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Eleanor van Heyningen, Chief of Staff to the Chief Technology and Product Officer and Asha Knight, Distribution Manager in Digital Partnerships, explain how in-car radio listening is evolving and the BBC's approaches to this. 

Earlier this month at the European Broadcasting Union Digital Radio Summit in Geneva, we spoke about the future of listening in cars. As one of the hottest topics in the radio world at the moment it seems like a good moment to set out how the BBC is thinking about this. In summary:

  1. Radio listening in-car is really important for the BBC and it’s audiences;
  2. We are completely committed to maintaining it for the next generation; and
  3. It’s absolutely critical to work in partnership to achieve this aim.

Radio is at the heart of the BBC’s offer. We have 10 network radio channels, 6 Nations radio channels and 40 local channels listened to by a total of 33.5m people in the UK every week. In 2018, we launched BBC Sounds – the digital home for all audio from the BBC. Sounds now has over 3m weekly users and making sure Sounds is widely available and easily accessible at home, on the go and in cars is a top priority.

A lot to play for...

A large proportion of the time audiences spend with the BBC is in the car. Roughly a third of all radio listening takes place in the car, which represents around 13% of all time spent with the BBC by our UK audiences.

Encouragingly, since 2012 there has been a 17% growth in UK in-car radio listening, with other types of audio like streaming music and podcasts also seeing similar growth. For about half the time spent in cars, we’re not listening to anything. Of course some of this will always remain ‘silent’ because of very short journeys or the difficulty of reaching agreement between parents and children about what to listen to! But it shows that this is not a saturated space – there is a lot to play for.

We can’t take these conditions for granted. From the significant gaps between the time younger audiences spend with live radio compared to others, to the connected car and big tech’s role in it – the market is changing. Although the enduring popularity of radio in car gives us reason to believe that there is still a lot we can do to retain and grow our audiences, the changing market means that broadcasters are not the only ones in the game.

Eleanor and Asha presenting at the Digital Radio summit (courtesy EBU)

Strength in-cooperation

We’re constantly talking to audiences and learning from other broadcasters and car companies about how in car listening habits are developing. But, however much we know about audiences, it‘s clear that no broadcaster alone can do everything to meet modern audiences’ needs when it comes to in car listening.

Without some protection, broadcasters will lose the essential benefits that provided the foundation for the pre-digital market: prominence for radio in the infotainment space; editorial control over what and how content is delivered; direct attribution back to the content makers’ brand and – for commercial broadcasters – the ability to receive revenue directly from advertising.

In addition, in the emerging, fractured market broadcasters are at risk of losing probably the most important key to success in the digital world: the ability to gather and use audience data.

The best way to counter these risks is to work together as an industry in delivering high quality hybrid radio experiences into cars, direct to a fully connected dashboard.

Hybrid radio moves seamlessly from broadcast to IP, allowing the listener to enjoy the best available signal quality and stay tuned-in whether they are receiving DAB, FM or IP. It has the potential to allow listeners to enjoy on demand content as easily as live by providing easy links into apps like BBC Sounds. As we transition gradually to all IP-world, we need to take audiences with us.


The BBC is a shareholder in a joint venture, Radioplayer UK, that aims to do just that. Radioplayer has been around since 2010. There are four UK shareholders, including the BBC and since 2014 it has licensed its technology to consortia of broadcasters in other territories.

Investing in Radioplayer is key in our aim to preserve radio in cars and build on demand in addition to linear while maintaining a direct relationship with our audience. Every country and every broadcaster is different, but we believe that we are all united by three core needs that Radioplayer meets:

  • Providing a flexible, easy to scale, easy to customise metadata delivery system that has the potential to deliver the best API for radio, making it a unique one-stop-shop for car companies who want to offer their customers a great radio experience
  • Complementing, not competing with broadcaster apps with a simple listening and discovery service that will develop to support our long-term strategies
  • Offering the chance to work together to secure the future of radio in car, in turn bringing a better chance of preserving the essential benefits mentioned above: prominence, attribution, data.

We are actively encouraging our fellow broadcasters to talk to Radioplayer about how they can get involved.

Working together for listeners

We want to cater for people whether they are long-time radio devotees, first-time digitally-native car-owners or even very young passengers in the back seat. Whatever avenues we explore, we want to do it in co-operation with our fellow European broadcasters. We’re confident that linear radio remains a strong force, but we also know that we need great digital products that have amazing content and are intuitive to use.

Voice assistants, for example, have huge potential in the car, and the BBC recently announced plans to launch a digital voice assistant this year. We’re incredibly excited about the potential of this and other technologies, but we understand that consumers will only get the benefit of them if we work in close partnership with companies all along the supply chain.

We can provide more choice which is free from commercial and political influences in a way that respects listeners’ privacy and protects their data. These are characteristics that we want to preserve in-car, but we’ll struggle to do so if we are blocked from managing our own audience data, prevented from playing back our content within our own product or forced only to use voice assistants that don’t given prominence to our content.

We are encouraged by signs that tech companies are thinking about inter-operability. We also want to open up more conversations with car manufacturers to understand their needs and ensure that, however they develop, accessible radio in a connected dashboard will be central to their offer.

Of course, our resources aren’t limitless – far from it. There are more pressures on the licence fee than ever before and we face tough choices about where we can invest and grow. We intend to work pragmatically with our broadcasting colleagues, car and technology partners, striving for standardisation and seeking a level-playing field for cooperation.

There should be no doubt that ensuring a thriving, innovative future for radio is a high priority for the BBC, and making sure people can listen in cars in both traditional and new ways is a big part of that. The only way we can achieve that long-term success is to work together as a united radio industry, in close cooperation with both tech and car companies, guided – always – by the best interests of audiences.

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