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.

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