How BBC Radio lost its voice

·8 min read
L-R: Vanessa Feltz, Steve Wright, Simon Mayo, and Paul O’Grady - Thomas Broom
L-R: Vanessa Feltz, Steve Wright, Simon Mayo, and Paul O’Grady - Thomas Broom

A lot of noise has come out of Broadcasting House this month and not all of it has been harmonious. The static started last week, when figures published by the radio ratings body Rajar showed that commercial stations are clocking up more listener hours than the BBC in early summer for the first time in almost 25 years.

Then last weekend, BBC Radio 5 Live scrapped its classified football results service on Saturday afternoons, a 70-year-old radio institution as hallowed as the shipping forecast. The Telegraph’s Jim White was not alone in viewing the move as an act of “cultural vandalism”.

Attention then turned to strife at Radio 2 after Paul O’Grady announced that this Sunday’s afternoon show would be his last, six months after the BBC began alternating the slot with the comedian Rob Beckett. “There’s a new regime now... which is nothing to do with me as it’s a management decision,” O’Grady had said of the change. His departure from the station follows that of Vanessa Feltz who also quit, while others such as Steve Wright and Craig Charles have had their shows axed.

The BBC responded, as it tends to do, by thanking departing presenters and minimising the impact of its decisions. “We will still offer a comprehensive goal service throughout the day on air and on the BBC Sport website as well as Final Score on BBC One,” a statement said of the change on 5 Live.

But the latest upheaval points to a more central, perhaps existential, crisis. The BBC is facing an unprecedented squeeze as it is expected to create programming that justifies the licence fee while also facing funding cuts. Meanwhile, it must balance the demands of tradition, innovation – and competition from an ad-fuelled commercial beast.

Vanessa Feltz attending the Action for Children's The Ultimate News Quiz 2022 - PA
Vanessa Feltz attending the Action for Children's The Ultimate News Quiz 2022 - PA

Loyalty in this new era has become a precious commodity as listeners granted ever more choice become increasingly happy to station-hop; long gone are the days when the marmalade-flecked Roberts on the kitchen dresser was tuned permanently to Radio 4 or 2.

Matt Deegan is an influential consultant and creative director at Folder Media, whose clients have included BBC and commercial stations. He says: “I think the danger for the BBC is that if commercial keeps picking off listeners, the licence fee only comes under more pressure.”

The latest ratings milestone, which showed that commercial stations accounted for 49 per cent of total radio listener hours, compared with 48.1 per cent at the BBC, comes seven years after commercial stations overtook the BBC in the race for listeners. And that gap is widening; 32.9 million people now tune into BBC radio each week, while 36.2 million listen to commercial radio.

In a canny move that typifies the sector’s fleet-footedness, LBC News announced yesterday that it would immediately begin broadcasting the classified football results on Saturday afternoons.

But the most visible sign of commercial radio’s growing might has been the poaching of top BBC talent, including Andrew Marr and Emily Maitlis, who have signed on at LBC, Graham Norton, who went from Radio 2 to Virgin Radio partly to get off the BBC’s highest earners list, and Simon Mayo, who last year reprised his drivetime Radio 2 show on the Greatest Hits Radio station.

O’Grady may yet be tempted to join a new station that has emerged from nowhere to feed on the BBC’s woes. Boom Radio started life last year as an experiment in remote broadcasting – its veteran DJs, who include David “Diddy” Hamilton, 83, present from their sheds and conservatories. Yet they now pull in 336,000 weekly listeners to the station, which targets a 60-plus “boomer” audience. More significantly, they are tuning in for an average of 9.4 hours a week, putting Boom on a par with Radio 2.

Andrew Marr hosts his show on LBC - PA
Andrew Marr hosts his show on LBC - PA

“Our programming budget is around 1 per cent of the cash spent by Radio 2, yet our fans are choosing us,” says Boom’s co-founder Phil Riley, 62, who has launched or relaunched stations including LBC, Heart and Magic in a career spanning five decades. He is more tight-lipped when I ask him later if he has given Paul O’Grady a call. “I couldn’t possibly comment,” he says.

