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Speech is the most important part of radio. When will the industry realise?

The axing of LBC 97.3 from DAB transmitters in parts of England, and Danny Baker's unceremonious dumping by the BBC, shows the radio industry is sleepwalking into irrelevance

BBC Radio 4's listening figures show it. talkSPORT's listening figures show it. LBC 97.3's listening figures also show it. The criminally under-promoted LBC News 1152's figures and BBC Radio 5 live's figures show it.

What we Brits quaintly call "speech radio" is consistently holding, and increasing, listeners.

Click through on some of those links to audience figures - then try Hallam FM's listening figures, Heart West Midland's figures, Downtown Radio's figures, etc. They, predominantly, play music. There is quite a difference.

Speech radio's success is even evident in so-called music stations, too. Chris Moyles's breakfast show on BBC Radio 1, when he started, represented 21% of the station's total listening. By the end of his tenure on the breakfast show, that had grown to 29%. (source: RAJAR / Kim McNally's speech at a recent IPSOS MediaCT event). Geoff Lloyd's hometime show on Absolute Radio is market leader for men 15+.

Speech is number #1 (2GB) and #2 (ABC 702) in Sydney. Speech is #2 in New York. Speech is #1 and #3 in Vancouver. And speech is #1 here in London.

Speech is popular online. As Maco AcAleece points out in a discussion post, "I’m amazed how many of my non-radio literate pals (or soc-media psuedo pals) are listening to speech podcasts", citing Radiolab and 99% invisible.

And, online, speech pays, too. TWiT, an online podcast network (which still sees most of its consumption as audio-only MP3s) is on course to generate $6 million in 2012 (it posted $4.2m revenue last year).

Listeners love engaging, interesting speech.

Last week, Global Radio yanked speech format LBC 97.3 from their DAB transmitters in the west country, midlands and the north of England, replacing it with their oldies format Gold. An interesting content and conversation-based format, impossible to replicate by algorithm, high production standards, and showing consistent audience improvement, has been replaced by nonstop music just like Spotify can do but with adverts and without a skip button. Predictably, listeners are confused and disappointed. "I don’t understand why they’ve swapped a talk radio station for a music station", says Suse Rowley in a discussion post. Another listener, Malcolm Finnegan, says "I’m absolutely devastated too. I live in South Yorkshire and the only station I really listened to was LBC. Now I just get a message saying ‘Station Off Air’."

Last week, too, the BBC unceremoniously dumped Danny Baker from BBC London 94.9, replacing that programme with a more conventional BBC local radio news programme about dog mess on pavements and the state of kids playgrounds. Audiences, once more, are furious: Steven Fry calling the BBC "dickwits", Gary Lineker saying he was "flabbergasted", and comedian Rob Brydon tweeting "Glad the BBC are axing Danny Baker's daily radio show. I've had it up to here with his wit, warmth and originality".

The future for radio - all radio - is the engaging, original speech. The data shows this is for all audiences, and for all ages.

By not recognising the importance of engaging, original speech, and by axing two high quality examples, the radio industry's sleepwalking into irrelevance.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed LBC had been removed from all MXR multiplexes; it's Yorkshire-only.

James Cridland is the Managing Director of Media UK, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business.
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19 comments

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Recommendations: 0
Calder Hughes
posted

The problem is, speech can’t be churned out by a computer and “programmed” to any given formula.

The originality and personality has been slowly extracted and done away with for years now in UK radio.

We are now at the point where it’s blindingly obvious that this is damaging the industry. The listeners are voting with their feet and the advertisers are voting with their money. Sadly, far too many people just don’t understand this and seem to think that the others screaming for a return for decent content are calling for a return to the cheesy 70s.

That’s not the case at all. What is required is something different to listen to rather than bland and repetitive playlists with robotic presenters or worse still no presenters at all.

Good article James although one point I’d like to make is that the loss of LBC on DAB doesn’t mean people cant listen, it just means they will have to listen on-line. Is that such a problem?

Recommendations: 0
James Cridland
posted

The loss of LBC on DAB doesn’t mean people cant listen, it just means they will have to listen on-line. Is that such a problem?

Of course. 20.4% of radio is listened-to on DAB. Internet is four times smaller than that.

Recommendations: 0
Calder Hughes
posted

All we really should care about is that it’s listened to. Whether FM/ONLINE/DAB or whatever – poor content is poor content.

It may be four times smaller now, I bet it was a different story last year and the year before. On-line listening is growing – innovations such as Windows8 where your favourite radio station is playing at boot up will ensure it continues to grow.

