Forty years ago today, the Buggles released Video Killed the Radio Star. Since that unseasonably warm day in 1979, we’ve had to tolerate that miserable headline being wantonly applied by journalists to every minor bump in the road for our great medium.
What’s really happened since 1979 in radio?
Back then, as Thatcherism began, we had four national BBC radio stations; Radios Scotland, Wales, Cymru and Ulster; 19 commercial radio stations and 20 BBC locals - plus Radio Luxembourg in the evening and the dying days of Radio Caroline from a rusty Mi Amigo ship. If you were dedicated, you might have found the World Service on crackly medium wave or on short wave.
The BBC could barely suppress its excitement as it announced that Radio 1 and 2 would have more separate programming - and Radio 2 was going to continue past midnight. Fresh-faced new talent came in the form of Peter Powell on Radio 1. According to BBC data, Tom Browne's Top 20 had the largest audience (6m); with Junior Choice attracting 4m on Saturdays and 3m on Sundays. Saturday's Any Questions on Radio 4 delivered 900,000 (931,000 Rajar W2 2019).
At best, however, in London - where most choice has always existed - a listener in their baggy jeans had the luxury of just eight stations from which to choose. No wonder they embraced the Walkman, which arrived on the market in July ‘79.
The BBC claimed radio listening in the late '70s amounted to 8 hours and 50 minutes a week per head of the population. Even taking into account hugely different methodologies and questions on who the heads belong to, is there even a suggestion that the time spent with radio by each listener is greater now than in 1979?
Now in 2019, across the UK, we have ten national BBC radio stations plus part time and pop-up services; Radios Scotland, Wales, Cymru, nan Gaidheal, Foyle, Ulster; 30 BBC locals; around 34 national commercial stations; almost 300 commercial stations, many of which are united under national brands; and community radio. Plus thousands of stations online should we wish.
Radio doesn’t sound very dead to me.
In 1979, most listening was on crackly AM (medium wave or long wave), although FM was making headway at last after 20 years. Whilst FM radio sets were line-fitted in some cars – others did not even have an in-built radio at all. You bought one from Halfords, dismantled your dashboard and installed your own – which was fine until a local delinquent broke into your Cortina and pinched it. Cassette players were on sale too, beginning to replace the 8-track cartridge players.
In the home, medium wave sounded OK on your battered tranny – until you turned on the twin-tub.
Finding a station was a veritable bingo game, as you tried to remember the frequency numbers. In the absence of pre-sets, my mother used to be petrified of not finding Waggoners Walk on Radio 2 once she’d finished with Woman’s Hour on Radio 4. And, in 1979, listeners were still coming to terms with many stations having suddenly moved frequency the previous year as part of new international broadcaster agreements. Unsurprisingly, folk latched onto their favourite station and stayed there.
Now, radio sets tell you which station you’re on – and what’s happening on-air at the time. Finding another is a simple matter and smart speakers allow you to do it without lifting a finger. And - about every human being has access to radio anywhere, any time via their phone should they wish.
The BBC licence fee (colour TV + radio) was £34 in 1979 (around £190 in today’s money)- and 18.3 m were issued in total (inc black and white TV). In 2019, around 26m are now issued – at a cost of £154.50.
In '79, a Binatone clock radio would set you back £19.99 (£112.93 equivalent in 2019); a Sharp radio/cassette recorder £48.99 (£276.77). There is no doubt that today's tech is a snip.
At the end of the '70s, local radio was poised to grow again at last, having been thwarted by governments for alas too long. The BBC was chuffed that Lord Annan had been ignored and a new 'local radio authority' was not about to be created embracing both its local stations and the commercial sector's. Both prepared to open new services.
In 1979, commercial radio was still struggling to find its deserved place in the advertiser’s mind. The patchwork quilt of very different stations made it an unattractive option for big national brands. Unlike in many other countries, the six-year old medium had just not yet had time to build its reputation. Luckily, the ITV strike of 1979 meant that some TV revenues were displaced to radio. Accordingly, revenues rose to 45m from 30m.
Commercial radio, however, depended hugely on local revenues in the ‘70s. Press was the
In 2019, whilst press is no longer a key competitor, the battle is angry, with a gamut of ‘digital’ options from the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to skyscrapers on websites, key words on Google, pre-roll on Youtube, podcast sponsorship - alongside a revitalised ‘outdoor’ (OOH) sector which no longer relies on a man up a ladder to change the creative. An endless range of TV channels now sell affordable offerings – more targeted than yesteryear, even selecting by postcode or audience traits via Sky AdSmart. More native advertising - and brands creating and distributing their own content – alongside enviably creative experiential and sponsorship offerings. All that, alongside rival radio offerings – from competitors who steal your listener and client lunch.
It is easy to see why commercial radio, for its long-term future, needed to act preemptively to ensure it remains economically sustainable. For the first time now, following consolidation and brand-spread, ad agencies can select from a range of clear, huge radio offerings and buy them with ease.
Has video killed the radio star?
I’d suggest there are about as many true on-air radio stars as there always were and - for the first time - commercial radio can build them nationally too. The job is increasingly challenging, and most established acts would likely concede that building their reputation afresh would be more difficult were they to start now.
No longer can you expect to claim a crown just because you’ve been on one TV channel on a Saturday night - or because you host the breakfast show in your city. Now there are so many outlets, audiences are divided – stars need to be shining at their brightest – across all media - to cut through. There are many more names around; and breaking through from being known - to being a true star takes talent, luck and hard work
Radio’s great asset lies in its authenticity. In the days when it built ‘stars’ readily, it likely did so in the absence of listeners having little else to do in their lives. Hence, the crowds of thousands to see a fat local DJ in shorts on stage doing daft contests and throwing vinyl singles out dangerously to adoring fans. Now, the real radio stars with longevity are those whom listeners simply embrace as part of their life – and yet still look up to for their wit, intelligence, the people they mix with and the mood they engender. There are many of them now – at the top of their game.
In 2019, an average UK listener enjoys unprecedented choice, almost wherever they live. Whilst, in many cities, they may no longer may have the dominant dedicated local station, they can, at any moment in time, choose exactly the radio entertainment they want - at the time they want it. Consolidation has meant that the major groups now do have most to gain by spreading their wings - into Country, Classics, Oldies and Talk.
Little wonder that 49m adults – and 16m under 15s - choose radio every week.
Challenges lie ahead and there is no place for complacency. You wouldn’t punish a child now by taking away their radio. The medium's place needs to continue to be earned. Similarly, UK radio will likely face new competition from international entertainment brands as the gateway to audience ears is freed by platforms other than FM/DAB.
Putting to one side the considerable personal cost incurred by those in the industry who have suffered at the hands of painful re-organisation, UK radio is in fine shape forty years on. For listeners, I’d suggest it is in a healthier state than it was in 1979, as it struggled to find its new place alongside the marvel of television.
Thankfully, the calibre of many individuals I witness leading today’s great radio stations is high and respected around the World. We look good too. Great stations hold their heads up off-air, with immaculate gigs - from Bauer's Hits Radio Live to Capital's Summertime Ball. All a little different from the 1979 gig to celebrate ten years of BBC local radio - with Pam Ayres and Tom O'Connor at the De Montfort Hall. Similarly, radio's charity events now deliver millions to deserving causes. Good stations are truly part of a brand; and - ironically- it is radio which is choosing now to visualise.
Our sector is growing in scale and sexiness, boosted by podcast and on-demand. It's unlikely to go away - people will always have two ears and will need something to fill them with.
Video did not kill the radio star. Now let's put that headline to bed. Forever.
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