Latest figures reveal how pandemic shaped UK radio listening habits

First figures since 2020 show boom in speech radio but public loses appetite for music breakfast shows

When Rupert Murdoch launched Times Radio last summer, he was aiming to target the BBC and win over listeners who may have become disenchanted with the output on Radio 4 and Radio 5 live.

Now, the station’s first listening figures have shown there is an audience for Times Radio, with a healthy 637,000 people a week tuning in. The figures came as a relief to staff at the station, who had been unsure whether there was an audience for their rolling discussions of Westminster politics and current affairs.

However, the station’s launch does not seem to have damaged the BBC’s outlets, with the entire British speech radio market appearing to have boomed during the pandemic. Radio 4 has continued to hold steady at 10.8 million listeners a week, while Radio 5 live jumped substantially, up on pre-pandemic levels to 5.9 million listeners a week.

LBC, which has transformed itself from a London-only outlet to a national commercial powerhouse, now attracts 3 million listeners a week to its output across all its branded stations, with Britons apparently unable to resist its discussions of current affairs.

The figures may also provide a pointer to the sort of speech radio discussion that produces the best listening figures. Times Radio now has a larger audience than its much longer established sister station talkRadio, which focuses heavily on culture war topics and competes more directly with LBC.

Although moments such as talkRadio host Mike Graham berating Insulate Britain activists and arguing over whether it’s possible to grow concrete can reach millions of people on social media, the main station is still only listened to by 450,000 people a week.

While Murdoch’s News UK does not break down the financial performance of individual stations, the high start-up costs and lack of traditional adverts means Times Radio is likely to be running at a loss, with it considered to be partly a marketing expense for subscriptions to its namesake newspaper.

The release of the audience figures – produced by the industry organisation Rajar – has been long awaited in the radio business. Stations have rushed to emphasise that a new methodology for the survey of listening habits means the figures are not comparable with pre-pandemic data.

One of the changes has been to introduce a technique where members of the public allow their phone microphone to be used to constantly check whether they are listening to a radio station, similar to an automated version of the popular Shazam music recognition app.

However, even taking the measurement changes into account, there are signs of difficulties for some high-profile music radio breakfast shows. There has been speculation that listening habits may have changed due to the increase in the numbers of people working from home rather than listening to the radio in their cars on their commute, as well as the ubiquity of music streaming.

Radio 2’s Zoe Ball programme is now reaching 7.2 million people a week, down from 7.9 million people in the equivalent time period for 2019. At the same time Radio 1’s Greg James, Virgin Radio’s Chris Evans, and Magic’s Ronan Keating and Harriet Scott all saw falls in the audiences for their breakfast shows.

Meanwhile, the BBC has seen growth in the combined audience for the corporation’s local and regional stations, which jumped enormously to 9.2m weekly listeners – compared with 7.4m in the equivalent pre-pandemic time period.

As expected, the figures also point to a massive shift to listening to the radio via online streams on mobile phones and smart speakers such as devices running Amazon’s Alexa.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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