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5 April 2022

In with the old: How radio is beating streaming at its own game

Nine out of ten British adults still listen to the radio every week – despite the rise of streaming. New Statesman data analysis shows how the country’s biggest stations hold their audience’s attention in the digital era.

By Katharine Swindells

It is a Sunday afternoon in November. My mother and I are stuck in traffic and, as always, we are tuned in to Magic FM. Someone has requested 1999 Backstreet Boys hit “I Want It That Way”.

When you are used to Spotify’s ability to call up a single song in an instant and then recommend hours of a music from a similar era, genre or mood, Magic’s transition into Ben E King’s 1961 soul classic “Stand By Me” feels rather abrupt. But that doesn’t faze its listeners: Magic and its sister stations pull in just over four million listeners a week. 

Will anything kill the radio star? In 1999, 89 per cent of the UK adult population listened to the radio at least once a week. In 2021, over two decades later, the listenership hasn’t budged. Streaming may be its latest challenger, but radio refuses to die.

According to Rajar, the UK’s official body for radio audience data, BBC Radio 2 is the country’s most widely listened-to station, reaching 14.9 million people a week. Classic FM and Magic are the most widely listened-to non-BBC stations. In fact, after a small listenership dip in the late 2000s, commercial radio still reaches more than half of the population every week.

Naysayers argue this must be down to commuters and lorry drivers “passively” tuning in every day, but the Rajar stats suggest that’s not true. While the proportion of radio listened to in the car has increased somewhat over the past decade, it nevertheless only accounts for a quarter of all radio hours. Even before the pandemic, 60 per cent of all radio was listened to inside the home.

“I think the death of radio has been greatly exaggerated so many times in its history, whether that be the Sony Walkman, MTV, the iPod, or even right back to TV,” says Ben Cooper, the chief content and music officer at Bauer Media, whose stations include Absolute Radio, Greatest Hits and Magic.

Indeed. In the century since radio’s first broadcast, the music industry has adapted to all manner of technological advances, from cassettes to music television. Many of these technologies have come and gone, barely making a dent in radio listenership, but Cooper admits the era of streaming may be the most challenging yet. “The radio industry probably did sleepwalk into the smartphone generation,” he says. “Radio was the only thing in your bedroom connected to the outside world – now it's your mobile phone.”

[See also: How we rediscovered the pleasures of the album in the digital age]

The listenership is also ageing, particularly for the BBC, which is losing listeners across all ages except for the oldest. Commercial radio, on the other hand, has increased listeners across all age groups in the past decade – apart from the youngest, who used to constitute the largest category.

But Rebecca Frank, the content director at Kiss, says the narrative that young listeners are switching off is “lazy”. Frank, whose station aims for a young target demographic, says the key is not only to reach young people, but to hold their attention and keep them coming back regularly. 

“They’re listening for less time, but that’s not because the product hasn't got merit,” she says. “It's just because of the sea of choice.” In the final quarter of 2021, the average radio listener tuned in for 20.3 hours per week, which represents a decline of almost 18 per cent over two decades.

Up against everything else competing for listeners' attention, how do radio stations convert people from being incidental listeners to ones who return? A major factor is meeting listeners where they are technologically. Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) radio took off in the UK in the late 2000s and, by 2010, a quarter of radio hours were listened to digitally. By 2020, digital accounted for almost 60 per cent of radio listening; 14 per cent of that was online and through apps. 

The next frontier, according to those in the industry, is smart speakers: a third of adults use a smart speaker, and it is estimated that 64 per cent of all audio consumed on smart speakers is live radio. Stations are trialling games that can be played through speakers to encourage audience engagement. If all else fails, there is, of course, the tried-and-true method of handing out piles of cash to listeners.

But Cooper says some of the strongest engagement hasn’t been incentivised at all, particularly in the past two years. “What we saw in lockdown was a lot of people just reaching out and wanting that relationship with the radio,” he says. “It’s that human need of wanting contact and wanting to be recognised and wanting someone to understand what you're going through.”

That proved useful to the government: radio’s broad and consistent reach, and its position as the most trusted information medium, made it a vital tool to spread public health messaging during the pandemic.

[See also: How the vinyl industry reached breaking point]

It is that community and connection, says Frank, that creates trust in radio’s ability to curate and recommend. “What the audience doesn't ask for… is more content and more choice,” she says. “What they really want is more help.” 

Spotify’s playlists may be largely curated by human beings, but they can feel faceless and impersonal. Frank argues that radio’s human element bridges the gap from the old and familiar to the new. The presenter’s endorsement of a song, or telling the story of a new artist, is what keeps people coming back for more. 

“Whether it's through podcasts or hiring talent to do features, streaming services are trying to replicate that human element that radio has,” Frank says. “The human connection and the stories – that is the infectious emotional bit that only radio can bring to the table.” 

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