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volume 2
august 1999

The trouble with modern UK commercial radio


  Why are they all doing the same thing?
  by Geoff Baldwin
  Criticising the poor standard of much of UK commercial radio, as it has developed during the 1990's, Geoff Baldwin here describes the way all stations are targeting their programmas to the same audience: women in the 20-35 age group. It's time, he argues, someone tells them exactly what percentage of the population this category actually represents.

1 Tony Blackburn, worse than a tooth ache?

A painful experience. I recently had the painful experience of a number of trips to my dentist — I'm one of her best customers — but the pain wasn't caused by the actual dental treatment. She's an excellent dentist and I've no complaints on that score. It's the choice of radio stations that cause the irritation! The receptionist always has our local station, Active FM on in the waiting room. This is the only time that I ever hear this station because it is so typical of the bland boring radio of today. Once I get into the actual surgery, I have to put up with the only slightly less irritating sound of Capital FM. I'm afraid I was never a fan of Chris Tarrant post-Tiswas — if you are old enough to remember that programma — and he is only marginally more bearable than the 'joker' who spins the morning records on Active. I gather that dentists are experimenting with all sorts of things to help calm nervous patients. One I read, recently, is even experimenting with the idea of allowing patients to watch videos while having treatment. Perhaps having the radio on in the background is also a device to try to create a soothing atmosphere but, in my case, it is the one thing likely to make me nervous! Still, it could be worse. They could have Tony Blackburn on, I suppose!

2 The same old song. The fact that there is something rotten about the state of UK commercial radio isn't just a figment of the imagination of Anoraks like myself or people yearning for some supposed golden age from the past. There has been a steady stream of articles in newspapers and magazines, over recent years, highlighting the lack of any real choice on the radio and the situation seems to have been getting worse with more stations coming on the air and all competing for that perceived safe middle ground. This problem was the feature of an article by Chris Horrie recently published in the media section of the London Evening Standard. The article — in the issue dated the 17th March, under the heading 'It's the same old song' — posed the question: "Why do London's eight pop music radio stations all play the same records over and over again?" His article began: "Ask any jobbing decorator and he'll tell you that London's pop and rock music stations play almost exactly the same records, and they play them over and over again."
  "Find a station that appeals, and rest assured that within two or three days you'll be driven to distraction by the constant repetition of even your most favourite tune. Last week it was hard to find much difference at all between Capital Radio and its two most direct competitors, Heart FM and Virgin. Most of the records featured on Heart's top playlist were getting the same exposure on Capital. And more than half the same records were given the saturation treatment by Virgin."
  "We are the market leaders and everyone is trying to copy us," says Clive Dickens, Capital's programma director. "To get their licences the others have to say they are doing something different, but they are not. The BBC, which is supposed to be a public service broadcaster, now provides the same records as everyone else. It's outrageous and the listeners are losing out."
  The article goes onto point out that playlists are determined by station chiefs who listen to new records offered by a small army of record industry pluggers. A place on any of the pop stations' playlists means a record will be aired at least once an hour. If a record is featured on all eight pop stations available in London it could well be played once every ten minutes at certain times of the day. Horrie goes onto say:
  "Radio 1, which is officially supposed to 'showcase new music', claims that it does not repeat records as often as its commercial rivals. But last week the station played Tender by Blur 40 times during the week. The record even got needle time on Radio 2. The fact is that all London's music radio stations are chasing the same 15-25 audience much prized by advertisers."
  "Capital has a headlock on this market, licensed as London's official commercial 'chart music' station. To keep their licences, other stations such as Heart, Virgin, Kiss and Melody are supposed to provide different material, set out in a series of promise performances given to the Radio Authority. Heart, for example, was set up to cater for fans of Adult Oriented Rock. But last week the station was offering Boyzone, Catatonia and Robbie Williams — just like everybody else. 'Heart has turned itself into 'Capital Lite',' says Dickens. 'Everything about it is a copy — the playlist, the jingles, the personality presenters. They even advertise on the side of taxis because we do'."
  Heart's head of programming Kevin Palmer, defended his station. He says: "If you are going to succeed in London you have to compete head-on with Capital. But we are also providing an alternative. There's no Blur on Heart, and no Pat Boy Slim. I think of the typical Heart listener as female, even though our audience is 50/50. You are less likely to hear the rock-tinged stuff. We are more George Michael and Elton John."
3 Chris Evans, good for 2.25 million listeners

