Has the BBC failed digital radio?

BBC Asian Network logo

The news that the BBC is considering reversing its decision to close down the Asian Network marks the corporation’s second major U-turn on a digital radio service closure. The first was the more high-profile threat to close 6 Music.

The dithering indecisiveness is enough. But what really annoys me about these decisions is the underlying reason behind them — ratings — and the story it tells.

Lacklustre awareness

Both 6 Music and the Asian Network had relatively poor ratings before the BBC announced that the services would close. In that sense, it was easy to see why the savings-seeking BBC was lining them up for the chop.

Then something funny happened. Ratings shot through the roof. After its closure was announced, the number of 6 Music listeners doubled from 600,000 a week to 1.2 million a week. It wasn’t just a flash in the pan either. Since 6 Music was saved from the axe, ratings have remained over the 1 million mark.

The problem is that beforehand, awareness of BBC 6 Music was extremely low. Only 20 per cent of UK adults had even heard of the station. No wonder ratings are so poor if four fifths of the potential audience doesn’t even know of its existence!

Similarly, ratings for the Asian Network have increased by a third since its closure was announced. The increase in ratings has been given as the reason for the BBC’s U-turn.

Publicity vacuum hurts BBC digital radio

The problem is that the closure threat was the most publicity 6 Music and the Asian Network had ever had. The BBC isn’t usually shy of promoting its own services, but it has completely failed to sell its digital radio stations to the public at large. In fact, it has completely failed to sell digital radio full stop.

Just look at the digital radio listenership figures — figure 3.34 in this Ofcom report (PDF) (via James Cridland).

Bar chart of digital radio listening figures

A measley 18 per cent of Radio 1 listeners listen over a digital format. The highest figure among BBC radio stations (excluding those available on digital platforms only) is 5 Live — 36 per cent. These listeners have a significant incentive to move to digital though, as otherwise 5 Live is only available on poor quality medium wave frequencies.

Meanwhile, over half of listeners to Absolute Radio listen over a digital platform. Absolute’s success in pursuing digital platforms is well-documented.

Skewed priorities

Considering that the BBC is supposed to be investing in digital radio, it is not doing a very good job of promoting it. Despite having great content on its digital services, the BBC is shy of actually promoting them.

In this department, it is being considerably outperformed by Absolute Radio, a commercial outlet that doesn’t have a chunk of license fee money set aside for pushing digital. The BBC seems to have lost all of its enthusiasim for digital, even when it is producing excellent digital services.

As James Cridland pointed out, fans following the Ashes earlier this year will not have missed a ball were they listening on 5 Live Sports Extra, as I did. Yet all over the news the following day was the fact that BBC radio listeners were deprived of the victorious moment because the shipping forecast was being broadcast on Radio 4 longwave at the time.

This provided plenty of good coverage in the shape of, “ha, that crazy old shipping forecast, eh?!” All very good. But why wasn’t the point driven home that an excellent digital service was broadcasting the cricket completely uninterrupted?

I am sure there are lots of avid cricket fans out there that rely on their longwave signal. But I have checked, and I don’t even own any equipment that can pick up longwave. I suspect if I were to go to the shops to buy a radio, I would have to make a special effort to find one that could receive longwave. Meanwhile, I could pick up a DAB radio for about £30 with no trouble whatsoever.

Where are the promos?

Why did the Radio 2 breakfast slot get a big push when Chris Evans started presenting it? The Radio 2 breakfast show is the most popular radio programme in the country, with around 10 million listeners. If there is one radio show that does not need promoting, it is this — whether it has a new presenter or not.

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network? Why isn’t it pushing 5 Live Sports Extra harder at avid sports fans?

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network?

4 comments

  1. With Radio 4 Extra launching (just Radio 7 being renamed), the BBC claim to be pushing the promos for digital radio, although for them this means sky/virgin/freeview/freesat/online and dab.

  2. I visited the BBC digital radio webpage to register my disatisfaction with DAB reception. The help page has a window that asks for your postcode. Inserting said prompted a message from my virus checker that this was ‘an attack’ page.

    I could find no mechanism for informing them about this. The site is a navigational nightmare.