Radio 1 rejoiced at the resurgence of its breakfast show and becoming “a multiplatform youth brand” (of which more later). At commercial network LBC, hats were in the air for growth in overall listening and a big boost for Nick Ferrari’s breakfast show.
But in Salford, home of BBC Radio 5 Live, teeth were gritted. Listening has dropped, year on year, quarter on quarter, for both 5 Live and its digital annex, 5 Live Sports Extra.
The figures reflect listening in the final quarter of 2014. That’s when 5 Live changed. Three of the station’s best presenters, Victoria Derbyshire, Shelagh Fogarty and Richard Bacon, all left. The first two had been with the network since the late Nineties, each separately moving round various slots until being given her own show, Derbyshire arriving post-breakfast, Fogarty at noon. Both won praise and prizes, Derbyshire for in-depth interviews, Fogarty for news acuity. Bacon, a more recent signing, brought swagger to the afternoon slot.
The simultaneous departure of all three, plus ever-tightening BBC budgets, caused 5 Live’s controller, Jonathan Wall, to redesign his schedule and radically shift around the presenters. Peter Allen, with 5 Live since its 1994 launch, moved to Derbyshire’s old 10am slot, but only for three days a week.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, the other presenter is now Adrian Chiles, back from his crash-and-burn interlude on ITV. Dan Walker and Sarah Brett moved into Bacon’s old show. Into the vital drivetime slot came Tony Livesey (formerly of 5 Live’s late-night show) and Anna Foster. Apparently, none is so far making an impact.
Yet that’s a lot of change, and what radio listeners hate, above all, is change. Radio sets the nation’s body clock. We wake up to this, drive to that, go to bed by something else. Change to any slot is therefore tricky, multiple change is hazardous.
Remember when James Boyle, back in 1996, revolutionised Radio 4’s schedule? The ratings fell like a stone and kept falling for a couple of years. Now, three controllers later, it’s as if Boyle’s revolution never happened, and Something Understood, Book Club and Archive on 4 – just some of his innovations – sound as if they’ve always been there. Possibly, in time, the same will happen to Radio 5 Live.
But time isn’t on the side of Radio 5 Live or, indeed, radio as we know it. The Rajar ratings also show, over several quarters, a small but continuous drop in overall listening.
Radio isn’t dying, though. It’s moving. As more people listen via the internet, their smartphone or tablet, and use podcasts and the iPlayer to build their own schedules, all radio is moving to greet a new digital dawn.
This is where audio content (whether the American iPod sensation Serial, or a Radio 3 play, or 5 Live’s Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review) can be selected when and in whatever form the listener chooses. This is why Radio 1’s “multiplatform” achievement is so significant. It has 1.6 million YouTube subscribers. Every other radio service, BBC and otherwise, is scrambling to catch up.
Indeed, this is where there really is good news for Radio 5 Live, with record online listening in January, plus 1.5 million requests for its “Best Bit” clips, and there were 300,000 additional “red button” watchers on last week’s football transfer deadline day. No wonder Wall told me yesterday that his aim is “to do for speech radio what Radio 1 is doing for music”.
Bear this in mind when you hear the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, predicting – on the strength of increasing digital take-up – that a full digital radio “switchover” could come at the end of 2016. Vaizey, a youngish shaver, cannot possibly imagine the tsunami of listener wrath that will break over him once people (especially older people, like me) are faced with the prospect of losing their beloved car, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom analogue radios.
And all by the end of next year? Pipe down, Ed. The Prime Minister won’t want to lose our votes come May’s general election. Face the digital future we will. We do. But don’t tell us quite so cockily that you’re going to make us do it.
Going back to those Rajars, though, it’s plain there’s another factor at work here. Competition. Rona Fairhead, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, remarked in a speech last week that the very first challenge the BBC must face is “the new competitive environment”.
Look at the effect, for instance, of Sky and BT in the sports broadcasting market. It isn’t just established television that they’re competing with. It’s Radio 5 Live and specialist 5 Live Sports Extra (down from reaching 1.2 million listeners last quarter to 657, 000 this one) and TalkSport (down from 742,000 last quarter to 677,000 this one).
Personally, I will always choose to listen (as, indeed, I did on Friday night) to Radio 5 Live’s Ian Robertson whenever there’s a rugby union international. He is the best. But I know from being with friends who constantly revert to their iPhones on match days that I am of a dwindling tribe.
Yet, as long as radio still offers the best, we’ll look for it there however it is presented – whether that’s broadcast live, online, or in forms as yet undiscovered.