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Celebrating the distinctiveness of BBC Radio 1 and 2

Helen Boaden

Director, BBC Radio and Executive Sponsor for myBBC

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Never underestimate the power of good radio.  It provides a soundtrack to our lives, keeps us up to date with events, offers companionship, opens our minds to new music and ideas and entertains us endlessly. BBC Radio reaches nearly three quarters of the UK population every week. Those people have a range of great radio to choose from - I started my career in commercial radio and know how good it can be. But with all that choice, millions of listeners choose BBC radio.

So it was surprising to read the headlines today suggesting that two of the country’s most loved stations – Radio 1 and Radio 2 – are under threat.

The source of these revelations is the Government’s green paper on the future of the BBC. It is a paper that raises many pertinent questions about the BBC – and ones we are keen to answer. But it also raises questions of Radios 1 and 2 that I think have straightforward replies.

The key argument seems to be that it these stations lack ‘distinctiveness’. The shorthand we often hear – Radios 3 and 4 embody public service broadcasting whilst Radios 1 and 2 are easily replaced by commercial counterparts - is wrong.

Take Radio 1. It informs, educates and entertains 10 million young listeners a week. It offers daily news (up to 6 times more news per week than its commercial competitors), regular documentaries (rarely heard on commercial networks) and social action campaigns, highlighting issues like online bullying and teenage suicide. In fact, we estimate around 40% of Radio 1’s daytime output is speech – twice as much as comparable commercial outlets.

In music, it creates the hits others play. Around two thirds of its daytime music is new, with over 60% from UK artists. Acts like Jake Bugg, Royal Blood and Florence and the Machine have all benefited from the early support of Radio 1 at the start of their careers, and have gone on to achieve great UK and international success. These are just some examples – no radio station has done more to support new and UK music over its near 50 year history – it is the envy of the world and remains at the top of its game.

Our analysis shows that half the songs played on Radio 1 and Radio 2 in daytime weren’t played on any comparable station. Across June 2015, Radio 1 played around 4,000 different tracks compared to around 400 on Capital. Less than 10% of tracks played by Radio 1 could be heard on Capital.

Alternatively, look at Radio 2. It is Britain’s most popular station, but it is vastly different from anything else.

It broadcasts current affairs in primetime on Jeremy Vine, offers 200 hours of religious programmes (like Good Morning Sunday) every year, 115 hours of arts each year, it champions children’s storytelling in its breakfast show and around half its total output is speech – compared to around 20% on commercial stations.

Our research shows about 60% of the songs Radio 2 plays in daytime are not played on any comparable station. As such, Radio 2 plays a greater variety of music than any other music radio station in the UK.

And it offers an unrivalled breadth of music - more than 1,100 hours of specialist programmes per year, including regular programmes on folk, show tunes, blues, country, soul, jazz, orchestral and organ music. No one else can come close to this commitment.

Both stations drive growth in British music; they discover and promote new British music talent and exposure on our airwaves drives music sales. More than half of the music recordings played on British radio or TV last year were only played by the BBC. Through our new music scheme, BBC Introducing, we help create tomorrow’s stars. The initiative has over 100,000 registered unsigned acts and 500,000 tracks uploaded to its website. It is recognised across the UK Music industry as a vital part of the A&R process from the heads of all the major and independent labels. In fact, the BPI has said; “the BBC is a fundamental part of the ecosystem for British music and for UK creative industries as a whole [and] a critical part of the success of British music”

But more importantly, the two stations entertain large audiences. The BBC’s mission is to entertain as well as to inform and we should challenge the idea that being popular and being distinctive are mutually exclusive. It’s always been the case that the BBC makes the good popular and the popular good and that couldn’t be clearer than on Radios 1 and 2. Their ability to reach a wide audience with quality programmes is entirely in keeping the BBC’s mission to serve everyone – as well as being a massive boost to British music.

The other question the paper raises is whether there is too much ‘crossover’ between Radio 1 and 2.

Let me clarify. We monitor this within the BBC and this is regularly scrutinised by the BBC Trust. In June 2015, there was less than 10% overlap in the music played by Radio 1 and Radio 2.

Radio 2 has 15 million weekly listeners and Radio 1 around 10million. However only 2.6m listeners listen to both station. That means 83% of Radio 2 listeners don’t listen to Radio 1 and 73% of Radio 1’s audience don’t tune into Radio 2. 

The stations are completely different and have been growing further apart in recent years. Radio 1 is singularly focussed on its young audience and reaches more than a third of the nation’s 15 to 24-year-olds, while Radio 2’s average age has remained above 50 and reaches 3.6 million listeners aged 65 and over. Switch between the stations in the morning and you will go from Clara Amfo to Ken Bruce – two shows that illustrate how different – and distinctive - the two stations are.  

We welcome the debate about the BBC and the questions it raises. But the discussion must be well-informed and should recognise the unique roles these stations play in British life and the invaluable support they offer to the UK music industry. Ultimately, the decisions made about the future of the BBC have to be in the interests of licence fee payers – like the millions of listeners who make Radio 1 and Radio 2 part of their daily lives.

This is a critical moment in the BBC’s history. So it is vitally important that if you feel strongly about the BBC, you speak up and add your voice to the debate.

Helen Boaden is Director, BBC Radio

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