Zoe Ball’s move to Radio 2 is big news – and so is the enduring appeal of radio

Radio is embracing technological changes to become a dynamic, popular and above all intimate and welcoming medium, says Ben Dowell

Zoe Ball

Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the death of radio. Digital radio was stuttering at the starting gate, analogue radio had an unarguable shelf-life and radio’s overall weekly reach of 45.1m people in 2008 would never be bettered. Its best days were behind it.

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But in fact, today radio is more popular than ever.  Overall weekly reach in 2018 is 48.8m and radio is getting talked about. Chris Evans’ move to Virgin, his replacement by Zoe Ball (the first female Radio 2 breakfast host in history) and Eddie Mair’s move to LBC has proved big news.

Radio has survived television, the tape, the CD the iPad and now, in the age of Spotify, streaming and podcasts, it is stronger than ever.

So what’s going on?

From a purely business perspective, it has been well managed of late. BBC radio has continued to benefit from guaranteed funding which has been the case since radio first hit the airwaves in the 1920s. According to the latest annual report, £639.2m was spent by the BBC on radio in the last financial year.

But it’s the commercial sector that is showing surprising resilience and appeal, allowing it to splash out on big signings like bringing Evans to Virgin and Mair to LBC. The latest figures show that 36 million listeners tune in to commercial radio per week, compared to just over 35 million for the BBC – a record high for the commercial sector.

The commercial players have consolidated into three big and effective operations – Global, which owns household brands such as Capital and LBC, Bauer, which owns Kiss and Magic and Wireless, which owns Virgin and was recently bought by News Corp in a deal worth £220m.

But it has attracted this kind of investment because the medium is so resilient – and capable of embracing changes in technology which underline its human appeal.

Technology has evolved so too has the ability to listen to radio more than ever. With a smartphone we all have a radio in our pocket, with a computer we all have a radio at our desk – and the advent of the smart speaker revolution means that radio stations are now just one voice command away in kitchens and bedrooms up and down the land.

The internet, far from killing radio, has complemented and enhanced it. Filmed studio broadcasts are allow big radio moments to go viral whether it’s something said by James O’Brien on the left of politics or Nigel Farage on the right.

Radio also appeals to all ages. According to the latest research 63% of 25-34 year olds consume live radio every day, making it the most consumed audio format. But the appeal is broad – 90% of the population (49.2 million adults) tune in to radio each week.

It also remains a simple medium that’s easy to access and understand. There are millions who have yet to try a streaming service, but anyone of whatever age knows how to operate the radio.

And they do so because there is something about the medium that appeals to us as human beings and this, for me, is the main reason it’s proved so endurable.

The personal touch of a good radio presenter whether it’s a Mair or an Evans, a Martha Kearney or a Steve Wright, is enduring. In troubled, polarised times, this kind of reassurance is what people want – especially when you can listen to in even greater proximity to the voice or song of your choice through much better headphones which are now available.

With fake news spread over the internet, radio is a place you can trust and choose.

And while Spotify gives you thousands of songs at the click of a button too much choice is not always a good thing. What better than a friendly and familiar voice to guide you?

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No wonder Zoe Ball’s delighted with her new job.