You don’t have to be of pensionable age to remember a very different landscape. The BBC still had a stranglehold over FM and AM radio when the first three national commercial licences were granted in the early 1990s to Classic FM, Virgin Radio and Talk Radio. There was also a certain snobbery from the corporation. Riley remembers being inspired by American radio while studying in New York in the 1980s. He wanted to introduce better audience research in the UK. “At one festival where I was speaking in about 1990, some BBC producer stood up and said, ‘You’re nothing better than a baked-bean salesman.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

The revolution only really started in 2007, by which time digital radio had opened up the airwaves sufficiently to attract big investment. “Before then, the owners of stations were mid-sized PLCs under pressure to drive short-term profits,” says Howard Bareham, co-founder of Trisonic, a specialist audio agency.

Now you have big private media owners such as Global and Bauer who, Bareham says, are making “big, long-term investments”.

Gary Stein, group programme director at Bauer’s Hits Radio brand, says the rise of streaming music services such as Spotify was as big a shot in the arm as competition from the BBC. “It created a sharp focus around what radio is good at and that’s companionship and community – things that the pandemic also highlighted,” he says. “So making sure you have the best talent is key.”

David Hamilton, pictured at his Sussex home, last year - Christopher Pledger
David Hamilton, pictured at his Sussex home, last year - Christopher Pledger

Stein signed Mayo to Greatest Hits Radio three years after the presenter had left Radio 2. Mayo has since taken his hit movie reviews show, which he makes with Mark Kermode, from BBC Radio 5 Live to Sony’s podcast division. Trying to “jump through hoops” at the BBC had become “soul destroying”, Mayo told Radio Times.

“We’re not telling our presenters what to say or put in their shows,” Stein says. “They know their audiences better than anyone else.”

The BBC is largely still trying to please much wider audiences and, due to the terms of its charter, must approach a sort of universality. Yet this need to be all things to all people has fuelled the sense of an identity crisis at Radio 2, in particular. Not so long ago, it was chasing a younger working-class demographic and, consequently, some of its output, such as Clare Teal’s Swing and Big Band Show (one of the few shows that reached beyond mainstream music) found itself surplus to requirements.

“As the boomer generation gets older, the BBC got nervous about the gap between Radio 1 and 2 and tried to bring the average age of Radio 2 listeners down,” says Riley, who was about to retire to a villa in Majorca when his Boom cofounder David Lloyd alerted him to a gap in the market. “Radio 2 wasn’t abandoning boomers but was perhaps paying them less attention.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re not listening to Ken Bruce any more,” Deegan adds. “But they’re probably not listening to Rylan and giving some of those hours to Boom.” The BBC last year insisted that Radio 2’s 35-plus target audience “has not changed”.

Simon Mayo on Scala Radio in 2019 - Julian Simmonds
Simon Mayo on Scala Radio in 2019 - Julian Simmonds

There is some cheer for the the corporation. While BBC Radio 1 and Radio 5 Live recorded audience drops of 8 per cent and 13 per cent respectively, other stations held firm. Radio 6 Music (threatened with the chop on more than one occasion) has a record audience of almost three million.

“The BBC’s success is measured by more than audience numbers,” says Matt Payton, CEO of Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio. “The fact that Radio 1 or 2 loses some audience might be OK if it’s still doing something distinctive.”

As the BBC continues its fraught journey into a new era, few people are as happy as Phil Riley. He says coverage of Boom’s ratings has pulled in more listeners to the likes of David Hamilton, who ironically quit Radio 2 in 1987 because its music had become “too geriatric”.

Boom’s success might be simple. Riley tells me that he has just received an email saying that the station “just makes me feel happy. It’s the simplicity of that message that makes me think we’re on to a good thing.”

Do you still listen to BBC Radio? Would you agree it has lost its voice? Share your thoughts in the comments section below