Less Music, More Talk

04Nov12
Look who's talking.

Look who’s talking.

Is British radio missing a massive opportunity? I recently spent time in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. I noticed how many great commercial talk radio stations there are and how well they’re doing. Commercial talk radio is one of the hottest radio formats internationally. There are hundreds of talk stations in the United States, at least two in every Australian capital city and even in New Zealand, a country with a population of only four million people; they have four national commercial speech-only radio stations.

Whenever I ask British radio people why we only have two commercial talk stations (LBC and TalkSport) and other countries have a lot more, I get one of two answers. It’s either, “Those countries don’t have the BBC” or “Talk is harder to sell”.

Let’s start with “Those countries don’t have the BBC”. Well, they do have public broadcaster to compete with. Radio New Zealand has a national listening share of 10.7% but their commercial talk rival, Newstalk ZB is still number one in Auckland with 13.9% share. In Sydney ABC 702 is beaten into second place with a 10.6% share behind the number one station overall, Newstalk 2GB which has 14.5% share. The most listened to radio stations in Auckland and Sydney are both commercial talkers and both beat strong commercial-free public broadcasters.

The USA is a little different, PBS does not get the kind of funding that Australia’s ABC or Radio New Zealand get but PBS gives commercial talk a run for its money. For example, in America’s fourth biggest market, San Francisco, the most listened to talk station is KQED, it’s a PBS station. Its the second most listened to station overall and it’s 5.6% share puts it well ahead of it’s nearest commercial talk rival KCBS who only have a 4.6% share.

If the rule is that when the public broadcaster dominates a particular format there’s no room for a commercial player, how come we even have commercial music radio in Britain at all? It’s a testament to how good commercial music radio is in the UK that it continues to survive like a cockroach despite the continued nuclear attack from commercial-free Radio 1 and Radio 2.

Let’s look at the other reason given, “Talk is harder to sell”. Really? I would have thought it would have been harder to sell on a music station, a medium that is consumed for the most part in the background. Commercials on a music station can be an interruption to the programming. Commercials on a talk station can almost become part of the programming and it’s a format that has to be paid attention to, wouldn’t that make the commercial more effective? And if they worked better, wouldn’t that make them easier to sell? You can also sell more minutes per hour on a talk format.

In the UK we’re really good at producing speech-only radio and it’s gaining more listeners and hours than the rest of the industry. Last week, Roy Martin, the Managing Editor of Radio Today looked at the combined performance of the “speech-only” stations: Radio 4, Five Live, Radio 4 Extra, Five Live Sports Extra, talkSPORT and LBC. He concluded that since 1999 when RAJAR started, “All Radio” hours have grown 7%, but the hours of these speech stations have increased by 31%.

I only know of one place where I can hear Nick Ferrari and only one place where I can hear Alan Brazil. With the same music available on hundreds of websites on my phone, what is music radio’s USP?

Instead of asking why commercial talk radio isn’t happening in the UK, we should be trying to work out why a country that consistently produces some of the finest speech based programming in the world isn’t turning that into money!

Craic on!

Check out the latest Mack Nuggets at http://www.mackmedia.co.uk .

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