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volume 4
may 2001

The confusion over the format


  British radio stations and their declining audiences
by Geoff Baldwin
  In the early 1960's the BBC still had a strong hold on British radio, though its monopoly was threatened by a growing number of offshore radio stations. To fight this compition the national pop station Radio 1 came on the air in 1967. That same year the British government promised that Britain would get commercial radio very soon. It took some time, but from 1973 on Independent Local Radio came on the air, first on a small scale. In these days every station had it's own different format. A radio station with an all day news format, for instance, would be the only one with this format in its district. Thirty years later, the situation has changed. Each city or township now has its own local commercial radio station or low power station, but the earlier differentiation in formats seems to have vanished. Geoff J. Baldwin offers his impressions on the British radio situation.
1 Audiences to U.K. commercial radio stations have been declining for the past three and half years, according to the official RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research) research figures. They reached a peak of just over 50% in the middle of 1997 and fell to a new low of 46% in the figures of the fourth quarter of last year, which are the latest figures available. However, RAJAR uses an antiquated and very limited sampling system and may, therefore, even understate the true extent of decline. There's no real way of knowing for sure. What means to be true, though, is that the official figures do reflect, accurately, the long-term trend. A casual glance at any message board on a radio-related website will probably tell anyone that cares to investigate why they are in decline.
2 Of course, most of us only have to turn on our radio sets and hear that same Queen track, that same Hot Chocolate track or Bee Gees or Abba hit or whatever played for the thousandth time to realise why this is happening! It's enough to make you pull your hair out, if you have any left! We have touched on this subject many times, in the past and the fact that all the stations have gravitated towards the "so called" centre and want to play Robbie Williams, Boyzone and the rest of the recent/current boy and girl bands around. We have also many times commented on the fact that rock music — especially of the classic variety — had been virtually eliminated from the airwaves, at least until recently. [1]
3 However, of late, we have noticed a subtle but distinct shift amongst ILR stations that have updated their playlist and have shifted back towards playing more a mixture of rock and pop music. This is brought home to me when I tune into the local station here in Romford, Active FM, they do throw in old Yes singles like "Owner of a Lonely Heart" or, for example, the odd Bruce Spingsteen classic. But the problem is that the next minute they are back to the latest bland nondescript pop song and that is not going to keep me listening for long I'm afraid! That, perhaps, sums up the problem of modem ILR, it just doesn't work! In particular, it is being largely aimed at a young audience in a country, with an ageing population. In fact, I have never accepted that all youngsters want to listen to dance/pop music.
4 Clearly, behind the scenes, the bosses of commercial radio are becoming worried about the downward trend. Kelvin MacKenzie (the boss of the Wireless Group), for example, is clearly under pressure concerning the ratings of talkSPORT and has been featured in the London Evening Standard on more than one occasion this year moaning about the RAJAR system of compiling ratings — he blames the research method for the poor ratings and wants to "shoot the messenger!"
5 Down at Capital Radio, group director of programmes, Richard Park has recently quit to set up his own consultancy venture, Park Broadcasting, amid rumours of being sidelined by chief executive, David Mansfield and losing his creative role at the London-based radio group. Park is credited by many as being the reason that Capital Radio has retained its dominant place in the crowded London market for so long. His departure also follows the appointment of a new programme controller Jeff Smith and a new managing director, Andria Vidler. Both have been poached from the BBC. Smith was, previously, at Radio I and has brought in new deejays like Craig David and the Artful Dodger, as well as adding more dance music at the weekend. This is, apparently, in response to the fact that Capital FM has been losing listeners in the 16-24 age group to rival London station Kiss FM.
6 Vidler is a 34-year old mother of two and an ex-BBC marketer, who helped put Radio 5 Live on the map. I won't bore you with all the crap that she goes on about — in a newspaper interview — regarding brands, logos etcetera. We've heard it all before! But the overall message seems to be that the Capital Group have expanded by buying stations around the country. Also investing in digital and intemet radio but have rather taken their eye off the ball, as regards their core station based in London and, hence, they feel the need to have a shake up.
7 To my mind, it's no wonder that commercial radio audiences are deteriorating if the people running these stations think that all they have to do is bring in some so-called high flier from the BBC and do a bit of marketing and rebranding. What about the music they are playing? What about the type of presenters they employ? The mess, though, that U.K. commercial radio is in seems to be emphasised, in particular, by what is going national commercial station, Virgin Radio. When this station came on the air in 1993 it was regarded as being the first legal commercial rock station for the U.K., although it never billed itself as such and never quite got there. In early days, it did play bands like Pink Floyd, INXS, Bad Company and the like but I do remember that, eventually the Brit Pop era dawned and everything seemed to change at the station. I pointed out in an article, at the tin they had one token rock track, which was the Guns 'n' Roses track "Sweet Child of Mine" and they seemed to play this particular track over and over again!
8 There was one short-lived period when Mark Story was appointed as programme controller and then he tried to shift the programming back again so that it had more of a rock feel to it. But the senior management didn't like this change and then Chris Evans bought the station from Richard Branson and everything changed again. Some of the older presenters were sacked and the music policy changed back again, so that the station was playing a lot of music of the 1990's. Regardless of whether it was any good or not the same familiar old hit singles that you could hear on almost any other commercial station, now could be heard on Virgin Radio. This heralded the station motto "Classic Hits and Today's best Music".
