Alexa tempts radio listeners to leave BBC for commercial stations

Loyalty to a ‘favourite’ station fades as smart speakers lead listeners to new digital outlets

Britons increasingly prefer commercial radio stations to the BBC, according to the latest figures from Rajar, which also reveal how Amazon’s Alexa is changing listening habits.

The long-term trend towards favouring commercial radio has been exacerbated by the popularity of smart speakers in British homes, which are prompting people previously loyal to a single station to try niche digital-only outlets.

While, traditionally, people might tune a radio to their favourite station and leave it there, listening on devices such as Amazon’s Alexa involves asking for a channel each time – so there are more opportunities for convincing people to try something different.

Ford Ennals, the chief executive of Digital Radio UK, said: “These speakers are now in over 26% of all homes and are good news for the radio sector with most people using them to listen to live radio.

“Smart speakers also make it easy for people to listen to the increasing range of digital stations and have helped propel the growth of new innovative digital stations such as the new number one digital-only station KISSTORY.”

Figures released on Thursday by Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research) show the BBC’s combined share of UK radio listening fell below 50% in the three months between April and June, breaking a symbolic barrier. The corporation’s radio stations had already been overtaken by the commercial sector in terms of the overall number of people listening in a given week.

However, the BBC has insisted it was no longer chasing traditional radio listening figures and was instead prioritising investment in podcasts via its BBC Sounds app to appeal to younger listeners.

Last summer the corporation’s director of radio, James Purnell, warned that both the BBC and commercial sectors needed to look beyond headline listening figures and focus on new audio formats, or else “one of us could win the share battle while we all lost the war”.

The figures do not include catch-up listening and podcast downloads. Purnell said that people were “enjoying listening to us in different ways, with a record 75m downloads of Radio 4 programmes and podcasts this quarter”.

One success for the BBC has been the rejuvenated Radio 1 breakfast show hosted by Greg James, which has attracted record figures on his watch by eschewing a celebrity-focused show and instead producing a format appealing to younger listeners and to their parents.

Rupert Murdoch’s News UK has continued to invest in its signing of Chris Evans on the relaunched Virgin Radio, increasing the audience for his programme slightly, to 1.1 million listeners a week. His old BBC Radio 2’s breakfast show slot, now hosted by Zoe Ball, has performed less well. It fell by 700,000 listeners to 8.3 million, suggesting some had followed Evans to his new home.

Global Radio, which faced criticism after sacking most of its regional programme hosts on its Capital and Heart networks in a series of job cuts this year, has begun to see the commercial benefits; its relaunched nationwide Capital breakfast show hosted by Roman Kemp attracted 3.8 million listeners.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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