The people who run Britain’s largest commercial radio stations now
call themselves ’brand managers’. They devote their days to researching
ways of exploiting their image beyond simple merchandising and
That is why Classic FM has just launched its own record label and
Capital Radio is branching out into glitzy cafes. This is partly because
they have nothing concrete in the way of archives to exploit, only
formats closely linked with certain life-styles. Capital is a uniquely
metropolitan station aimed at the under-30s, while Classic listeners are
Brand management was discussed for the first time at last week’s annual
Radio Academy conference in Birmingham, and is clearly only in its
infancy: For example, Capital Radio is expected to shortly get its hands
on Virgin Radio’s national frequency and then may well have the scope to
add national live football coverage to its mix.
In addition, all radio stations, including the BBC face broadly the same
digital/internet challenge as television: there will be many more
channels on offer, so a station’s brand will need to be powerful and
All sorts of new formats are under discussion: a ’Radio One and a Half’,
for people too old for Radio 1 and too young for Radio 2, is being
developed at the BBC. I heard shrewd business men talk about concepts
such as a channel built around repeats of The Archers and a network of
local stations charging ordinary people to be broadcasters!
I mention all this because it puts into context next week’s announcement
of radical new Radio 4 schedules which are already causing a barrage of
questions in Parliament. The BBC is most certainly seeking to recast its
unique speech network by simplifying and stranding the patchwork of
programmes - which have more in common with a medieval field system than
contemporary radio practice.
It is also appointing executives to oversee ’day parts’ to ensure
schedules flow, rather than constantly offer listeners a reason to
switch off because of abrupt changes in tone. Moves towards stripped
schedules, with integrated Parliamentary news, accessible talk at 9am,
Woman’s Hour at 10am, and a pepped up arts and media coverage are
changes in the right, not the wrong direction.
It is worrying that audiences dip more precipitously than for all other
stations after the Today programme, that only half of listeners tune in
for anything more than news, current affairs and The Archers. Radio 4
absorbs pounds 75 million a year, double the costs per hour of Radio 5.
Controller James Boyle is not engaged in a cynical move to dumb down.
His is an intelligent attempt to revive his brand - left perilously late
in the day.