Paul Dacre's claim that, due to the BBC, commercial radio is "ailing"

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 3 February 2007

Despite the odd government white-wash inspired truce along the way, I imagine that my worldview and that of the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre are almost implacably opposed. I read with interest, therefore, his much quoted Cudlipp lecture the other week, which amongst other things, accused the BBC of "cultural Marxism".

I don't want to look at the speech as a whole, as Lloyd Shepherd has already done that job for me - my favourite line in Lloyd's response being a rather lecturing "I say again: you can only have one monoculture, Mr Dacre.".

I did, though, want to pick up on one point specific point that Mr. Dacre made. In his riposte, Lloyd suggested that much of Dacre's talk consisted of assertion followed by a conclusion which was not backed up by evidence. This paragraph from the editor's lecture seems to me to be a prime example of this. Bemoaning the BBC's size and reach, Dacre states:

"No wonder Britain's hard pressed provincial press complains it can’t compete against such firepower, our ailing commercial radio sector is furious that the market is rigged against it by subsidy, while our nascent internet firms rage they’re not competing on a level playing field."

I'm particularly drawn to Dacre's assertion that Britain's commercial radio sector is "ailing".

That isn't a picture of the market that I recognise from the recently released Rajar figures, which show radio listening at an all time high since Rajar began compiling the figures back in 1992. True, looming large in that audience are BBC stations, networks, and internet listening facilities, but commercial stations, it seems to me, are more than holding their own in terms of listening figures. National and local commercial stations have seen both reach and share grow year on year.

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Paul Dacre is, of course, quite happy to try and have it both ways. If the BBC is pulling in audiences, it is a menace to the commercial market. And, if viewing and listening figures fall, his Daily Mail is one of the first newspaper to be reporting with barely concealed glee that Radio 1 has dropped below 10 million listeners, or that BBC One is losing audience share.

If it isn't clear that the commercial radio sector is "ailing" from the Rajar figures, what is clear though, is that a major factor affecting the bottom line is that competition for advertising revenue is getting fiercer and fiercer, as now the internet joins newspaper, radio, TV and billboard as a fully-fledged market competing for revenue. The BBC isn't a primary factor in the growth of the online advertising market. And as that market is increasingly channeled through USA based search engines, and notably Google, all that money is also leaving the UK's media economy, which strikes me as a greater cause for concern than the BBC's size.

Dacre also omits another factor competing for listener hours with commercial radio stations - the fact that several of the national newspapers in the UK have muscled into the online audio market, and are effectively making their own radio shows. The Guardian and The Times, for example, both have downloadable weekly football shows - competing directly for TalkSPORT's radio and internet listening audience. Newspapers used to be in the business of selling print advertising - now they are both major internet advertising revenue destinations, and producing their own radio shows - why the bounders!

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One of my friends is part of the Rajar panel, and I noted with interest the other week that the booklet he fills in is yet to include in the list of stations any of the audio output of the national press, nor initiatives like Channel 4's new radio programming. Which would suggest that once you take their audiences into account, the real "listening" figures for commercial radio are even higher than the record radio audience number that Rajar has just posted.

2 Comments

Fantastic article, Martin. Particular fan of the 'if people are still listening to radio then the BBC isn't strangling commercial radio' argument!

The BBC's share of listening is growing against commercial radio: partly due to the fact it can change the nature of its stations at will (not a freedom afforded to the commercial sector); partly due to a massive amount of free advertising acros the BBC channels (not something the commercial sector could even afford); and partly due to the not inconsiderable benefit of knowing exactly how much money it has to play with until 2012 (whereas commercial radio is hard-pressed to know what money we might get next month, let alone next year).

Despite your new-media excitement about podcasts, even the most popular podcasts are a tiny percentage of the total hours listened to radio - and it's total hours that counts. Podcasts are having no noticeable effect on radio audiences at all.

But then, you'd expect me to disagree...

Personally I think the cross-promotion of BBC services is something that needs to be looked at again. It has never been clear to me exacxtly how you can "price" that exposure, and you know I am against advertising even on the BBC's international services, but I'd rather the BBC Trust were looking at that kind of issue, rather than the rather airy-fairy "What does impartiality mean in the 21st century" kind of report they've started off commissioning. Plus I also know from within the Beeb that they (and RealPlayer) are one of the most constant sources of viewer/listener complaints.

And, obviously, it would be churlish of me not to disagree further as well - but I never see how removing the BBC from the equation would make commercial stations more financially secure. Sure, their listening hours would increase given the vacuum, and new opportunities would open up for sports rights etc, but that wouldn't *necessarily* drive up the commercial value of stations. There is no guarantee that the advertising market in the UK would grow to support the higher prices. Nor without the BBC on the scene would it mean commercial stations could necessarily make longer terms projections of income - IMHO obviously.

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