his live ensemble The Music of Sound at Latitude in 2017. Read more.

10 Comments

  1. Pimlican

    Interesting piece Neil, as ever lots of info and detail. I am pleasantly surprised by the listening figures you quote, it always amazes me that unless you are in the business, or read Music Week, you don’t really get the stats.

    Regarding freshnet and the BBC. I feel that BBC Introducing is a two way street, and why it may be seen as a format to have funding reduced is beyond me. It gives direct immediate access to up coming or established raw talent. Win win.

    Lots of further info about commercial and on-line radio, which is always interesting!

  2. Interesting read – loads of info!

    I read the other day that Bauer are shutting down a bunch of regional radio stations in favor of a centralized playlist system (you mention in the article) with a couple of hours a day of “drive time & regional news” to meet their Ofcom requirements.

    Seems to me Ofcom enforce the “letter of the law”, but care little if it is in the “spirit of the law”.

    Tobi.

  3. Thanks to both of you for these kind and thoughtful comments. Yes it was weird. I heard Bauer were shutting a load of stations and making them one called Greatest Hits which makes it pretty explicit what its focus will be. Then, as I was adding this news and my comments about it into my book, in a rare moment when I was actually watching TV, an ad came on for Greatest Hits Radio. So they wasted no time in getting the marketing out there. In my book I have been particularly scathing about Ofcom. I watched them, in the mid-2000s when I was running my old label, allow the corporations to buy up all the licensed specialist stations and decimate them. It was brutal and sickening. It included stations like Soul City FM who had achieved the biggest percentage increase in audience over the previous year but still got smashed up and turned into Capital Mark 279 or whatever. Also my local Soul and Reggae station Fusion 107.3 who my business partner in the label worked for. Ofcom have continuously sucked up to the big corporations and failed to do any discernible ‘regulating’ for the past 17 years. They should be dismantled and replaced as soon as we have a Labour Government in power (he says optimistically!).

  4. An excellent, well put together article. Bodes well for the book

  5. Thanks Paul. That’s kind of you.

  6. Comparing my experience between 1972 and 2020 radio is that it’s pretty much the same percentage of specialist programming amongst a plethora of regurgitated sameness. What is different is that now there are hundreds of channels to chose from so the overall volume of shows is greater.

    When I started podcasting in 2006 my fellow podcasters and I hoped we would start a new revolution but pretty soon we realised we were not broadcasting but narrowcasting to a like minded audience. We still are.

    As you said, what makes any show different is it’s personality. It doesn’t matter how the show is delivered anymore it’s how it’s enjoyed. Listening to podcasts was always a faff with low bandwidth and having to think ahead. Radio has always been a winner because it’s right here, right now.

    I wonder what medium John Peel would be using now? Whatever the medium people would listen to him because it was him.

  7. Interesting and characteristically thoughtful comments Pete. I actually think the podcast revolution is still quietly ongoing and having listened many times to yours, it is too eclectic and lovingly curated to be written off as just narrowcasting to like minds. You bring a lot of flavours with music from all corners of the planet so I would say you are opening minds to a lot of new styles. Also, as you say, the low bandwidth issues plagued podcasters in the early part of this century but now you have Mixcloud and much better broadband speed. I suppose the only downside of a podcast, including my midweek one on Exile FM, is that although it is good for packing lots of great music into a short space, there isn’t the audience interaction and banter which is why I love presenting my live show every Saturday and maybe that’s the essence of radio as against playlists, algorithms etc. So as you rightly say, a good show has a personality and so too, hopefully, does its presenter. But I think there is a fascinating landscape evolving in which live shows, podcasts and playlists can not only coexist happily but can complement one another and, speaking as someone who does all three (or tries anyway!), they all have their different strengths. As for Peel, they built practically the entire BBC 6 Music station in his image! I suspect he would have a show on it and maybe a different kind of show on Radio 2. But then he might not want to cramp his son’s style! I think he would have left it to the technical staff to worry about what format it went out in though! 🙂

  8. Charlie Ryder

    Really enjoyed the positivity of the piece your passion for radio and your final words really capture what is important. But nevertheless there has never been greater diversity and choice. As a nation we still love the radio and there are good reasons why that is so.
    Thanks for sharing and for the work you do with fresh on the net and as a DJ .

  9. Louise Toal

    This is a great article Neil! Radio is the heartbeat of this house generally, as it was when I was growing up and like my favourite DJs when I was growing up, John Peel and Dave Fanning (RTE), it has stayed the same, my now favourite DJs point me in the direction of what to buy. Essential. 🙂

  10. Thanks Charlie and Louise for these kind comments. Researching this subject has been a real joy and has restored so much of my faith in the future of radio in the UK. It’s nice to have the evidence there to prove some of the cynics (see the marathon debate on my facebook page!!) wrong about their prejudices. 🙂

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