Radio 1 and Chris Moyles: missing the target

Just two days before Chris Moyles announced that he will be leaving Radio 1 after the best part of a decade hosting their flagship breakfast show (with a few awards on the way), I was listening to his show while getting ready for work. I couldn’t work out why a station whose remit is to have an average listener age of 15-29 could allow its biggest show to spend a chunk of time covering the previous weekend’s Formula One – something it does regularly. The two audiences didn’t really seem to match up in my head, and indeed after a little research I spewed forth the following tweet:

OK, so I got Radio 1’s target age range wrong, but prescient still. My Spidey sense was tingling, evidently. Nick Grimshaw was announced this morning to take over; a younger, savvier, trendier model who actually operates and circulates in a scene relevant to the station’s target audience. A good move in terms of fulfilling the remit set out by the BBC Trust and their stipulations for provision of Radio 1’s portion of the license fee budget. Many people think the show and station will lose a lot of listeners as a result, in a year when former Radio 1 breakfast DJ Chris Evans’ breakfast show on Radio 2 jumped two million listeners ahead of Moyles’ show.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Radio 1, though, if it means that their audience gets younger in the process. But could it be the case that 15-29 year olds are actually listening to radio less on aggregate? Youngsters aren’t growing up with radio in the same way that my generation and generations before them grew up.

Options are manifold, analogue is dying, iPods are standard issue, Mixcloud’s booming and so on. The fact that most smartphones don’t have radios built in hasn’t helped radio’s cause, with the option to listen to free FM broadcasts on the go replaced with the option to stream (often unstably) via a potentially costly 3G data connection. Given that we’re a few years away from FM being switched off, I can’t see why it hasn’t been included in all of the latest phones of recent years.

According to figures published last November the average age of a Radio 1 listener is 32 years old, and has risen in the past few years from 29. People have blamed deadwood and the age of many of its DJs. So what about a station like Kiss FM, which exudes a younger, more energetic approach? Kiss’ average listener age is 31. See a pattern forming here?

It proves quite difficult to find any information about the average age of a radio listener in the UK across all stations and how this has changed – but this blog post by Grant Goddard spells things out quite neatly, picking apart some rather dubious RAJAR (the UK radio statistical analysis body) figures:

“Radio broadcasters have been progressively losing usage over most of the last decade. Initially, it was 15-24 year olds that were spending less time with radio. Increasingly, it is also 25-34 year olds. For a decade, the UK radio industry has desperately needed a coherent strategy to reverse this loss of listening. The decline in young adult listening to broadcast radio does not merely impact the NOW. If these consumers do not find anything in their youth worth listening to on the radio, they will grow old without the radio habit. Their radio listening patterns NOW are likely to influence radio listening for the next half-century.” 

Radio 1 might be in with a chance of getting their average listener age back into the 15-29 bracket with their line-up changes, but I doubt they’re going to bring that figure down much lower given current trends. Pete Tong is surely next in line to go, and Annie Nightingale, amazing long-serving broadcaster that she is, can surely only survive so long the way things are going. There is a real danger of losing quality just for the sake of youth here – and its perhaps somewhat patronising to presume that Gilles Peterson doesn’t appeal to a huge swathe of 15-29 year olds, for example.

Given that the average age of Chris Moyles listeners is 33 and that the breakfast show is the station’s most popular show, getting a younger audience into this slot should bring them back towards the all important remit bracket, but I suggest that the BBC Trust actually needs to bisect Radio 1’s purpose. For years, it has produced some of the finest specialist programming in the world – after the hours of 7 PM. From 4 AM until then, it focuses on rigid playlists, the charts, the mainstreams, humour, gossip, celebrity and light entertainment. As long as it reaches a younger audience with these shows, there’s no reason that potentially older listenership in their specialist programming – which may be poorly catered for elsewhere – is a bad thing. They should allow it to be the multi-faceted, many-things-to-many-people-and-ages that so many people know and love it for, and be careful not to suffocate it.

Moyles, I can live without – but sacking off experienced broadcasters with wide knowledge and serious talent just because they are 30 or above is a potentially dangerous tactic.

(P.S. When one day we actually get accurate listener demographics rather than survey / proportional assumptions from RAJAR, the story might be somewhat different)