LBC draws level with 5 Live as BBC loses ground to commercial rivals

As commercial radio stations have invested and poached stars such as Andrew Marr, audiences have grown

LBC has drawn level with 5 Live in the battle for radio audiences, as commercial stations continue to challenge their BBC equivalents.

Just a decade ago LBC was a London-only talk radio outlet known for its bellicose phone-ins. But enormous investment in presenters and marketing has helped transform the outlet into a high-profile national station known for opinionated hosts such as Nick Ferrari and James O’Brien.

LBC now accounts for 2.7% of all time spent listening to the radio in the UK, putting it on the same level as the BBC’s national talk and sport station. Although the latest listening figures show that more people still tune to 5 Live in a given week, they are less loyal and listen for less time than those who tune in to LBC.

Private broadcasting groups have invested enormous amounts of money in radio in recent years, poaching many of the BBC’s biggest stars – with Rupert Murdoch’s Virgin Radio snapping up Radio 2’s Chris Evans, Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio hiring Simon Mayo and Global’s LBC signing Andrew Marr.

The results of this investment are now showing up in the audience figures, which reveal a rapidly widening gap between the BBC and its advertising-supported rivals. BBC radio now accounts for just 46.7% of all radio listening in the UK, compared with commercial radio on 50.9%. The remainder consists of smaller stations, such as community outlets. Commercial radio outlets are also substantially outperforming the BBC among younger audiences according to the latest Rajar listening figures, which cover the three months to mid-September.

The BBC’s arts and speech stations were hit hardest over the last year. Total audience reach – the number of people who listen to a radio station in a given week – collapsed 21% at Radio 3, 9% at Radio 4, and 17% at 5 Live.

In response, the BBC is increasingly emphasising that its focus is now on the BBC Sounds app rather than traditional live broadcast radio – claiming that BBC podcasts were downloaded more than 400m times around the world in the same period. Its popular music stations also fared better, with Radio 1 and Radio 2 recording only small declines in their audiences.

While the BBC continues to maintain more than 40 distinct local stations at substantial cost, the big commercial groups have gone for a different strategy. They have combined dozens of once-distinct local radio stations under national brands such as Heart and Capital, providing the bare minimum of local output to meet requirements set out by media regulator Ofcom. Despite complaints about the loss of local identities, the new outlets perform well with audiences and tend to boost listening figures.

Increased online listening via smart speakers is also making it easier for radio stations to do well by serving specific niche audiences. Boom Radio – aimed at baby boomers who have been turned off Radio 2 by its attempts to capture a younger audience – is reaching 443,000 listeners a week after only 18 months on air. It promoted its success with an endorsement from Sir Cliff Richard, who said it he struggled to listen to modern radio outlets “because I can’t always relate to rap and things like that”.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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