Saturday, 29 May 2010

Commercial radio revenues: always look on the bright side of less

Last week’s press release from the Radio Advertising Bureau was ecstatic about the commercial radio sector’s revenues. It told us that, in 2009, radio’s share of total display advertising had increased to 5.9% from 5.8% the previous year. It told us that this was the radio sector’s first growth in share since 2004. It told us that this was “terrific” news:

“To see the first annual share growth for five years, during the worst recession in living memory, is a terrific achievement for the commercial radio sector, and one that is unmatched by any other traditional media. It is a strong signal that the sector has turned a corner and not only halted decline, but moved into renewed growth, and is further evidence that the commercial radio industry’s on-going investment into programming, talent and marketing is paying dividends in both audience and revenue performance.”

I was stunned by this fantastic success story. So stunned that I had to check the industry’s own revenue numbers to make sure I had not been mistaken. A quick look at the figures reminded me of what I had thought I already knew. In 2009, commercial radio revenues had been down 10% year-on-year. That is ‘down’ as in ‘less’, not ‘down’ as in ‘more’. The only reason that radio’s share of all media display advertising increased at all in 2009 was that, whilst radio lost 10% of its revenues, media in aggregate lost 13%. In other words, radio’s performance in 2009 was less worse than the average. This is much like boasting you are top of a school remedial class.

The Radio Advertising Bureau press release tried to position radio’s revenue performance in terms purely of cyclical ‘credit crunch’ factors. In fact, commercial radio’s problems with revenues are largely structural and started in 2005 (see graph), well before the ‘credit crunch’:
• 2009 revenues: down 10% year-on-year
• 2008 revenues: down 6% year-on-year
• 2007 revenues: up 3% year-on-year
• 2006 revenues: down 5% year-on-year
• 2005 revenues: down 4% year-on-year

As a result, radio revenues, which totalled £505.5m in 2009, are now:
• At their lowest level since 1999
• At their lowest level, in real terms, since 1997 (adjusted for inflation)

It is difficult to understand how commercial radio’s largest ever year-on-year revenue decline gives “a strong signal that the sector has turned a corner and not only halted decline, but moved into renewed growth”, as the Radio Advertising Bureau would have it.

It would be great to see the commercial radio sector give a “strong signal” that it has turned a corner, any corner. But sector revenues are falling in the long term because the volume of listening to commercial radio is declining in the long term, having peaked in 2001 (see graph). Less listening inevitably leads to lower revenues.

Worse, not only are commercial radio revenues and listening both going down, but the amount of money the sector is able to generate from each 1,000 hours of radio listening is also going down. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), commercial radio's 'revenue yield' fell to £23 per 1,000 hours in 2009, which is where it had been in 1997 (see graph). This is probably the outcome of fewer radio advertising spots, or lower radio advertising rates, or a combination of both. Reduced yields inevitably lead to lower revenues.

To combat these structural issues, the major challenge for the sector must be to attract more listening to commercial radio. That will require a strategy that is pragmatic and focused on listener needs. Pumping out press releases that try to gloss over the commercial radio sector’s largest ever year-on-year revenue decline with phrases like “terrific achievement” is part of the problem, not part of a solution.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The DAB radio scrappage scheme – much too little, much too late

The BBC started DAB radio transmissions in the UK twenty years ago and then, ten years later, DAB was implemented commercially. During all that time, DAB radio has failed to ignite the interest of most British consumers. Neither has this European technology been successfully exported to all corners of the globe, as had been anticipated. Countries where DAB is working commercially can be counted on one hand. The end result – warehouses full of unsold DAB radios, billions of pounds of investment unlikely to ever show a return, apathetic consumers and potentially disgruntled venture capitalists.

The one-month DAB ‘scrappage’ scheme announced this week smacks of desperation. In 2009, fewer DAB radio receivers were sold than in 2007. Consumers have voted with their wallets and remain unconvinced. This downward sales trend started before the credit crunch but no action has been taken to stop it. The window of opportunity for DAB radio mass market take-up would seem to have come and gone.

