Helen Boaden - Radio Festival 2013

Date: 14.10.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.50
Category: Radio; Corporate
Speech given by Helen Boaden, Director, BBC Radio, at the Radio Festival in Salford on Monday 14 October 2013.

It is a huge pleasure to be here and thank you for doing me the immense honour of inviting me to speak today.

As you may know, I have been away from the radio industry for eight years enjoying the cut and thrust of BBC News.

News is a place of constant change and you certainly can’t dodge the so-called digital revolution if you’re in its midst. It has dramatically changed the way we gather news, share it and broadcast it. And of course, our audiences consume news in many different ways from a decade ago - before everyone had mobiles and before tablets had even been invented.

Leading a wonderful team, we successfully transformed BBC News into a multimedia operation and I am proud of that.

But I can honestly say that I was always especially protective of radio in that transformation - not just because I started my career in commercial local radio and spent some of my happiest years as a reporter in Current Affairs on BBC Radio 4, but because in a fast changing world, the senior service, Radio, can often be overlooked or subsumed into the bigger demands of Television and the new digital platforms.

So although I officially left BBC News for BBC Radio six months ago, in many ways I had never left Radio behind and my return feels something like a homecoming.

And what have I found in this new Radio world?

It is both pleasingly familiar and yet surprisingly different.

Firstly, I am endlessly impressed by the daily creativity on all the BBC stations for which I am now responsible. The expertise, the ambition, the flair, the wit, the deep intimacy with their different audiences are a constant joy. I think that Radio in the BBC is the most creative part of the BBC and sometimes we should shout louder about that.

For me, the emotional power of good Radio – the reason it has remained so resilient - is its intrinsic qualities of intimacy and warmth. Its ability naturally to be in a one-to-one relationship with its audience. That applies as much to Christian O’Connell on Absolute Radio or Simon Bates on Smooth Radio as to Rob Cowan on Radio 3 or Yasmin and Twin B on 1Xtra.

Let’s be honest, you don’t have a one to one human relationship with an aggregator or with streamed music. You have a reaction. Good radio is qualitatively different.

Returning after eight years, the confidence and ambition of our BBC digital stations is especially cheering. I started our archive station, BBC 7, which has evolved into Radio 4 Extra so, naturally, I am keen on the richness and choice which new digital stations - 1Xtra, 6Music, 5 live sports extra and the Asian Network alongside 4 Extra - can offer our audiences.

In the time I have been away, these stations have come of age. They have become established and well-loved national brands – confident, bold and creative, attracting loyal audiences and helping the industry grow its presence in digital radio to record levels.

Meanwhile, amongst what used to be charmingly known as the “analogue” networks, I have returned to find the portfolio in formidable form.

Radio 1 as vibrant and youthful as at any point in its colourful history. Radio 2 reaching 15 million people but never failing to surprise and amaze with the diversity of its output. Radio 3 – a unique home for classical music, arts and culture whose tone is both welcoming and effortlessly erudite. Radio 4 seamlessly taking listeners on a serendipitous journey of mind expanding brilliance. And Radio 5 live – utterly at home here in Salford with a clarity of voice and purpose that rightfully earned it Station of the Year.

And of course that creativity is not confined to the BBC. The commercial world is now more consolidated than I could ever have imagined when I left – and we can argue about whether or not that is a good thing. It’s been under financial pressure after a prolonged economic downturn. That could have undermined new and different programming which require time and experimentation. Yet there are still outstanding examples of commercial radio raising the flag for creativity.

There are the brand extensions, using digital platforms to reach new audiences: Capital/CapitalXTRA, KISS/Kisstory, Absolute/Absolute80s

Running a profitable kids' radio station in Fun Kids; and other examples of great digital programming reaching new audiences for radio (French Radio London, Polish Radio London, Colourful Radio, etc)

The New TeamRock national station that is commercial free, but content led. It is basically taking content and putting it across a wide range of platforms world wide.

Global Radio's "smart-networking" is pretty damn clever too.

So as a new returner, Radio appears in great health: record reach with Radio attracting 48.3m listeners a week – 91 per cent of the population – and tuning in on average for over 21 hours a week.

Video it seems, did not kill the radio star.

And yet. And yet. It didn’t take long for some disquieting information to creep into my early conversations.

