7 Feb 2015 at 20:06
What goes up, must come down. That doesn’t apply just to Christmas decorations and share prices, but to radio audiences too. Every quarter we get listening figures courtesy of RAJAR. They instill fear into every radio presenter and producer, because those are the measure that we are judged by. For any radio station programmer, it’s like getting A Level results four times a year. You can survive the odd sticky one, but if a pattern develops you inevitably start fearing for your job. I’ve been at LBC for four and a half years now and that empty stomach feeling on RAJAR day never quite goes away.
I’ve always been told that you should never get too carried away by a single brilliant RAJAR card, just as you should never get depressed by a bad one. Easy to say, less easy to abide by. I remember when I was doing the evening show the audience plummeted by 100,000 in one quarter. Everyone said it was a rogue card, but you never quite believe it yourself. Sure enough, on the next it bounced back, but I would be lying if I said I hadn’t feared the worst after that one.
What you have to look for is the trend and if you are starting a new show, you should never worry too much if the RAJAR in your first year is a bit all over the place. The audience has to get used to you. So when I see that Radio 5 Live’s audience is down by 7-10% in this quarter am I surprised? No I’m not. It’s not a reflection on their new presenting team, it’s a reflection that their three main daytime shows have changed all at the same time. Radio audiences often don’t react well to change and people take time to get used to new voices. It was unfortunate that Victoria Derbyshire, Shelagh Fogarty and Richard Bacon all decided not to renew their contracts at the same time (and it was THEIR decision, no one else’s, despite how the BBC disgracefully portrayed it at the time). And on top of that, my broadcasting hero, the legend that is Peter Allen, decided also that he wanted a change in routine and was moved from Drive to the mid morning slot, albeit only three days a week. I don’t care what the station is, you’re never going to card a good RAJAR with that degree of change. It’s only after three or four cards that 5 Live controller Jonathan Wall will be able to judge how his changes have panned out.
The Drivetime audience is a hugely competitive audience, not just on speech stations but music too. And each show is very different. So is each timeslot. I’m on between 4 & 8pm. Between 5 and 6 I have Eddie Mair on PM on Radio 4. On 5 Live between 4 and 7 we have Tony Livesey & Anna Foster. On BBC London between 5 and 7 it’s Eddie Nestor. On Radio 2 in the same slot it’s Simon Mayo. Each show is very different in format and content, so the listener has a wide choice of options. If they don’t like something on one channel, it’s easy for them to switch, so the key way to keep your audience is to provide some ‘stickability’ – don’t give the audience a reason to turn over. I like to think we do that on my show by keeping it pacy and demonstrating to the audience that we know what they want at that time of day.
I’ve been presenting Drive for nearly two years now. It’s probably the most enjoyable and rewarding job I’ve ever had. It’s a very different ballgame to presenting the evening show, which I did for two and a half years. There’s less time, for a start – more news and travel to fit in – even though the show is an hour longer. It’s far pacier. There’s more news. You absolutely have to cover the biggest stories of the day. There’s a lot of breaking news in that time slot. For instance, I’ve had to cover the Woolwich terror murder, the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner, the shooting down of the Malaysian airplane over Ukraine and much else besides. We do lots of news hits, but it’s our phoneins that provide the ‘stickability’. We always try to challenge ourselves and our listeners. We did that this week in two 6pm phoneins on depression and down syndrome. Both are difficult subjects to handle in a drivetime slot, as time is limited. But I doubt anyone who was listening at the start of the hour switched over – that was little to do with me as a presenter, it was all to do with the quality of the calls and the astonishing stories they had to tell.
It’s also partly about providing a bit of light and shade during the four hours. Inevitably, the news can be somewhat depressing, and many of the subject we have to cover (we are, after all a newstalk station) aren’t very happy clappy. So as a presenter I do try to lighten things up, have a bit of a joke, try to be self deprecating and entertain, as well as doing all the serious stuff. We did a great hour, for instance, on Friday, on present buying, inspired by the Myleene Klass story. I think everyone had a smile on their faces after that.
We also do regular political phone-ins, and in a sense I think they are a big part of what has driven LBC’s profile in the last eighteen months or so. Nick Ferrari does them with Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, as well as a few public officials like Sir Michael Wilshaw and Sir Bernard Hogan Howe. I’ve developed my own phone-in stable. Unlike Call Clegg we don’t do them weekly with any politician – ours are monthly, which enables us to have a wider range of politicians taking part. We have Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, Chuka Umunna, Jeremy Hunt, Eric Pickles and now Michael Gove. We also do a quaterly phonein with Ian McCafferty, a member of the Bank of England Montary Policy Committee, which is hugely popular, believe it or not! We’ve also done one with Ed Miliband, which went incredibly well and got massive positive feedback from loads of people who said they saw him in a very different light afterwards. That was back in July. I hope he’ll do another one or two before the election, but we’ll see.
When I started on Drive the show had registered an audience of around 300,000 listeners in London in the previous quarter. That was one of those one-off RAJAR cards which didn’t reflect the real level of listeners. Over the previous three years it had had an audience of between 330k to 450k. James Whale had done a great job with the programme. His profile and fame attracted a new band of listeners to a timeslot which had been traditionally difficult for LBC. When I was offered the slot in March 2013, I remember saying to James Rea, LBC’s Managing Editor, that my ambition was to grow the audience to half a million and get a 5% audience share (at the time it was 2.9%) in London.
Well, I and my team are delighted to have achieved one of those aims. The figures released on Wednesday show we now have a London audience of 513,000 between 4 and 7. I haven’t got the 7-8 figures yet, but so that 513k figure will actually be much higher. (UPDATE: I’m now told the 4-8 figure is 546k). It also doesn’t include the national audience, which, judging from the level of calls we get from outside London, is growing very well indeed. For the third quarter in a row we have also achieved a 4% audience share. So a little way to go on the 5% target, but it shows how competitive the London market is. For the first time (I think), Drive is also beating 5 Live in London. We’ve put on 154,000 listeners quarter on quarter and 118,000 year on year. I’m also told this is the highest audience this timeslot has ever got in 40 years of LBC. And that’s where we must be cautious and not be too euphoric. No one will be more delighted than me if we continue with this level of audience, but we all know that this could be one of those upper end one-offs. As I said at the start of this article, what goes up, must come down. But in Radioland, you’re only as good as your last RAJAR, so forgive me and my team if we rejoice while we can!
The coming three months, as we head towards the election, are going to be massive for everyone in speech radio and LBC in particular as we ensure that we not only lead Britain’s conversation, but also set the agenda. Things are going to be even more competitive. I and my production team (Matt Harris, Jagruti Dave and Axel Kacoutie) are going to relish the challenge on Iain Dale at Drive. And enjoy it too. I hope. :)