MEDIA: Commercial radio should celebrate, but not ecstatically

Next week sees the 25th anniversary of commercial radio, marked by the inevitable photocall of celebrities at the UK’s first station LBC.

Next week sees the 25th anniversary of commercial radio, marked by

the inevitable photocall of celebrities at the UK’s first station


But the proof of the sector’s difficult march towards maturity was more

accurately on display last week, in a wonderful spat between Classic FM

and Radio 3.

If you recall, Radio 3 interviewed one of the music industry’s most

rated talents, Roger Lewis of Decca, for the vacant post of controller.

But the jittery BBC opted instead for its own home-grown head of

orchestras, Roger Wright, sending out a clear message that Radio 3 was

not ’dumbing down’. The process was hit by presentational bungles.

The national press predicted, over several days, that the wrong Roger -

Roger Lewis - would land the job. Then, even as the BBC was wheeling out

their Roger (Wright) in a ’meet the controller’ session with

journalists, Classic FM’s board pulled a PR coup, announcing Roger Lewis

as its director of programmes and board member. In the past, before

credible competition, the BBC often asked high profile outsiders like

Lewis to apply for jobs, before handing htem to the favoured


Lewis was hugely attractive to Classic too, and was playing both sides

of the industry ... although it is not clear that the BBC knew this. But

the bigger question is why Classic, ably overseen by chief executive

Ralph Bernard, needs a Lewis figure.

Here we come straight to one of commercial radio’s ongoing problems.

It has few creative leaders of distinction. It’s odd how little kudos

Capital Radio has reaped for its bid to woo children with a new format,

Fun Radio. Attempts at lobbying to allow greater concentration of

ownership don’t seem to have scored either.

Classic FM, after its takeover by GWR two years ago actually revamped

its schedules on advice from its advertising agency: it worked. But it

clearly feels the need for a leader, someone to step into the gap left

by ex-programme director Michael Bukht, to front up its record label and

magazine and to lead the ratings war.

In fact, commercial radio has been denuded of big names, as the first

generation of pioneers retreats. Capital Radio’s Richard Eyre, the

sector’s cleverest operator is now rescuing ITV. Chris Evans is

preoccupied with safeguarding his investment at Virgin Radio. And Talk

Radio’s future (as I write) is uncertain, due to the massive instability

caused by owner Luxembourg CLT’s decision to sell.

Sure commercial radio can now boast a five per cent advertising spend

share, but at the age of 25, it is not stunningly successful.

The lead over the BBC is not as wide as it should be. And, for all the

hope raised by the switch to digital, the rise of competition, through

new satellite-audio digital channels could nibble into home-based radio


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