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Rajar Q1 2024 - editorial

Now here's a stat to confound and bemuse all the naysayers who'll try to convince you that nobody listens to the radio anymore. Almost 50 million UK adults do every single week. That's the highest number ever recorded and represents 89% of the population. Ok, so it's also true that the population is bigger than it's ever been, but that top-line stat from the latest official RAJAR quarterly listening figures shows just how unwavering our love for radio is in this country, despite the ever-growing slew of other entertainment distractions we have at our disposal. The latest survey covers Q1 2024, taking us from New Year's Day through to Easter. And it's a broadly strong and stable picture throughout, with all the major players having a good news story to tell. 

Firstly, can you hear that audible sigh of relief emanating from the eighth floor at New Broadcasting House in London? The ship has steadied at Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6 Music, and listener loyalty across all three stations remains solid. All three have faced choppy waters over the past 12 months, so bosses will be encouraged to see stability and even a few encouraging areas of growth, despite the constant challenges from the emboldened commercial radio sector.

Radio 2 remains the UK's biggest radio station and is still second only to Heart's network. R2's share of listening (in basic terms, how big is their chunk of the overall radio pie) has increased slightly to 13.7%. That growth can partly be attributed to the fact that their average listening hours (time spent solely with that station) are noticeably up by 24 minutes per week and now stand at 10 hours and 37 minutes. That figure is one of the highest in British radio, and it shows that people are liking what they hear, so keep coming back more often, and for longer. There's another interesting stat showing that 6 million of their 13.2m listeners don't listen to any other station, even though the choice and variety on offer elsewhere has never been greater. Breaking down that 13.2m by age demographic, they hit 4.28m people aged 35-54 each week, with the older 55+ core now sitting at 6.8m. But it's also noteworthy that there are 870k people aged 15-25 opting for Radio 2 every week, which is 7% of the station's total audience, despite being the same crowd that Radio 1 are still keen to attract.

Radio 1 itself has seen its weekly reach fall to 7.31m, but that's a fractional drop of just 20k listeners, meaning their overall share stays the same at 4.5%. What's interesting though is that both Bauer and Global's PR have used Radio 1 to compare the performance of their respective Greatest Hits Radio and Heart brands, where they're ahead in terms of overall listener numbers, rather than using Radio 2, where they're still way behind, even though the audience they're chasing for advertisers on both commercial stations is completely different to the one the BBC's youth service has. When it comes to press release spin, those big banner headline-grabbing stats are always out in full effect. Which means that GHR are trumpeting that they've overtaken Radio 1. That much is true, but it's hardly likely that they've taken any significant dent out of R1's numbers, and their GHR network growth continues to come mostly from their rebranded landgrab of local stations that used to be called something else. 

Back in the day, breakfast was the real battleground for listeners, and although it remains an important part of any stations schedule, aiming to lock listeners in for hours on end, habits seemed to significantly change during the Covid lockdowns beginning in 2020. At that time, we were stuck at home, getting up later, and starting our daily radio listening later in the morning. That trend continues with mid-morning shows now scooping up big audiences across the board. Ken Bruce's move to GHR from R2 just over a year ago was hugely disruptive and significantly changed the landscape, with R2 losing a sizeable chunk of their older demographic in the process, and GHR seeing significant gains. The news that Ken's increased the audience in that 10am-1pm slot by 73% in the last 12 months and stuck on an extra 1.6m listeners isn't the whole story, of course, even though it's one that creates an attention- grabbing headline for the press to latch onto. As mentioned earlier, you can't fully extrapolate how much of that rise has entirely come from his move and how much had been driven by GHR simply increasing that transmission footprint. We won't know that kind of figure for another six months now that Bauer's pretty much run out of established local stations that they can still under that brand umbrella. And remember, Ken's replacement, Vernon Kay at Radio 2, still has the biggest show on UK radio overall, with almost 3 million more listeners than Ken each week. If you want to be even more brutal, Ken himself has more than 4.5 fewer listeners now that he used to have at R2. That's a story that rarely gets reported amongst all the hype surrounding the move, funnily enough.  

The gulf between commercial radio and the BBC overall has widened even further. Almost 40m of us listen to a commercial station for at least 15 minutes each week. Compare that to the 31.3m for the Beeb, and it means the gap of 8.4m is bigger than it's ever been. Time spent with either side remains more than 14 hours each, with the BBC up ever so slightly this quarter. Also of note, there are new highs from DAB listening (almost 62% of the population), and smart speaker listening (almost 15m people), plus a new low for traditional AM/FM analogue services. Absolute Radio has swapped places with KISSTORY (both Bauer brands) to become the UK's no.1 digital commercial station, while 6 Music consolidates its place as the no.1 digital music station overall on 2.548m, up 1% on the last quarter. The much-talked-about Boom Radio saw its first dip in its audience to 602k, down 4% on the last quarter and 5% on the year. However, with 11.8 average hours per listener, that's almost an hour and half longer than Radio 2, and it gives them the highest number for any UK music station, bar none. Now that's loyalty. 

Briefly rounding up some of the other big names, Global's Heart network has their best-ever reach with 9.4m, their Capital network rose to 6.2m and their Smooth network hit 5.8m. Bauer's Magic was on 4.4m and Kiss was on 2.3m. Virgin was up on the last quarter, now with 1.5m weekly listeners, but that's still behind Radio X which jumped to 2.1m.

There's no question that there's something for everyone out there, and that's without looking at the huge selection of speech, sport, news and talk services, all of which should see some significant upswings over the next six months with the looming UK General Election, US Presidential campaigns, plus the Olympics and Euro footy tournament all imminent. 

We await details of the new BBC spin-off services to compliment Radio 1, 2 and 3, all of which are expected to launch on BBC Sounds later this autumn, before a possible full DAB rollout soon after that if all goes according to plan. All of which means that the UK radio landscape remains fluid and ever-changing. Things rarely stay static for long, and there are disruptors lurking around every corner. But although the growth of podcasts and music streaming services has pulled us in their direction, we as a nation collectively keep coming back to live radio, week in and week out. The resilience of the medium remains extraordinary. See you back here on 1 August for the next set of results. 


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