PM presenter and Radio Times columnist Eddie Mair wrote a piece recently in which he described being invited to address a group of sixth-formers. His opening gambit was to ask them to raise their hand if they listened to the radio. He wasn’t expecting them all to lift their arms but he imagined that a few would respond. Not a single hand was raised.
This has been troubling me ever since. I tried the same question on my own children (aged 20, 16 and 13). My middle daughter momentarily gave me a flicker of hope. “I listen to 5 Live when I go to bed.” I was surprised and delighted. How could I not have known she had such an interest in current affairs and sport? “What do you enjoy most about it,” I asked. “It helps get me to sleep,” she responded.
I was back to square one. Could it really be true that teenagers are not listening to the radio? Why not see what the BBC’s flagship station for the young, Radio 1, had to say about this sorry state of affairs. Last year Ben Cooper, the controller of Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra, announced that the strategy was to reach younger listeners. And the results? Nick Grimshaw’s breakfast show shed more than half-a-million listeners when the most recent RAJAR figures were announced in May. “I was asked to build a younger audience for Radio 1 and regenerate the brand, and these figures show we’re doing exactly that.”
Now, a cynic might suggest that Cooper interprets his job spec as being one to lose listeners. I, however, think he is facing up to the reality of what young people really think of the radio: why listen to someone else’s playlist when you can create you own, take it with you and never have to listen to another track you don’t like ever again? So what are stations like Radio 1, Xfm and Capital FM meant to do? Give up the ghost? Hope that “trendy adults” will stick with their networks until, in their 30s and 40, they find solace in the welcoming arms of Radio 2, Magic or Smooth?
I found myself on a rare trip out of Radio Times Towers this week and went for a tour of the Global radio building in London’s Leicester Square. They are the largest commercial radio group in Europe and the stations in their stable include Classic FM, LBC, Xfm, Capital FM and Heart. Every studio had a camera and every show can be filmed and streamed live.
It might seem like a contradiction in terms – watching the radio – but the uptake with young listeners (do I even call them that if they are viewing their favourite shows?) on android devices and mobile phones has been terrific. If stations want to start attracting and keeping younger audiences then maybe it will have to be “lights, camera, action!” in every live show.
Me? I don’t want to see my radio presenters. I like to imagine John Humphrys is still in his pyjamas on the Today programme, while Evan Davis is wearing a fetching leather thong. The whole thing will be ruined if the cameras move in. Radio with pictures, like books with pictures, are for the young. We mature listeners can relish the radio just for its audio delights.
Jane Anderson is Radio Times’ Radio Editor.