Women in the 20-35 age group. The situation in London has got worse since the takeover and 'makeover' of the station that was previously known as Melody PM by EMAP — now rebranded as Magic PM in line with that group's northern-based chain of stations of the same name. Horrie points out that the station "was set up to provide and older audience with undemanding tunes, including 1950's ballads. It has new been relaunched around a mainstream pop playlist almost identical to that of Heart."

With the change, from 'promise of performance', to 'formats' by the Radio Authority, the response given by RA programma chief Martin Campbell when asked about this situation was that the new system was 'regulation with a light touch', while conceding that the authority "can't act like the music police." I suppose that these comments won't come as any great surprise to us. It has been apparent, for a while now, that all the FM stations are trying to attract the same youth audience. The most common car sticker seen in this part of the world is for Heart FM and I notice that most of the drivers displaying car stickers for that station are women in the 20-35 age group. It has become increasingly clear that just as much of TV and radio is being aimed at younger audiences, these are also the only audiences that the advertising agencies are interested in selling products to.

  It appears to be the attitudes of the advertising agencies that are wielding a lot of power in the UK market and that all the stations feel compelled to try to attract a certain audience that is supposed to be going to spend more money on the products advertised. However, the media section of the London Evening Standard followed up their analysis of why London commercial radio stations are all chasing the same market, with another interesting piece of research the following week. This article looked at all forms of advertising TV, radio and colour supplements. Research has shown that there are currently around 15 million consumers in the UK over the age of 55 and they account for about 40% of all consumer spending. In fact, the Henley Centre for Forecasting — which monitors consumer trends — estimates that 80% of Britain's wealth is held by people aged 45 and over. The market is booming, helped by the fact that life expectancy has been increasing by around two years every decade. it is projected that in thirty years time, the over-55's will account for 43% of the population.
  The obsession with youth culture is also a bit strange, given that younger consumers have less disposable income than their parents and grandparents and are likely to be more interested in going out and enjoying themselves than buying a washing machine or choosing a mortgage. A spokesperson from Age Concern says that "advertisers ignore the growing number of older people at their peril." Ad agencies rely on youth and sex to sell their products but only 1% of the over-55's are comfortable with sexy adverts (e.g. the Claudia Schiffer car advert), according to a study by research company Carat. This is an odd way to attract the over-50's age group that make up to 65% of new car purchases! When alder people do make it into adverts, it is normally only as grandparents, figures of fun or to sell stairlifts and the like.
  Terry Wogan, good for 5 million listeners

The article also points out that the makeup of the ad industry is partly to blame. There are fewer than 1,000 people over 50 working in advertising. One former agency boss points out: "As long as the age profile in agencies dictates an instinctive collective belief that, for example, Chris Evans (with 2.25 million listeners) is of greater significance than Terry Wogan (5 million listeners), we are never going to be able to talk properly to the most lucrative market of all." However, Gerry Moira, the creative director of the advertising agency Publicis, has a different point of view. He thinks that the obsession with youth is a fact of life, and nothing can be done to change it. He says: "None of us is growing old gracefully. The majority of MG drivers are over 50, and look at all the middle-aged guys on Harley Davidsons. They grew up listening to The Stones and Hendrix and I don't think they feel alienated by ads which portray younger people."

In an age when many older people are not wanted in the work place, when the radio stations don't want to aim their programming at older listeners, the question is will there be any 'turning of the tide'? So far as advertising is concerned, Claire Beale — who wrote the article that appeared in the Evening Standard — sees some glimmer of hope. The recent Guinness advert featured two elderly Italian brothers, while Lilt's latest ads also feature two older sisters.