During the first decade of DAB, a scrappage scheme would have been unthinkable. All parties involved in launching DAB were too busy rubbing their hands at the very anticipation of the profits that would be coming their way. High-priced DAB receivers, monopoly control of DAB airwaves and cheap, DJ-free jukebox digital radio stations. You could almost see the pound signs in the eyes of DAB stakeholders.

How times have changed. The DAB radio industry is now a salvage operation. It is a passé technology and the current objective is simply to shift as many of those brick-shaped DAB radios out of storage warehouses as possible, almost at any price. The present period before DAB is finally pronounced DOA is time limited. After that, DAB radios will become the Tamagotchi of the broadcast sector.

The most damning part of all this is the boldness with which the radio industry is still prepared to foist a technology on the public that, in many listening situations, is so technically inadequate. Instead of fixing the problems with DAB reception (which would cost a fortune), the industry just persists in maintaining its stance that DAB radio is fine. But trying to dupe your customers (particularly when radio is the most ‘trusted’ medium, according to Ofcom) must be counterproductive. Crime doesn’t pay if your business model requires loyal listeners.

Just as damning is the industry’s refusal to accept that it is ‘content’ that drives radio listening. Why would anyone buy a relatively expensive DAB radio when it offers so little content over and above what can already be accessed via AM/FM, digital TV, mobile phones and the internet? Commercial radio’s closure of most of its digital stations, followed this year by BBC proposals to axe two of its digital stations, hardly inspire consumer confidence in DAB.

Complicit in this is the radio industry’s willingness to endorse DAB radio set manufacturers’ increasingly desperate measures to shift their products. Pure, the biggest UK brand of DAB radio receivers, is circulating a booklet for consumers to pick up in-store that purportedly “dispels digital radio switchover myths”. Rather than itemise all of the booklet’s assertions that are either untrue (“AM services will either move to FM or to digital only”) or which distort the truth (“Digital radio … crystal-clear, interference-free listening”), I suggest you read it yourself here.

On the one hand, it will make you laugh with incredulity. On the other hand, if you love the radio medium, it will make you cry. Sorry, but when exactly was it that snake oil salesmen took over this industry?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

What is RAJAR’s function? Cheerleader or research bureau?

This week’s publication of the latest UK radio listening figures begs the question as to what RAJAR’s function is:

• Is RAJAR a cheerleader for radio, to convince Licence Fee payers and advertisers how successful radio is? Or,
• Is RAJAR a serious research agency providing objective data to advertisers and advertising agencies about radio audiences?

I ask because this week’s media coverage of the latest RAJAR results seemed to result entirely from the cheerleader role, while the objective data role was nowhere to be seen.

The Guardian headline said: “Radio’s booming”. The BBC News headline said: “Radio listening soars”. The Media Week headline said: “Radio industry buoyed by strong Q1”. The Drum headline said: “All time radio high”.

So the radio sector is apparently performing better than ever? Well, if you believe the opening statements of the RAJAR press release:
• “Radio listening reaches an all time high as 46.5 million adults tune in to radio”
• “Radio listening in the UK has reached an all time high as 46.5 million adults, or 90.6% of the UK population (15+), tuned in to their favourite radio station each week”

The question is: who is this press release for? Certainly, it is not for the people who use RAJAR data for their work – buyers in advertising agencies and advertisers – who know from their daily examination of the detailed numbers that “radio listening” is certainly not at all at an all-time high. Rather, the volume of radio listening has been in decline since 2003, a long-term trend that shows no sign of abating.

The RAJAR press release is deliberately misleading in its use of wording. This is by no means the first time. Previous RAJAR press releases have claimed that radio listening has hit some kind of high. In RAJAR-land, every day seems to be a sunny day. This is the kind of PR puff we come to expect from commercial companies. But RAJAR is not selling anything. It is meant to be providing objective radio listening data to the media sector. It is funded jointly by the BBC Licence Fee and commercial radio.