The internet is here to stay, personally, I don’t think DAB is.

Recommendations: 0
Barry Wilson
posted

There are that many ways of communicating radio be it music or my preferred speach that does it matter which way it happens as long as does and has a listenership. Speach could can be churned out well by gifted presenters and an embarrassment by those that are not gifted. I enjoyed it years ago do a speach based programme even though it seemed to taked a whole week to put a 3 hr show together.

Recommendations: 0
Martin Phillp
posted

Have I misread the New York ratings? The second most listened to station in the New York market is WCBS-FM, a classic hits format. WCBS is also the call sign for their 880 AM rolling news service branded as WCBS 880 Newsradio, while WABC (Talk in a similar vein to LBC) slumped to 15th place.

Incidentally Global only pulled LBC from Yorkshire, although it’s questionable if they removed it from Edinburgh.

Recommendations: 0
Darren WeddingPhotographer Wingham
posted

Although I’m a big fan of Radio 4, it wouldn’t survive very long as a commercial organisation?

If there were more LBC’s Talk Sports would we tire of yet another phone-in/sports radio station?

Is there any decent talent to sustain any more such services?

Recommendations: 0
James Cridland
posted

Martin – thanks for the comment about LBC and the Yorkshire mux (and for the nameless Global employee who made the same point rather more snarkily via chat). I’ve edited the article accordingly.

Darren – yes, there’s plenty of decent talent. Some talent who amusingly blows up a radio station during his last broadcast… (wink) – there’s just a lack of opportunity, in my mind.

Clive Dickens points out on Twitter that there’s a session on this very subject at 9am on Tuesday at the Radio Festival.

Recommendations: 0
David Gath-Massey
posted

The thing is, there is more to radio than just music. I love music, but I really like it as more of one of the ‘ingredients’ of a show, not the entire dish. What is radio for, but communication? It’s not just a jukebox. I’ve said it before, if a show can make me laugh, keep me interested on an adult level, get me wound up. give me an opportunity to interact with it and use music as an interlude between all the ‘good’ bits, then you’ve got me hooked as a listener.

Recommendations: 0
James Martin
posted

There’s still room on the dial for tightly-formatted music radio. I agree it shouldn’t be the only thing available, but there should be room for both to co-exist side by side. Certainly I feel talkSPORT is a poorer place since going all-sport.

The problem is though that speech radio is expensive to make.

It’s such a shame we’ll never get a frequency audit in this country. It would be great to have the entire country to have the luxury of the choice of, say, LBC, alongside the big music brands like Kiss, Magic, Capital and Heart.

Sometimes I wonder if Graham Torrington should have been held onto by Global? Late Night Love could have still fitted on Heart, with some tweaking.

Recommendations: 1
Nick Margerrison
posted

Good article!

I think everyone knows this is the case in radio it’s just a much harder and more complex ask for the commercial sector to pull off and that’s why they’re getting left behind.

The tragedy is that there now simply isn’t the money to invest in speech radio from the commercial sector. They tried a few years back and royally screwed it up in both Scotland and Liverpool. In my opinion this was because they fundementally misunderstood the appeal of both LBC and Radio 4.

Currently most of the radio industry is managing an ‘inevitable’ decline in the face of compettition from the internet/communications revolution. I remember thinking to myself while in the Global Radio building in London that the only station that would make any sense in 20 years time from now would be LBC. The others won’t be worth a penny.

I’m not sure its absence from DAB is a problem. The net will awaken the sleeping giant that is LBC, presuming it doesn’t get closed before then. It’ll pain Global Radio haters to read this but they’re guaranteed a future as long as they keep that station in their portfolio.

The oncoming tidal wave of change will wipe the notion that you can make money out of a continuious stream of nonstop music from people’s minds. Anyone can compete with you from their own bedroom. Why listen to Hallam FM’s (or any other’s) pop music when you can listen to the playlist your fit mate has selected for you?

At core the business model of commercial radio is this:

1, We play you music you can’t hear anywhere else with a licence from the Government that stops others from doing the same.

2, We sell adverts to people on this legally enforced platform.

In the new world such licences won’t exist and the idea that you can’t hear a tune will be absurd. Thus commercial radio’s current business model is in trouble.

In the meantime the need people in the UK have for interesting conversation will be served by The BBC, LBC and the ever increasing podcast community. That need isn’t going to change in the online world. In fact I suspect it will increase.

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