I learned that RAJAR figures have for 10 years pointed to a steady fall among all age groups in the average number of hours per listener each week. This trend is most acute among younger audiences, where there has been a fall of almost a quarter in average hours among 15 to 24-year-olds over the same period. But it is not restricted to the young. It’s evident to a greater or lesser extend across all audiences as listening habits change and digital technologies disrupt well established patters without a hint of respect for decades of tradition!

And I confess that almost to my own surprise, I have changed the habits of a lifetime in terms of Radio 4. I have never been much of a telly watcher and listened religiously to Radio 4 when I was at home in the evenings. Now it is not quite so simple. Digital radio has made it so much easier to tune away from what I don’t like and our iPlayer has made the best BBC television dramas available when and where I want them.

I was on the tube travelling through London the other day and as I idly took in the passengers around me it dawned on me that there had been a subtle but significant change to their commuting behaviour. We’ve all become used to our fellow passengers being lost in music or podcasts through headphones - indeed, often generously sharing it with those around them - but I noticed something that I’d not really spotted before. A lot of my fellow commuters were not listening but watching. Led by the young, that’s the impact that tablets and smartphones are having on our lives.

RAJAR figures also suggest that radio is in direct competition in a way it has never been before for the attention of audiences who now have a whole range of potential media options. Where once it was a straight choice between radio and television, there’s now Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, Tune In, Twitter, online and offline gaming and any number of catch-up services and aggregators.

None of them in themselves directly substitutes radio – and there’s some evidence that people multi-task around several at a time – but they do offer potentially attractive alternatives.

This reflected in the sale of radio sets – down a staggering 54 per cent since 2005 – as sales of smartphones, tablets and notebooks have soared.

As an industry we’ve responded well so far. An impressive range of apps, including the BBC iPlayerRadio, Radioplayer and many from commercial stations, have led to a rise in listening over the phone from 13 per cent to 20 per cent in just 12 months, according to Ofcom.

But there are potentially bigger beasts lurking in the wings. Take Spotify as a case in point. In the past year it has seen its users rise by 70 per cent to 24 million monthly users and six million paying subscribers worldwide.

It’s still not making money and you still don’t own the music you listen to on it, but it is slowly gaining ground, especially with the more affluent young. Figures suggest that in the UK around 6 per cent of adults who have smartphones use Spotify and that percentage more than doubles among 16 to 24 year olds.

So Radio is being challenged like never before. I have returned to find our radio industry in the midst of probably its greatest ever period of change – or certainly since the birth of commercial radio 40 years ago. Digital technologies have disrupted our listener’s habits, our business models and many of our approaches to broadcasting.

And we could easily be put off our stride. But now more than ever it seems important to face the world as it is, understand and marshall our strengths, understand our vulnerabilities and begin to adapt for a changing future. Because, in amongst the disruption and challenge, lie great potential opportunities.

I passionately believe that a unique strength of radio is its ability to respond creatively to new circumstances and keep that one to one radio relationship at the heart of its offer.

But the first trick is to accept that we ARE facing new circumstances.

It’s not a crisis.

We still have many, many millions of happy listeners and the fact that a large chunk of them are the baby boomers whose radio habits may not change dramatically as they coast into their sixties, seventies and eighties, gives us time to adapt.

And whilst the challenge to attract new generations of listeners has never been greater, digital technologies provide us with a whole new range of ways to potentially replenish our audiences and showcase our unique strengths.

Make no mistake, big change is here. And there will be more of it ahead. We can ride the digital wave or we can get swept away under it.

So what to do?

Well the first thing is to remind ourselves – as I have reminded many programme makers over the years – that you can’t sack the audience. They can sack you and go elsewhere. It doesn’t usually work the other way round.

So that means we need to continue to treasure those audiences who love what we do and whose radio habits are unlikely to change dramatically and rapidly.

And I think that requires continued creative investment; putting time, ingenuity and faith - as well as sometimes money - in talent and programme ideas which lift not just their station - but the whole idea of radio - out of the ordinary into the exceptional.

In the BBC that means the big ideas like Dambusters on Radio 2, The History Of The World In 100 Objects on Radio 4 and BBC Local Radio, Glastonbury, the Proms, and Radio One’s Big Weekend.

And it means keeping the day-to-day business of radio as good as it can be. Giving listeners a reason to keep their daily radio habit.