In fact, the “all time high” assertion in the RAJAR press release derives solely from the fact that more people are listening to radio than ever before. This is good news, but the number of people listening to radio is at an “all time high” for the same reason that hospitals have more patients than ever, schools have more children than ever, and public transport has more users than ever. The adult population of the UK is increasing by around 1% per annum. More people = more people using things.

So from where does the RAJAR assertion “radio listening reaches an all time high” derive? It is nothing more than hot air. If, in using the phrase “radio listening”, RAJAR had meant to imply “the volume of radio listening”, then it is a plain lie.

More people are listening to the radio, but they are listening for less and less time. The volume of radio listening, the total number of hours that all UK adults spend listening to the radio, has been declining since 2003. Here is a graph of RAJAR’s own data that shows it:

The average amount of time adult radio listeners spend listening to the radio has been declining dramatically over the same period. Here is a graph of RAJAR’s own data that shows it:

Are either of these facts, from the same research, mentioned in the latest RAJAR press release? Of course not. Why? Because RAJAR’s cheerleader role seems to require it to publicise a metric for radio listening that shows an increase: the absolute number of people listening, in this press release.

Here is a graph that shows the increase in the UK adult population and the number of people listening to radio. When the estimated population goes up, the estimated number of radio listeners goes up!

The airtime buyers in advertising agencies who have to use RAJAR data on a day-to-day basis probably chuckle at the preposterousness of the RAJAR press releases, laugh at how gullible the media are to simply reprint their headlines, and then go back to their work.

For some people (like me, having analysed radio audience data for 30 years), it creates market confusion. Clients are understandably puzzled and baffled when they see a presentation that clearly shows radio listening is in decline in the UK. They inevitably ask with suspicion: “But didn’t RAJAR just say that radio listening is at an all-time high?”

So why is RAJAR hell bent on this policy of trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes? Why does it need to be a public cheerleader for radio when we already have RadioCentre, the Radio Advertising Bureau and the BBC Press Office, each issuing their own PR puff on the RAJAR results? The RAJAR press releases might convince journalists, but they certainly don’t fool the media industry players. Instead, the opposite effect is probably the case.

How can the radio industry expect to be treated seriously within the wider media sector when its industry ratings body, charged with publishing objective listening data, insists upon grabbing headlines with misleading facts about radio audiences?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Digital radio station listening: a blip in time saves 6?

The dramatic upswing in BBC 6 Music’s listening during the first quarter of 2010 did not appear to have a knock-on effect on the BBC’s other digital stations [see graph]. 1Xtra was up slightly but still lower than it was in 2009. Asian Network dropped further and is now listened to less than part-time station Five Live Sports Extra.

In the commercial radio sector, Planet Rock recorded its best quarter yet and cemented its lead over all its digital-only competitors (BBC 6 Music excepted) [see graph]. Its continuing success only confirms that consumers prefer real programme content to the digital music jukeboxes whose performances are little more than limping along.

Even with this most recent quarter’s boost from BBC 6 Music and Planet Rock, total listening to digital-only stations has still shown almost no growth for three years [see graph]. Without the coincidence of those two successes, the latest quarter would have proven another disaster.

The question is what the next quarter will look like. We have seen listening to BBC 6 Music rise temporarily before at times when the channel has been in the press. Attracting listeners is only half the job. Keeping listeners is the much harder part.

Does the BBC 6 Music listening blip change the bleak outlook for digital radio stations? Not at all. Why? Because, even after this sudden upswing, 6 Music still attracts only two-thirds of the volume of listening to Radio 3, the BBC’s least listened to analogue national network. 207% of almost nothing still equals very little.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

UK commercial radio’s growing reliance on public sector funds

The UK radio industry divides into two main sectors: BBC radio and commercial radio. BBC radio is funded by the Licence Fee, whereas commercial radio is funded by advertising and sponsorship. Each adult (aged 15+) pays around £13 per annum for BBC radio via the household Licence Fee. What is not so obvious is that each adult also contributes financially to commercial radio by around £2 per annum via their taxes, which are then used by government and public bodies to buy advertising time on commercial radio stations.

