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%.
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.