But we also have to recognise that people’s consumption patterns are changing as their range of increasingly cheap and portable connected devices opens a whole new world of choice.

We have to become part of that change, not simply let it happen to us.

At the same time as preserving all the characteristic which audiences love, we must be bold in identifying new opportunities.

So for example, online listening gives us a chance to measure how people respond to what we give them. From that, we now know that on a Sunday night when teenagers should be doing their homework, they are actually online and eager to continue the fun of the weekend. So Radio One offers them a live stream of fully visualised Dan and Phil.

And we’re experimenting with how to get new listeners to speech content with our Open Minds app which Tony Hall announced last week.

That will be unapologetically high fibre programming from Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service curated on a daily basis and offered at home and abroad.

In music, we want radio to continue to be the place where great musical journeys start.

As you will know by now, we’re introducing a digital music product called BBC Playlister. This will allow audiences to tag any piece of music they hear on the BBC via a connected device and listen to it later.

Working with streaming services, we will help you keep all your favourite music in one place and enable you to enjoy it across your various devices.

But I suppose one really tough question to those of us who love radio as simple audio cannot be avoided.

Are we reaching a moment when for some audiences, audio alone – be it music or speech - simply isn’t enough to keep their attention?

For the first time at Glastonbury this year we worked across TV, radio and online to offer comprehensive coverage of all six main stages simultaneously, allowing viewers and listeners to pick and choose the bands they wanted to hear at a time they wanted to hear them.

All the music festivals covered by the BBC over the summer have shown a significant increase in streaming as people switch to video to see what previously they would only have heard. We are thrilled to be able to offer this service but clearly it challenges the idea of radio being “enough” during the big musical events.

Young people in particular are saturated with visual stimuli and for some of them, the idea of radio as a stream of sound, however brilliantly presented as a one to one relationship, just isn’t enough to keep them fully engaged.

With that in mind, Radio 1 has been experimenting with something we used to call “visualisation” for online consumption. Frankly this is a rather pompous word for what the rest of us would call “cheap filming”.

Last month’s Reboot Day on Radio 1 saw tens of thousands of listeners and viewers voting on which presenters they wanted to appear on the network that day while our daily Live Lounge events – streamed online – drew tens of thousands of live viewers. This grew to 15 million views online during the following month on YouTube.

We’ve also been able to harness the huge power of YouTube to highlight Radio 1 content. Greg James’ impersonation of Miley Cyrus swinging on a wrecking ball has currently been viewed three million times.

The Radio 1 audience can listen, watch and share its live music performances and interviews online.

But we want to capitalise on that. Which is why our Director-General also announced last week that when the BBC evolves its hugely successful iPlayer service into “iPlayer Plus”, Radio 1 will have a channel of its own, providing short video content that isn’t broadcast on traditional television.

I am delighted by this innovation. But it’s important not to be seduced into thinking “visualisation” is the panacea to all radio’s challenges.

I personally realised that we had lost a sense of proportion on visualistaion when a poor man building a new set of studios for one of the BBC’s local radio stations – average aged audience about 63 – emailed me in despair asking if he should cave in to demands by programme makers that the studios be fully kitted out for non-stop filming.

Answer: over your dead body.

We’ve done some sensible research and the truth is that demand from most radio audiences for visualisation is currently limited. Indeed, even at Radio 1 where 10 videos are watched every second of every day, success isn’t guaranteed and many visualised strands are quickly retired.

Infamous clips such as unexpected mice at 5 Live or politicians squirming on Radio 2 make newspaper headlines but are in fact fairly modest in their reach.

So we are carefully refocusing our effort on visualisation so that Radios 1 and 1Xtra lead the way while, across the remainder of the portfolio, with an emphasis on quality, we’ll be concentrating on network-defining events on interactive TV: the Red Button. Elton John’s appearance at the BBC radio Theatre for Radio 2 reached 870,000.

Those are some of the ways we at the BBC are experimenting as we respond to the changing needs of our audiences.

We are trying to be fiercely realistic about the implications of the new digital age whilst remaining creatively committed in the here and now. It’s an approach I think we share as we all try to make sense of where audiences are going.

To be honest, one of the biggest surprises when I returned to Radio was the extent to which the BBC and the commercial sector have been working together since I left, especially on technology projects. I think my predecessor, Tim Davie, deserves real credit for leading the way from our side.

