In My Opinion: John Collins: What’s stopping the commercial stations from overhauling Radio 2?

THERE’S been a lot made of BBC radio 2’s RAJAR audience figures in the last survey. Around a quarter of all Britons tune in every week, making it one of the most successful radio stations.

The question that’s most often asked is ‘how do they do it?’. I’ll enumerate my reasons in a bit. But perhaps the more interesting question is ‘what’s stopping commercial radio from overhauling it?’.

Radio 2 has comparatively big budgets and a national platform which allows it to have some of the biggest stars in UK radio. There isn’t a programme director who wouldn’t kill for a line-up as strong as Evans, Bruce, Vine, Wright and Mayo. Each a master of their craft and each a nationally-known personality. The biggest commercial operators get close in terms of quality and even local fame, but, with a few exceptions, don’t come close in the soft adult-contemporary audience demographics.

Then there’s the music. I’ve sat in sessions at conferences and festivals and others with consultants and music programming experts. They tend to come to the same conclusion: keep restricting your playlist.

This boils down to playing the songs we know the listener likes – not the ones they don’t. Taken further, it means playing the ‘best’ songs most often and removing the songs listeners don’t like. It’s a science. Combined with ever tighter links, it puts the music at the heart of the station’s offering. It’s a widely-clung belief, held up by audience figures at stations around the world.

And with music being pushed to the forefront of a programme, so the role of presenters is pushed back – unless it’s breakfast time when jocks are encouraged to entertain.

It’s not what the blogs are saying. Or the podcasts Or John Myers’ recent book, Team. It’s Only Radio! Or Tony Blackburn’s recent assorted reflections on his long career.

They are saying: keep the repertoire of music wide, not narrow. They are advocating: promote the presenters.

But at this point of the decade, precious few commercial stations are doing either, let alone both.

And they are doing so while a Pandora’s Box of streaming services and MP3 collections provides several alternatives if it’s just music someone wants to listen to. The affordability of data brings this possibility even into the car.

I liken commercial radio’s adherence to their current way of operating to politics. What we have now works for them. The push on costs has helped profit and the national brands are successes. But research tells them to stick with what they do and not to try bold new ideas. It’s analogous to the way the left and right in politics have merged into a broadly centrist mass which doesn’t want to do anything to scare the voters.

Where the radio industry differs is that we have a shining example of what’s possible in Radio 2. Lots of speech, broad music and many specialist programmes. Broadcasters who have made the jump embrace the freedom it offers – yet in their commercial bubble they rely on the ‘safety first, don’t scare the listeners’ approach.

I’m not suggesting anarchy, or throwing away what has been achieved.

I am, however, advocating that commercial programmers go back to first principles and try new ideas. It may take time for audiences to grow to love them, and that will require nerves of steel. But great communicators with engaging content is what sets radio apart from its digital challengers.

If UK commercial radio spends more in programming and less in research they might begin to win over their older, braver competitor.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up occasionally on the radio, at Clyde 2 on a Sunday morning. Pic: Michele Dillon.