Friday, 15 April 2011

Teenage Dreams So Hard To Beat

BBC Trustee David Liddiment has expressed his concern that Radio 1 is still failing to reach its target audience.  Speaking at the Spring Conference of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer he claimed the average age of the Radio 1 listener was 30 (against a target age group of 15 to 29), which was the same as it was when he conducted a review of the station two years ago.

"It hasn't got any worse but it hasn't got any better. The average age remains 30 and it still remains a challenge. We are in dialogue with management how to achieve this."

Here's a breakdown of the Radio 1 weekday audience by age group, which shows that while it does attract listeners over 35, its main listenership is 15-34.
I can't help feel that Radio 1 is caught between a rock and a hard place here.

If, as Liddiment seems to suggest, the average age has to come down to well below what it is at the moment that means R1 would need to gain a large number of new listeners from the younger end of its target audience while jettisoning those who are considered to be "too old". That's a big ask.

If it broadens its appeal to engage with a much younger audience by playing more music from teen-orientated artists then the station gets accused of "distorting the market" and providing little point of difference with commercial rivals such as Capital and Kiss. Incidentally, the average age of listeners to both of those stations is also over 30.

There's also the problem that most people don't like to think - or be reminded - that they're getting older.  Many of those who grew up with Radio 1 still listen because that's what they've always done, they still enjoy listening to it and probably even still consider Radio 2 to be for "old people" despite the addition of people such as Chris Evans and Simon Mayo to the schedule. Maybe those older R1 listeners remember listening to them years ago but don't equate that with growing old and still enjoy listening to R1; even if it's just for Moyles.

It's not just about the music, though. Some commercial radio people have called for Radio 1 to employ more younger presenters, but the real question is whether those currently there, regardless of age, are still able to engage with the target audience; especially when other research has warned that younger people are simply not listening to the radio for music in the same way as previous generations did.

In its report last year on Radio 2 the BBC Trust pointed out that there was no connection between the age of the presenter and that of the listeners, and David Liddiment acknowledged a similar situation with R1: "Sometimes [it requires] a proper understanding of changes in behaviour and it may well be that something of that kind would apply here. It's not so much the age [of the DJ] as their style and ability to connect with the audience."

"It's not for the BBC Trust to tell the station who it should hire and who it shouldn't hire. What there is is an acknowledgement that the average age is still about 30 and we are interested in hearing what steps the BBC management will take to keep the focus on a younger age. That is what the station is there to do."

The upheaval carried out by Matthew Bannister at R1 in the mid-90s was the result of years of stagnation, leading to drastic action being needed in order to restore the balance and shed the 'Smashie & Nicey" image in favour of something that was more cool and trendy. What is needed now is a major strategic review of the station in order to identify strengths and weaknesses, as well as perceptions, among the target audience and be prepared to make changes if necessary.

This time, though, the change should be more evolutionary than revolutionary in much the same way Jim Moir overhauled Radio 2.
Interestingly R1 has a higher percentage of listeners 35-44 than Radio 2; which itself has been charged by the BBC Trust to ensure that the average age of the R2 listener stays above 50.

So if R1 drops its average age, while R2's stays above 50, where are a large number of disaffected 30/40-somethings to go if R1 is going to have to tell them "F**k off Grandad, we're too cool for you and you're too old for us now!"?

While commercial radio benefited during the Bannister era, I'm not convinced it's as good a likely home this time around. Capital may be positioning itself as a rival to Radio 1 but its tight, urban-skewed, playlist makes it untenable for many Radio 1 listeners, and I can't imagine a current Radio 1 listener in his/her 30s being too interested in what a station such as Heart is offering.

In any case how do you tell someone they're "too old to be listening to this"? Surely that's up to them to decide.