Helen Boaden’s full speech to Radiodays Europe
Director of BBC Radio, Helen Boaden, has address 1500 radio delegates at the Radiodays Europe Conference today.
You can follow coverage of the event on RadioTodayLive.com, where we tweeted highlights of this address earlier today.
Here’s the speech in full:
“I am going to speak on my view of the future of radio. But to understand where we are heading, we first need to consider where we are and the challenges we face.
First, there are audience changes. As we all know by now, in a digital age, the real challenge is not in the overall number of people listening, but in the hours they consume. This consumption is falling – in some groups, quite dramatically.
Equally, we all know that there are very powerful new players entering the global market – Apple, Amazon and Google, and of course Spotify. Global tech companies have rediscovered radio and our medium has not encountered a challenge like this since the launch of television.
And then there are political considerations.
In the UK, the BBC is in the midst of Charter Review.
I have to pause to address this because, while it’s right to ask tough questions of public service broadcasters, the latest debate has been fuelled by a focus only on how to limit the market impact of the BBC at the expense of what our audiences actually want. I think this is a ‘cycloptic’ – one-eyed – approach and some of the claims made as a result require a robust response.
Take the suggestion that Radio 1 and 2 have become less distinctive.
We have tracked their distinctiveness for years, but our data has been somewhat arbitrarily dismissed in favour of research that underreports our range and breadth.
Our figures show that the percentage of tracks played on Radio 1 and not on any similar commercial station, has increased from 33 per cent in 2006 to 56 per cent now, while Radio 2’s proportion of unique tracks has increased from 60 per cent a decade ago to a massive 77 per cent now.
It has also been suggested that our stations should not be so popular. That we should deliberately turn away audiences who want our range and distinctiveness.
The argument is that if we made BBC Radio less appealing to 25 to 44-year-olds, those listeners would flock to commercial radio. Real life suggests otherwise.
Since 2010, the time this age group spends with BBC Radio has dropped by two hours a week, but commercial radio hasn’t seen a commensurate increase in their listenership. They have left us but not gone to commercial radio. We are not the problem.
The latest research commissioned by Government asks a very loaded question – ‘how could you cut the BBC to the benefit of its competitors?’ – not something our listeners are queuing up to ask.
Nor are they clamouring for us to sack our much-loved presenters like Ken Bruce or Annie Mac, shut down the Radio 2 Book Club or kill the Live Lounge. Our audiences want high-quality radio – which we give them – and to needlessly diminish our stations would do them a grave disservice.
Public service broadcasting is founded on the idea that culture – high and popular – should be accessible to everyone. Our first Director-General, Lord Reith, said the BBC should bring “The best of everything to the greatest number of homes”. We have popularity built into our ethos. It should stay that way.
We share the ambition of a BBC that should be even more distinctive, building on our strong track-record, but it would be a curious ambition to want fewer people listening to our stations.
So we are facing manifold challenges – audience habits, new competition and political factors.
What should we do?
Well the first thing is not to panic. You can never beat a structural shift. But you can ride it.
In terms of audiences, we reframed our strategy several years ago. For us, it is no longer about simply listening to content.
It’s about Listen. Watch. Share.
It’s a simple mantra that acknowledges both the enduring importance of traditional listening and the need to embrace new audience needs and opportunities.
Not every audience has the same need for all aspects of our strategy.
Radio 1 – our youth network – has been incredibly ambitious digitally.
Its audience – with a most-common age of 22 – want great music and DJs, but they also want images, videos, live performance and lots of social media.
Radio 1 makes on-air content work outside of the radio schedule. Their YouTube channel now has almost 3 million subscribers and is recognised as the world’s most watched radio station, and they have a combined 7.5 million audience on social media across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Radio 1 is proving that you can still bring audiences to radio but only if you understand that for anyone under 25, ‘radio’ is so much more than audio.
But different audiences need different things from our strategy.
Our biggest network, Radio 2 – with an average listener age of 51 – has been embracing visual technology in a way that works for its audience – offering streamed video content of performances and programmes on their website and via the BBC’s Red Button service on TV, including many of the world-class concerts broadcast on Radio 2 by artists like Noel Gallagher and Elton John.
In speech radio, our news and sport service Radio 5 live is making great progress in short-form, snackable content online.