4 Trouble at the top. The most instructive and educational insight into the way a modern UK commercial radio station is run, though, came in the recent BBC2 educational series 'Trouble At the Top', spying on six high-powered bosses struggling to turn around ailing firms or launch new companies. For this years series the programma shown at 9.00 pm on Wednesday the 11th March was called 'Degsy Rides Again', and featured the trials and tribulations of setting up a new regional commercial radio station in the north west of England.
  I hope some of you saw this programma but, for those that didn't, I thought that it would be interesting to highlight the key points that came out in this programma. The subject of the programma was the launch of Century 105, based in Manchester, last Autumn. This station, owned by Border Radio holdings, is run by the literally 'larger than life' and heavily overweight John Meyers. His company already operates Century Radio in the North East and Century 106 in Nottingham. The programma concentrated on Meyers and his attempts to get the station up and running and successfully launched. In particular, it featured his efforts to turn former Labour Party left winger Derek Hatton into a radio presenter — hence the title of the programma — by the launch date.
  The first thing that became obvious is that these stations are about only one thing, making money. Meyers comments: "It's a war out there. There are 22 other stations directly competing with us for listeners, because the more listeners you have, the more money you make."

The second thing that became clear was that all these stations have got one eye over the shoulder in the direction of the Radio Authority. When the test signal for Century105 is switched on for the first time, Meyers tells his staff: "It'll never be switched off unless we upset the Radio Authority!"

  The third point that was made clear was that the new station was going to be locked into a 'Promise of Performance' that could prove unworkable. The narrator of the programma tells the viewers that John Meyers has promised the Radio Authority that his station will have twice as much speech as most commercial stations (40% of airtime, in fact) but poses the question: "Will speech bring in the listeners?"
  The station has 1 million pound to spend on promoting itself and has poached a so-called 'shock jock', from another station. For Meyers, the audience research figures are everything but he won't know how well the station is doing for six months, when the first set of RAJAR figures are released. He says: "The more numbers we deliver, the more money we make. It's as simple as that. If we don't deliver those figures, when the figures come in, our credibility is shot. This is the biggest licence that the Radio Authority have ever given to date, and, if this radio station doesn't work, I'll struggle to get a job in Iceland."
  The next interesting thing that Meyers makes clear, again takes us back to the question of how much influence advertising agencies have over UK commercial stations. Once the test transmissions of Century 105 have begun, he spells out the fact that men are not the prime target of his or any other commercial station. He says: "It's the men who tune in first and it's the females who come in later and, when they come in, you have to be female friendly. Advertisers want to advertise to housewives, so, we target all our music to a 39 year-old woman."
5 Living up to the audience research figures. The most controversial of the station's presenters is a phone-in show host known as Scottie McClue who specialises in being offensive to listeners, politically incorrect and insulting to minority groups. He is seen in the programma being told by Meyers what he can and can't say on the air. Again, Meyers is shown to be afraid of what the Radio Authority might do if the presenter's remarks go too far. If the show upsets the regulator, it could affect the licence. As for politician turned radio presenter Derek Hatton, he has had difficulties getting used to all the studio equipment and Meyers decides, initially, to only let him do a one hour programma, instead of two hours. This means that the station will be below its promised 40% speech content and it means that ether presenters will have to do more speech to compensate for this. If Hatton does not attract enough listeners, following the publication of the first set of RAJAR audience research figures, Meyers threatens that he will be back selling newspapers on the streets of Liverpool.
  Meyers, backing up his disc jockey Derek Hatton

The programma picks up the story five months later, showing John Meyers sitting in his office on the 4th February 1999, looking extremely nervous because he is awaiting the phone call from RAJAR — the audience research organisation — that will tell him whether or not his station has achieved the ratings that it needs to satisfy its advertisers. His wife has even come over from the family home in Newcastle for the big occasion! While waiting for these figures, Meyers tells us that this is the heart stopping moment and says: "This is the worst day of the year because your life depends on that call. Sales wise, we're saying that we'll get 7%. We have to get that. Less than 7 and I'm going home."