Commercial radio’s largest advertiser is neither BT (ranked second), nor Sky TV (third), Specsavers (fourth) or Unilever (fifth). It is the Central Office of Information [COI], the government’s marketing and communications arm, which spent £58m on radio advertising (25% of its budget) on UK commercial radio in the 12 months to February 2010. To illustrate just how significant the COI has become to the revenue base of commercial radio, it now spends twice as much on radio advertising as the aforementioned BT, Sky TV, Specsavers and Unilever added together. In 1999, COI expenditure had accounted for only 2% of commercial radio revenues whereas, by 2009, it was 10%.

The COI’s financial support of commercial radio is not the whole story. Additionally, other public bodies such as local authorities, health authorities and development corporations also spend money on radio advertising. In 2009, the public sector in aggregate spent £88m with commercial radio, 18% of sector revenues [see graph]. The growth over the last decade has been enormous – in 1999, public sector spend was only £17m or 4% of commercial radio revenues.

This massive increase in public expenditure on commercial radio advertising during the last decade creates three issues:
• The commercial radio sector has become more dependent on the continuing input of public funds: public bodies now spend more on commercial radio than the car industry, or retailers, or the finance sector
• It becomes harder for commercial radio to argue about the public funding of BBC radio, when the commercial radio sector itself has become increasingly reliant upon public funds
• Governments change, government budgets change, government policies change, making this revenue stream more unreliable for commercial radio in the long term than commercial advertising.

The issue with revenue reliability is particularly pertinent now. The Conservative Party pledged in its manifesto to reduce advertising expenditure by government departments, if elected. The planned cuts would be significant, 40% of the COI 2008/9 budget of £540m, according to one press report.

This policy is nothing new. In 2008, Conservative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne promised at the Party Conference that he would more than half the COI budget from £391m to £163m. In 2005, then Conservative Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin promised to cut the COI advertising and marketing budget by more than half from £308m to £108m.

For commercial radio, the impact of such cuts would prove disastrous in the wake of its recent structural and cyclical revenue declines. A 50% budget cut to COI expenditure on radio would lose commercial radio £26m to £29m per annum, 6% of total sector revenues. A 50% budget cut to all public sector expenditure on radio would lose commercial radio £44m to £48m per annum, 9% of total sector revenues.

In 2009, commercial radio revenues were down 10% year-on-year. A year earlier, commercial radio revenues had been down 6% year-on-year. A further 9% cut to sector revenues would reduce them to the level they were ten years ago. Already, once prices are adjusted for inflation, commercial radio revenues are at their lowest annual level since 1997 in real terms.

Commercial radio’s growing reliance on national advertisers, of which government advertising is now the most significant part, has increased the sector’s economic vulnerability. In 1993, local advertisers had still constituted the majority of commercial sector revenues. By 2009, local advertising was down to 29% of total revenues.

Furthermore, if a government were to return to the post-War COI policy of using public broadcasters to air its Public Service Announcements, rather than paying commercial rates for airtime, up to 18% of commercial radio revenues would disappear at a stroke.

It must be a major concern that, in these times of inevitable government budget cuts (whichever political party is in power), the commercial radio sector’s reliance on public funds has never been so great.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Benefits of DAB radio “insufficient compared to its cost per user” warned EU report … in 2002

Sometimes it proves useful to take a look backwards to try and understand where you are now. In 2002, a 236-page report was produced for the European Commission on the topic of ‘Digital Switchover In Broadcasting’ by BIPE Consulting. Re-reading it is a stark reminder that the current problems with DAB radio implementation in Europe had been anticipated at least eight years ago.