Last year, the station’s In Short clip collection achieved nearly 25 million plays – a 173 per cent increase from the numbers in 2014. And it looks set to grow even further – in February alone there were 4 million clip plays.
What works well here are clever choices of clips, strong headlines and focus on original content – they rarely clip anything that hasn’t originated on 5 live. They feed out the clips via social media and work closely with the BBC’s websites to drive traffic to their content.
Meanwhile, Radio 4 listeners, who tend to be rather resistant to change to the radio station they adore, are slowly building an appetite for a different kind of short film online.
Radio 4 is broadcasting a 60-part series called A History Of Ideas which explores the big questions that have preoccupied thinkers down the ages. Complementing the series are brilliant digital animations which have been hugely successfully on the Radio 4 website, YouTube and Facebook. They have now been watched nearly 3 million times.
We have made strides in digital distribution too.
The iPlayer Radio app, which offers 57 BBC radio stations, has been downloaded 10 million times since its launch in late 2012, and allows listeners to listen live on the go, or catch up on programmes whenever they want to.
And we can now offer a really straightforward download button on our app so you don’t need to be connected when you listen. More than 10 million programmes have been downloaded since this was added last year.
We’ve also started making some programmes available online ahead of their on-air broadcast. We are seeing 50 per cent more online listening to these shows than those that are only available after transmission.
And our podcasts remain hugely popular. We offer 450 strands from across our networks and Apple tell us our podcasts are the most popular in their apps.
Alongside this, we are continuing to build out our DAB network. We are now approaching 97 per cent coverage of the UK population, although we still feel we have to be led into any switchover by audiences.
In addition, we are working with the industry on ‘hybrid radio’, an innovative new hybrid Radioplayer app that is capable of switching intelligently between broadcast DAB and streaming.
This ground-breaking hybrid approach delivers the best of both worlds – a ‘connected’ interface with personalised recommendations and favourites, plus a robust ‘broadcast’ audio engine that uses less data and battery power than streaming.
Mike Hill from UK Radioplayer will have some exciting news about that development later today.
And whilst I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far, radio can never rest on its laurels. So we are constantly thinking what next.
One thought is to offer even more tailored radio experience: a personalised radio station, for every listener, based on what they like listening to.
It will combine live and on-demand audio with music playlists and regular updates. It will suggest you content based on its understanding of what you normally listen to and what you like, and links this to factors such as time, location and what device you’re listening on.
And it will support varied schedules that mix speech, music and news – and bring together all of our radio stations.
It’s still early days – the full service will take time to develop, but it’s exciting.
We also recognise the increasing importance of new music discovery – something that has always been a key part of radio, but needs super-charging in the digital world.
Here, we already have something we call BBC Playlister, which allows listeners to create personal playlists, and have just launched a BBC Music app, which builds on this to offer exclusive live music performances, interviews and playlists from across the BBC, tailored to your musical taste.
And we are also developing a digital music proposal with the British music industry – which would make the 50,000 tracks the BBC broadcasts every month available to listen online, for a limited period.
We want to reinvent our role as a trusted guide to audiences and this new music discovery service would mean that the BBC could remain a key catalyst for the UK music industry.
So we must embrace shifts in technology and we must cherish our unique relationship with our audiences.
And politically, we must defend our right to be popular – and crucially, our independence.
In some countries, a change of Government heralds a changing of the guard at public service broadcasters as well. Public service broadcasting subjected to undue political interference over a sustained period becomes state broadcasting. I don’t believe that is what our audiences want. I believe they want strong, independent broadcasters.
The regulation of the BBC is currently being debated in the UK. External regulation has been suggested and is something we broadly welcome. But the appointment process for the new BBC board needs proper public discussion. This board will decide our editorial policy and direction. It will have oversight of our News and Current Affairs output. The recent reports that the majority of board members would be directly chosen by Government – whether by the UK Government or those in the devolved nations – runs counter to the principle of a strong and independent BBC. It undermines who we are.
Independence is intrinsically linked to our audiences’ trust in us. And without trust, we are nothing.
So the challenges we face are acute, but are not insurmountable. We must be bold, take risks and innovate.
But more than that, if we are to continue to thrive in the future, we must be resilient. Our medium – radio – has proven itself remarkably resilient time and again.
Now, the public service broadcasters who cherish their radio output must show equal resilience in the face of commercial and political pressure.