It makes sense that a small industry under pressure should compete creatively but collaborate on the big issues.

Last month Radioplayer launched a tablet app that shows off the amazing breadth and depth of UK Radio in a beautiful, simple design. To give each listener a joyful moment of discovery, Radioplayer built a new recommendation engine powered by, among other things, Facebook ‘likes’. And for the first time, you can save programmes as Favourites, as well as stations.

I am also delighted that the UK radio industry is working with international partners to improve the experience of listening to radio on smartphones. Mobile phones are a critical part of our connected future and radio is well suited to listening on-the-go.

Yet, as you know, buffering, data charges, bill-shock and poor design are all too common problems when listening on mobile phones. In fact, an average data package of 1GB allows listeners to stream radio for barely an hour a day and then not use their phones at all for Facebook, YouTube, email. It’s just not good enough. So, together with a coalition of radio broadcasters from around the world, we are developing new standards to transform this experience and to encourage manufacturers to build digital radios into their phones as part of their standard offer in the UK.

And, of course, the biggest development facing us this year is progress on the joint Government-industry Digital Radio Action Plan.

We await the Government’s ‘in principle’ decision on digital switchover by the end of the year. As shareholders in DRUK, we fully support the move to digital and, most recently, have worked hard with other companies on our digital marketing campaign, ‘D Love’.

No other organisation has done more to support a digital future for radio than the BBC.

Our position is clear: we will continue to support an audience-led transition to digital listening - but the key is in that phrase “audience led”.

And the signs are positive. Digital listening continues to grow apace. The share of listening on DAB is now up to nearly 25 per cent and more than 52 per cent listen to something digitally each week. We know that an increasing number of new cars have digital radios fitted, reaching just over 40 per cent this year.

We plan to extend the coverage of our national DAB multiplex to 97.3% by end of 2015. We will play our part in funding the extension of the local DAB layer the so-called ‘Phase 2’. And we will continue to promote digital radio and invest in our digital services and innovation, as I have described. This is what our funding permits.

But there are real challenges.

For me the biggest is car conversion – remembering that 20 per cent of our listening is in cars.

Today over 90 per cent of vehicles do not have digital radios. And sales of DAB digital radios are flat. People usually replace a new car after around three years so there needs to be a huge growth in digital conversions.

Perhaps we need a really serious initiative for cars: big retailers and garages offering cheap and easy conversions to low cost DAB radios when you take your car in for its MOT.

Without that kind of push, I think it’s quite hard to talk about setting dates for a future switchover though I welcome the optimism of those who are more confident. We need to keep our listeners with us on DAB so setting a date for switchover must be audience-led – when 50 per cent of listening is digital and there is significant penetration of DAB in cars.

All of us – broadcasters, Government and the supply chain – should work to maintain digital momentum.

I understand that commercial companies are facing dual transmission costs and that switchover would ease this burden. We also face these costs. Above all else, it is in all our interests to sustain radio listening and the public’s affection for the medium.

So: lots of change. Lots of challenge. Life is never dull in Radio. None of us would like it if it were.

We have immediate challenges like DAB switchover. And we have what I call iceberg challenges - the things slowly coming towards us where we can see the top but don’t know quite how deep the problem may be.

And then of course there are the Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns”.

We are all trying out new things and testing the new world. Some of our experiments will succeed. Others may in time prove to be glorious flops. The Licence Fee is not there to compete with the market – it is there to take risks the market cannot take.

The important point is that we try. And if we fail, we fail fast and smartly!

Some aspects of radio have changed hugely in the eight years I have been away, but many of the human fundamentals which underpin good radio will never change: The love of that one to one conversation; the passion for music of all sorts; the thrill of feeling you are in a club of like-minded listeners (and sometimes viewers); the adventure of expert, intelligent speech radio. The unexpected and the convenience.

The trick for all of us will be to keep playing to those inherent strengths whilst not being afraid to embrace the whole spectrum of digital opportunities; opportunities which could help us create a passionate new generation of radio lovers who instinctively expects access to content on its own terms, multimedia experiences and the ability to interact with and help shape the content.

Creatively, radio right now is living through something of a golden age.

I believe that whatever the challenges – and they’re not small - this industry has the people, the passion and the sheer bloody inventiveness in both commercial radio and the BBC, to deliver a rich and resilient future.

Let’s go out and grasp it.