9 By this stage, the day of the classic rock station had well and truly arrived in America but, it was also at this time — around 1998 — that this type of music had become virtually a dirty word in British radio — because the Brit Pop and dance music boom was reaching it's peak. I think that was what led to the satellite station European Klassik Rock springing up in that same era. They saw a gap in the market and tried to fill it by "breaking the mould" and offering. a wider range of music. Of course, as we know all too well, the general regulatory and monopoly culture that exists in U.K. broadcasting is not conducive to having upstart independent radio stations on the air, offering something different, especially on terrestrial airwaves and the red tape restrictions, the lack of advertising and proper backing and funding conspired to kill off EKR. Whatever it was, I certainly don't think it was the broader music policy that EKR had adopted that did for the station.
10 Meanwhile, Virgin Radio — originally known as Virgin 1215 — had been faced with a declining audience. In 1994, it had reached a peak audience of 3.6 million but by 1997 this had declined to just 2.2 million. In 1998, there was a temporary upturn to 2.7 million, which seems to have coincided with the take-over of the station by Chris Evans and the shake-up that this resulted in. However, his influence didn't last very long and by late last year, the decline had accelerated again and the station only had 1.7 million listeners. This (and a pile of cash) may have had something to do with the company being sold to the Scottish Media Group just over a year ago and it would appear to be the parent group's desire to see yet another U turn in music policy that has led to the current shake up and hotch potch which they call "real music"!
11 The thinking behind the latest changes certainly appears to have been that Virgin had to become distinguishable in London from it's biggest rivals there which are Heart 106.2 and Capital FM. The latest RAJAR figures show that the latter two had audience shares of 4.7% and 12.4%, respectively, while Virgin is behind with just 3.6%. Virgin chief executive John Pearson admitted: "Our audience figures have started to plateau." That is putting it mildly! The latest format change (introduced earlier this year), is, apparently, in response to research undertaken by the station among its core audience of, mostly male, 20 to 40 year-olds. This revealed that 65% of Virgin's audience prefers music from the seventies to nineties to either chart music or "golden oldies". The new policy involves reducing the number of chart hits on the playlist and increasing the airtime for what he calls, in a ghastly phrase, "heritage acts".
12 Pearson says: "We've never played Westlife and we're not likely to but we are taking people like All Saints, Craig David and Ronan Keating off the playlist. There will also be less music by crossover artists such as The Corrs, Robbie Williams and Texas." This makes me laugh. You can almost picture that the management of the station have had a meeting — or perhaps a focus group had met — and an executive saying: "Look our own research shows that we have a substantial number of listeners that are actually over thirty years of age and they're not into all this chart and modem stuff that we're playing. Some of them actually like those dinosaur bands that we thought we'd banished from the airwaves forever. How can we deal with this. We can't become an all out classic rock station. It's just not the done thing in this day and age and, in any case, it may scare off our younger listeners." "I know", says his colleague, "we've still got that box of dreary old CD's containing bands like Bad Company and ZZ Top. Why don't we dig that out, weed out the Boy Bands and the Girl Bands and keep most of those absolutely brilliant acts that we've been playing for the last five or six years, add a few old hit singles with a rock feel and mix in all together. I know we'll call it "Real Music". A lot of listeners will be fooled into thinking we are offering something, new and different!"
13 And it's almost as though this is what they actually did! It's a hotch potch of a few classic rock tracks — even that same Guns 'n' Roses track that I mentioned earlier is back! Also some old singles that can cross over between pop and rock formats, the faceless dreary bands of the last few years that they've been playing to death and still seem to take up about half of the playlist. I believe that they still do play the likes of Robbie Williams — isn't he played quite enough on all the other stations?
14 I think this a rather poor attempt to go back somewhat to where the station started but it just hasn't been bold enough and that's why it may pick up some listeners in the short term but is unlikely, in my opinion, to stop the rot in the long term. The whole philosophy of this station seems to revolve around what the station is not playing, rather than what it is playing. In other words it will play popular music, as long as it's not black music, soul, disco, dance music etc., etc. That seems to be the negative glue that holds it together. If I can adapt a certain political phrase to sum up the format of Virgin Radio, perhaps their motto should be "We want to be in rock music but not run by rock music!" Frankly, however, this is an unworkable philosophy.
15 The confusion over the format, though, is even more evident at the weekends. Then they seem to play quite a lot of eighties music and keep the chat down. Personally, I think this is when it almost works. There aren't many — if any — stations concentrating on, that era of music and, so, it does stand out that bit more. Anyway, we'll find out when the next audience figures are published, whether these programme changes are having any effect. By the way, since I mentioned changes at Capital Radio, I should, perhaps, touch on the fact that there is also some variation with the music policy at Capital Gold. One weekday evening, for an hour, between 6 PM and 7 PM, they did actually, play Classic Rock style music, including the likes of Golden Earring and Lynyrd Skynyrd but it only appears to have been a one off experiment and was, apparently, prompted by the fact that Mick Brown had been sent a Top of the Pops compilation CD!
16 I understand that this station does, apparently, play a much more mature music format — in the classic rock mould — late every Friday and Saturday night. I'm not sure if it's between 11 PM and midnight or after midnight. What I do know is that I did catch a bit of the "graveyard slot" after midnight one evening and the D.J. was Neil Winfield and he spoke sensibly and played some decent music and I'd have no problem with tuning in to Capital Gold more often if it was always like that. Why can't they have this sort of programming on in the daytime when people are actually listening!
1. See for instance: Baldwin, Geoff J. (1999), The trouble with modern UK commercial radio. Why are they all doing the same thing? In: Soundscapes, August 1999. Return to text
  Geoff J. Baldwin is acting editor of Radio Review. This essay will appear this same month in issue 102, 2001 of that magazine. You can e-mail the author on the subject of this essay: review@radio.fm.
  2001 © Soundscapes