Firstly, the BIPE report admitted that a significant motivation for introducing DAB radio was so that existing licensed European broadcasters could maintain market control in the face of competition from IP-delivered radio content produced by pesky foreigners:

“Some radio broadcasters consider digital radio as a question of survival in the long term … digitisation of content, transmission and multipurpose receivers could squeeze out the possibility of having a dedicated radio platform with its own players, services and listeners. The fact of having a dedicated [DAB] platform could maintain the existing value chain. If not, alternative, third-party digital platform operators will enter the game, and this could reduce radio specificity as it is understood today or even break the radio business model.”

Many of the problems of implementing DAB were identified then:

“New frequencies have to be found to simulcast analogue programmes and new expected ones (which is not the case with digital TV that can be simulcast in the same bands); very high digital receivers prices create a chicken-and-egg situation; while pay TV is a strong driver of TV digital migration, a pay-radio business model seems not to be sustainable so far; RDS, data services and free-to-air multi-channel FM reduce the attractiveness of digital radio.”

And the huge challenge of convincing consumers was made very clear:

“Analogue radio receivers are low cost devices offering numerous, free-to-air channels and with FM audio quality. In this context, the benefits of digital radio as presented by the DAB model so far are insufficient compared to its cost per user.”

The long period of consumer migration from AM to FM broadcasting in Europe was recognised:

“More than 30 years of simulcast AM/FM were necessary to substitute nearly completely AM by FM listening. This lengthy duration covered network deployment, frequency release, launch of music channels (the killer application), and diffusion of FM functionality through the installed base of all the receivers.”

The report identified the “major obstacles to digital radio migration” as:
• Receiver cost
• Low consumer awareness
• No pressure to release the FM band (“DAB is costly in terms of bandwidth used and difficult to insert in existing radio bands. … But the quantity of spectrum released by terminating analogue radio services is much less significant than the potential release of spectrum following the turn-off of analogue terrestrial television broadcasting.”)
• No pay model driver
• No clear killer application (“Together, FM and RDS already combine a certain degree of quality with important data services.”)
• Lack of interest for higher quality sound
• Lack of interest from carmakers
• Necessity of a European market (“Low cost receivers require addressing mass markets. Different national timing in the digitisation of radio does not create the conditions or incentives for achieving critical mass.”)
• The installed base of receivers (“There are between 3 to 5 radio receivers per household, many of them being lower cost receivers. To replace such an installed base means achieving low costs and/or to supply attractive, new services.”)
• Other standards than DAB are possible (“This competition may reduce the mass-market achievement in Europe.”)
• Lack of radio spectrum capacity for DAB (“The DAB multiplex is much larger than one FM channel: insertion in the FM band is not possible, spectrum efficiency is poor.”)
• Multi-channel is already a feature of analogue FM radio (“Additional services will have a marginal effect.”)
• DAB licences have sometimes been delayed.

Finally, the report identified what it called “a chronic chicken-and-egg situation” whereby:
• “Receivers remain expensive because there are no scale effects. This reduces audience and revenues of radio broadcasters who demand that manufacturers decrease receiver prices in order to provoke a mass-market and to trigger mass audiences ;
• There is no specific advantages [sic] in digital radio, no killer application, nobody buys digital receivers, the audience remains negligible, and prices stay high.”

There was even a graphic to illustrate the problem:
This all feels very much like DAB in Europe … eight years on. And, to hammer home the impending fragmentation of radio delivery platforms, the report’s recommendations noted that:

“Digital radio will probably be delivered through a much larger variety of technologies and platforms than analogue radio, which is essentially terrestrial. These will involve broadcasting or point-to-point, online or on-air, satellite, terrestrial or cable delivery, DAB, DVB or DRM technologies. These techniques will be competitors but very complementary for consumers and broadcasters.”

The questions all of this raises are:
• How did the UK government’s Digital Radio Working Group spend one year (2007-2008) considering how to make DAB radio a success in the UK but not reference this 2002 report?
• How did the UK government’s Digital Britain consultation spend much of a year (2008-2009) looking for the answers to DAB radio implementation but not reference this 2002 report?
• Did DAB stakeholders in the UK read this report in April 2002? And, if so, did they simply choose to ignore it?

[thanks to Eivind Engberg]