Thursday 1 August 2019

The Radio Universe - Who's Listening Now?

As ever, the headlines on Rajar are about the launches, losses and large growths.

Up above those headaches and smiles, we can pause to reflect on the bigger figures. The weekly reach of ‘all radio’ remains at 89% - and monthly reach greater. That’s a huge, huge proportion of this country’s citizens, and much greater than some annoying press commentators and ad agency folk appear to acknowledge. Radio is everywhere.

But – it’s 89%, whereas it's often been at 90% – and sometimes higher.

There’s something bloody annoying about 89% (or 88.65% actually).

Clearly, there’ll be rounding up and down and population changes, but in broad terms, a full percentage point is around half a million folk. And – for the record - it bounced down to 89% on occasions 20 years ago when this Rajar methodology started, so radio is remarkably resilient. In the last five years, when taken to two decimal places, it's  trended marginally down.

As someone once said, if you want to punish a child these days, you don’t take their radio off them. I don’t have children, but parents tell me that their kids don’t have quite the relationship we used to. The medium’s penetration amongst younger audiences is falling – and that trend is clear. Let’s not malign ourselves too much though - back in the '70s and '80s, there was not a great deal else to do in life. There’s just more competition generally for time.  Although at an all time low - radio still commands a phenomenal (79%) reach amongst those tough-to-reach 15-24s - and 88% of kids aged 10-14 tune in too.

In terms of engagement levels, people are spending less time with radio.  Again, life has changed in twenty years – and radio’s ownership of people’s life still remains enviable. Over twenty years, the average time spent listening per week by adults (15+) has fallen from a high of around 25 hours to about 21 (but it was only at around 22 in 1999). For 15-24s it’s down more substantially from around 20 to around 13.

Twenty years is a long time to analyse anything in our fast-changing world  and these observations serve to illustrate how remarkably resilient we are – but nevertheless, there is some food for thought.

It’s great that Radio 1, Capital, Kiss and Fun Kids are generating exciting, relevant content for younger listeners. Other local and community stations go into schools and make a fuss - and that all helps too. Arguably, the BBC could do even more (without treading on commercial toes). This is important for the future of our medium. No-one really knows whether kids will grow into the radio habits of the Boomers. Frankly, I suggest they won't.

The other question is about on-demand listening and podcasting. Whilst Rajar generates hugely useful data on platform listening and on-demand habits through its excellent ancillary MIDAS study, listening to non-linear radio is not accounted for by Rajar in the same way as a live hour.  When I listen to Radio 4’s PM at 11.00 at night, as I often do, poor Evan Davis gets no Rajar credit for it.

Whilst I’m told that Rajar is looking actively at how podcast listening might be accounted for specifically, there are no imminent moves to add listening hours of on-demand content to the linear published figures for that programme. The job of the Rajar currency is already hugely difficult with so many stations – any new approach would have to be devised, agreed by its many partners – and paid for. I recognise it’s not an easy job.

But who would not admit that the time is coming when all this listening must be captured in one place – and value extracted from it. Radio was once linear because it had to be. Now it’s not.

Destination programming (as opposed to consistent music radio) will increasingly be consumed on-demand. Frankly, in future generations, it'll be odd that a radio station suddenly demands I think about the Athenians' vote to kill all the men of Mytilene at 9 in the morning just because Melvyn Bragg wants to - even when I’m really not in the mood. Talk content and specialist curated music content will increasingly be consumed when I feel like it, not when a station feels like transmitting it.

When running LBC, I spluttered with surprise at the number of listeners who were happy even to pay to listen to Steve Allen at a more sensible time of day. Failing to account for this listening appropriately will increasingly produce a phantom loss of radio’s audience.

I, and many others, have argued passionately that all the curated audio we bung into people's ears is ‘radio’ and I look forward to the time when it will all be measured and acknowledged equally.

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  1. Great blog, really interesting thanks. A quick point - while you might not give a Rajar tick when you listen on demand, I reckon lots of people do.

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