When the call comes through from the girl at RAJAR, Meyers goes into hysterics because the figures are above those hoped for. Century 105 has taken a 4.7% share of listening and is reaching 9% of the audience. This puts the station in seventh position in the region, coming in ahead of all but three of the commercial stations. The top three positions are taken by BBC stations. Derek Hatton's audience figures are also good and, so, he stays at the station. Meyers cuddles his wife and she starts crying with joy. He assembles the entire staff and announces the figures, which bring a big cheer. The programma ends with him leading the staff in a conga around the office!

  During the programme, Meyers is also shown on a trip to the group's station in Nottingham — which he is also responsible for. That station's audience figures have been too low. After 12 or 13 months on air, the station only has a 7% share of listening and he thinks that it should be at 11, 12 or 13%. The old management has gone and nearly all the original presenters have been sacked by Meyers. He says: "The receptionist said to me, every time I walk through the door someone gets sacked. If they're not part of the solution, they're part of the problem. Presenters live or die by their audience figures. If their audience figures aren't good, they're history. They're gone."
  On his latest visit to Nottingham, Meyers tells the Sunday morning presenter that her services are no longer required at the station. He tells her that nobody listens to her programme. The numbers are so small that the research figures show an asterisk against her programma. This means that so few people are listening that they can't be counted. He has decided to keep the religious slot that she used to do but alter it and just have a DJ talking about religion. He says that the DJ doesn't have to know about religion to present a religious slot.
  In other words, he hopes to reduce the costs by getting rid of a specialist presenter and boost the audience figures at the same time. Having just been sacked, the religious presenter tells the TV programma reporter why she's been dismissed. She says: "He's interested in business. He's interested in selling advertising. It's about branding. It's about market forces. That's the way all broadcasting is going." Meyers has the last word. He says: "I'm not here to be popular. I'm here to make the station successful. We're going to bring an MD in who'll be popular but he'll have the same drive, the same rules and the same ambitions as I have but it's not a popularity contest, in any way."
6 Concluding remarks. Well, I think that this programma says it all, which is why I have related it to you here. It confirms some of the things that, like me, you will probably have already suspected or concluded. Commercial radio is really being dictated to by the advertising agencies, which together with the ratings figures are king. The advertising agencies are run largely by people under the age of 45 and staffed mainly by people in their 20's and 30's — like much of broadcasting itself — and they only really see things in terms of the youth and female audience. As has been shown, in this article, this is in spite of the huge and growing size of the more mature population. As has also been pointed out, a lot of working men listen to the radio during the day, as well — myself included — but we, apparently, don't count to the advertisers and to the people running the radio stations. Even if the housewife is considered to be the target audience during the day, I find it difficult to believe that this should be the case during the evenings and at weekends, when the audience must, surely, be much more diverse.
  Obviously, UK radio is about one thing only, making money. It's a bit like that core of the free market and capitalist system, the stock exchange. There is a herd-like instinct that dictates that everyone behave in the same way and go in the same direction. This is O.K. when all or most of the stocks are rising in price but things get bumpier when the market falls. As I have written before in this journal, it is only when the market turns down that we really see a change and a shake-out and this applies equally to the commercial radio industry. The only thing that I can say about this, is that there have been conflicting signals about the state of the economy for some months now. Recent press reports indicate that the UK is either going to have a so-called 'soft-landing', or avoid a recession altogether. However, they said the same thing ten years ago and this was followed by a severe recession!
  The question for TV advertising being posed is whether one or two adverts featuring older people will start a trend away from all youth-oriented advertising and, so, logically, the question to pose in commercial radio terms, is whether one or two new stations aimed at a more mature audience might also start any sort of trend. Certainly, I do wonder exactly what percentage of the population 39 year-old housewives actually represent!
  1999 © Soundscapes