LBC equalize with 5 Live as BBC lose ground to commercial rivals

LBC equalized 5 Live in the battle for radio audiences, as commercial stations continue to challenge their BBC counterparts.

Just a decade ago, LBC was a London-only talk radio station known for its belligerent phone calls. But huge investments in presenters and marketing have helped turn the outlet into a top-tier national station known for opinionated hosts such as Nick Ferrari and James O’Brien.

LBC now accounts for 2.7% of all time spent listening to radio in the UK, putting it on par with the BBC’s national talk and sports station. Although the latest viewing figures show that more people are still listening to 5 Live in any given week, they are less loyal and listen for less time than those who listen to LBC.

Private broadcast groups have poured huge sums of money into radio in recent years, poaching many of the BBC’s biggest stars – Rupert Murdoch’s Virgin Radio recruited Chris Evans from Radio 2, Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio signed Simon Mayo and Global’s LBC signed Andrew Marr.

The results of this investment are now reflected in audience figures, which reveal a rapidly widening gap between the BBC and its advertising-funded rivals. BBC radio now accounts for only 46.7% of total radio listening in the UK, compared to 50.9% for commercial radio. The rest is made up of smaller stations, such as community outlets. According to Rajar’s latest listening figures, which cover the three months to mid-September, commercial radio stations are also significantly outperforming the BBC with young audiences.

The BBC’s arts and speech stations have been the hardest hit over the past year. Total audience reach – the number of people who listen to a radio station in a given week – collapsed by 21% at Radio 3, 9% at Radio 4 and 17% at 5 Live.

In response, the BBC is increasingly insisting it is now focusing on the BBC Sounds app rather than traditional live radio, saying BBC podcasts have been downloaded over 400 million times worldwide during the same period. Its popular music stations also held up better, with Radio 1 and Radio 2 registering only small declines in audience.

While the BBC continues to maintain over 40 separate local stations at substantial cost, the major commercial groups have opted for a different strategy. They have combined dozens of formerly separate local radio stations under national brands such as Heart and Capital, providing the bare minimum of local production to meet requirements set by media regulator Ofcom. Despite complaints about the loss of local identities, the new outlets are doing well with audiences and tending to increase viewing figures.

The increase in online listening via smart speakers is also allowing radio stations to be more successful in serving specific niche audiences. Boom Radio – aimed at baby boomers who have been turned off Radio 2 by its attempts to capture younger audiences – reaches 443,000 listeners a week after just 18 months on the air. He promoted his success with the endorsement of Sir Cliff Richard, who said he found it difficult to listen to modern radio “because I can’t always identify with rap and stuff like that”.

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