Radio fans spent more time listening to commercial stations than the BBC over the first part of the summer – for the first time since the 1990s – as deep-pocketed rivals invest heavily in marketing, poaching talent and launching new services.
Continued budget cuts at the BBC have hampered the corporation’s ability to invest in its own services and retain talent with big names from Chris Moyles, Chris Evans, Eddie Mair and, more recently, Andrew Marr, Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis signing lucrative deals to move to commercial radio rivals.
The BBC’s portfolio of radio stations – from Radio 1 to 6 Music and the Asian Network – accounted for 48.1% of the almost 1bn hours of total radio listened to by UK audiences in the three months to 26 June.
The last time the commercial radio industry led the BBC in terms of the share of listening hours was in 1999, according to figures from radio industry measurement body Rajar.
“The commercial radio industry has transformed over the last decade in particular,” said Howard Bareham, cofounder of audio agency Trisonic.
“The commercial sector has deep pockets and invested heavily, there is better quality programming and more marketing than ever, spin-off stations of brands such as Absolute and Kiss have worked well and national talent that once would have stayed at the BBC is now being hosted increasingly on commercial radio.”
In February, Global Radio, owner of stations ranging from Capital and Heart to Classic FM, once again flexed its financial muscle by signing deals with Maitlis and Sopel, who will join former colleague Marr at LBC, reportedly doubling their salaries in the process.
Global, Europe’s biggest commercially-funded radio group, is controlled by Monaco-based Michael Tabor, who has made a fortune estimated by the Sunday Times at more than £600m from a combination of investments in gambling, buying BetVictor in 2014, plus a string of thoroughbred racehorses.
Six years ago Rupert Murdoch moved to become a force in UK radio by paying £220m for the Wireless Group, home to brands including Virgin Radio and TalkSport, with star signings including Evans, Jeremy Kyle and Trisha Goddard.
Murdoch’s News UK has since launched new services TalkRadio and TimesRadio, stablemate to the Times newspapers.
The third major player is German-owned Bauer, which runs stations including Jazz FM, Magic, Kiss and Absolute.
“Global Radio, Bauer and News UK, these super media groups have invigorated the commercial radio sector,” said Bareham.
“They are all private companies, not hampered by being public, and can therefore invest for the long term. The commercial industry has been on the tail of the BBC in terms of listening hours for some years, it has been coming.”
The commercial radio sector passed the BBC in terms of weekly reach – the number of listeners – back in the last quarter of 2015. The latest figures show that on average 32.9 million listeners tune into BBC radio each week, while 36.2 million listen to commercial stations.
Worryingly for the BBC, commercial radio stations also continue to substantially outperform the public broadcaster among listeners aged under 45.