Thursday, February 01, 2007

Local radio listening - ups and downs

I was tuned into Downtown Radio (DTR) this morning, listening to its awful Caroline & Roy breakfast show. (Though it’s marginally better than Pete Snodden over on its sister station Cool FM’s early morning programme).

Anyway, one of the main news stories was their pleasure to announce an increase in the audiences for the two Newtownards-based radio stations. This only a few days after the holding company, EMAP, announced job cuts hitting up to 15 full time positions in newsroom and engineering posts. With a staff of only 35 – excluding presenters – this is a significant blow to the local company.

This morning’s news story came from the latest set of RAJAR quarterly results, statistics published about the UK radio listenership. Browsing through the RAJAR stats, I was surprised to see the reach and popularity of Downtown.

I remember touring Downtown’s studios one Easter back when I was sixteen, standing quietly in the Cool FM studio as Carolyn Stewart introduced the next record. Their pioneering use of an Acorn Archimedes and a large tracker ball to control the CD jukebox was intriguing (certainly to a BBC Micro nut), but not enough to make be a fan.

There are lies, dammed lies and statistics. And then there are the RAJAR figures which stations up ad down the UK pull and twist to suit their needs. Direct comparisons are difficult. In Northern Ireland, the potential listenership for any station depends on which transmitters used, and the power output from the masts up those hilltops. Oh, and the main figures are based on listeners who are aged 15 or over.

BBC Radio Ulster has the greatest potential reach, one a half times the size of Ormeau Road’s U105, and nearly three times the size of Citybeat 96.7FM down at Stranmillis. So we would expect Radio Ulster’s to be heard my more people than any other station. But given that, the percentage of potential ears that actually tuned during a week is a more useful figure.

The graph above (a beautiful creation from Excel) shows that Radio Ulster is listened to by 39% of its potential audience at least once a week. Cool FM scores a weekly reach of 35%, very impressive given that it probably draws in more under 15s that the others too.

Since the good folks at Newtownards operate two stations, each aimed at different audiences, RAJAR supply a joint figure so that management can assess how well they cover the overall market. Neck and neck with Radio Ulster in terms of weekly reach. In fact their weekly reach has increased for the past two quarters, catching up fast with Radio Ulster.

The losers are Citybeat, which has been steadily falling all through 2006.

Now U105 only went live on 14 November 2005, and didn’t appear in the RAJAR ratings until Q2 2006. The Q4 results show them hitting a new personal best with a reach of 9% … following a particularly poor dip. Notice how they issued a press release this morning to welcome the 44% increase this month, but there wasn’t a corresponding press release three months ago on 26 October 2006 to announce the 20% drop in weekly reach.

Turns out that pinching Radio Ulster's listeners is quite tricky. Instead John Rosborough, their Managing Director, focussed on the future and wasn’t “so not unduly concerned with a 2% drop in our market share at this stage”. (Update: just discovered that the Belfast Telegraph commented on the slow uptake a couple of weeks ago.) However, with Radio Ulster’s ousted afternoon presenter George Jones now back in the afternoon hot seat around the corner in U105, their weekly reach figures should be expected to continue to rise.

One final stat to ponder is the average hours per listener. (I think it’s a weekly figure.) While they bounce around, BBC Radio Ulster is firmly in the lead. U105 is on the rise, perhaps at Citybeat’s expense. And Downtown didn’t bother to mention in their breakfast news that their combined stations’ average hours per listener had fallen back to the levels of early 2006.

And a word of warning. I think that those figures only cover people listening on AM and FM and don’t take online, DAB and Freeview listeners into account. More on that another time.

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