Live radio: beaten by automation?

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland

The latest RAJAR figures for the UK came out last week – they do this every three months, and give me a cast-iron excuse to cover what’s going on in the world’s most multiplatform radio market. Here’s what I think we can learn…
The brand extension Absolute 80s – 1.6m listeners – is nearly as big as Absolute Radio – 1.9m listeners.
Absolute Radio is a heritage national broadcaster playing “real music” (anything with a guitar in), available nationally on AM, DAB, online, and on FM in London. It’s almost entirely live, and is clearly highly invested in. Absolute 80s? Only digital (DAB and online), and entirely voice-tracked, with the exception of the breakfast show (which is carried on both, with split music tracks).
‘Live’ really doesn’t matter. Nor does platform, to an extent. What matters is great, unique, content.
LBC London News – 513,000 listeners – is bigger than BBC London 94.9 – 477,000 listeners.
BBC London 94.9 (on FM) is a local BBC radio station with all the might of the world’s largest broadcaster; with (relatively) big names on-air, fancy studios and significant local content, all from Broadcasting House in London. It’s all live, and is promoted on prime-time TV every single day. LBC London News? A part-time radio station on AM/DAB (it airs main station LBC overnight), it mainly consists of reruns of LBC interviews and a rolling news service. I understand that much of it is produced to run in an automated fashion. It has no promotion and no website. When I went round owners Global Radio a few years ago, it had no studios – the station being put together in a small booth.
Now, part of this might be misattribution in our diary system, and it might be a little blip. But you can throw all the resources you like at a radio station: if the output isn’t any good, then smaller operators being smarter can win.
BBC Radio 1 “adds 750,000 listeners”
The national top 40 station – 10.4m listeners – crowed about its figures in an ebullient press release. Trouble is, in the previous quarter they lost 747,000. If you look at their figures over six months, they’ve only added three thousand listeners, and the listening trend from 2008 is not good.
Last week I congratulated the Irish on their promotion of their own radio listening figures. But, when long-term trend data is available, the PR spin will always be tempered by the truth. And if youth station BBC Radio 1 is in trouble, as it appears to be, that’s bad news for radio’s future. Get well soon, Radio 1.
Online growing slower than ‘the radio’
AM/FM continues to shrink in the UK – down to a 53.7% share of listening. DAB, which is much the same (a box with an antenna) is up to 26.7%. 20.2m people listen, on average, for 13.8 hours a week.
However live, simulcast online radio has increased, but not as much. 8.5m people listen, on average, for 7.8 hours a week.
Many people point to “the future” for live, simulcast radio as being streamed online. Yet online is growing slower than DAB, and people use it less. It’s also worthwhile remembering that this is not at the expense of radio listening overall. Radio is as popular as ever.
I don’t think it’s an issue with the technology – just that live radio is a poor competitor to interactive services (like Pandora, not that we have that here). And if there’s a note of caution, it’s that the internet is not all that people think it might be.
Interesting times…

James Cridland is a radio futurologist, and is Managing Director of, a companion website to radioinfo and AsiaRadioToday.

He has served as a judge for a number of industry awards including the Australian ABC Local Radio Awards, the UK Student Radio Awards, and the UK’s Radio Academy Awards, where he has also served on the committee. He was a founder of the hybrid radio technology association RadioDNS.

James is one of the organisers of, the radio ideas conference each September, and is also on the committee of RadioDays Europe. He writes for publications including his own, Radio World International and RAIN News.

James lives in North London with his partner and a two year-old radio-loving toddler. He very, very much likes beer.

Radio Tomorrow is a trade mark of Radiowise Productions Pty Ltd.

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