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Tune Out. What use is radio to young people?

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Recently it was announced that Radio 1 and Radio 1 Xtra would be shedding a cross section of their DJs. Controller Ben Cooper has handed Mike Davies, Jen Long, Ally McCrae, CJ Beatz, Crissy Criss and Robbo Ranx their cards, and his actions are blamed on budgetary cuts stemming from the last licence fee settlement.  I’m inclined to think Cooper hasn’t gone far enough. Actually, I think he should have wound up the whole presentation team on both stations.

Oh, I can hear the raised voices now: ‘Yeah right, grandpa. Just because you don’t like the young people’s music, doesn’t mean nobody should hear it!’. And I would agree. I’m not suggesting the music should be jettisoned, just the DJs. What’s more, I’m not even running down the jocks because I don’t rate them; I am merely suggesting they are completely unnecessary.

Radio matters to my generation. It’s a habit we acquired when platforms carrying the music we liked were in short supply. Beyond our own record collections, we could only hear classic soul, punk, metal, electronica or goth in night clubs or on the wireless. The image of the 70s or 80s teenager closeted away in a bedroom, glued to John Peel sessions, may be a cliché, but it was absolutely real. No surprise then, that we carried the urge into adulthood, and are still pretty well served by Radio 2, 5Live, 6Music, Radio 4 and a sweep of DAB channels. But here’s the problem for Mr. Cooper, we’re not the target audience for Radio 1 or Radio Xtra.

Those stations have a very specific brief: to entertain and engage as many of the UK’s 15-24 year olds as possible. Unfortunately, this is a population with little or no tradition of radio listening, and more alternatives than we could ever have imagined. Websites, multi-channel television, apps, gaming consoles, social media, DVDs, streaming movies, iPlayer – all these outlets fight daily for the attention of the nation’s youth, and they have the advantage of being popular, flexible and widely adopted. In such a climate, radio is at best a novelty and at worst, an irrelevance.

So what do Radio 1/1Xtra offer to draw the crowd from their X-Boxes and Facebooks? In truth, very little – although I suspect Ben Cooper would make a claim for ‘music and personality’. If that’s the case, something is wrong. Almost all 15-24 year olds access their music on demand. From iTunes, Spotify, Grooveshark and increasingly YouTube, these consumers expect their choice of artist and song on demand. A radio station cannot fulfil that expectation. Which leaves ‘personality’.

"An insufficient and diminishing number of young folk is inclined to listen to the radio."

Nick Grimshaw is Radio 1′s shining light. When he was given the breakfast show we were assured he represented everything the station and its listeners were about. By October 2013 he was carrying one million fewer punters than his predecessor. It’s a depressing thought, but Chris Moyles was probably the last Radio 1 morning host to attract an appropriately voluminous audience. And I mean the last ever. However talented and charming Grimshaw might be, an insufficient and diminishing number of young folk is inclined to listen to him of a morning.

If there is a long-term future for Radio 1/1Xtra, it is probably as a music stream. I can just about see the appeal in a non-stop, high bit-rate broadcast of the songs popular with youngsters. They could set it going on their iPhones as a soundtrack to some Candy Crush action or heavy Facebooking. No need for news bulletins or phone-ins, no need for an FM frequency (an expanded 5Live would sit nicely there), as long as it was available as an app, website and mobile service, it would be accessible.
BBC3 is in the process of being wound down as a traditional TV channel but, they say, will live on as a multi-platform experience. If that is true, there is a very good argument for bundling Radio 1/1Xtra into that package, the intended audience being one and the same.

Despite all the trepidation and error, radio is still in fairly rude health. The commercial sector is a bit of a mess and needs attention; DAB has been badly mismanaged too. Nevertheless, ratings for Radio 4 and 5Live are strong, and Radio 2 is the most listened to station in Europe. Good to know, but the BBC must face facts. There is no possibility of transforming the fortunes of their youth stations, because there is no way to haul those youths away from the devices around which they have built their lifestyles. Unless it can adapt quickly, Radio 1/1Xtra will become an anachronism and no more vital than the music box their parents have in the kitchen.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant

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