LONDON: Commercial radio is at risk of becoming broadcast media's poor relation, with steadily declining ad revenues over the past decade making it a vulnerable medium. However, as unstoppable TV fragmenta-tion and the rise of on-demand pulls down the value of advertising, and newspapers battle free online news sites, the rise of online and mobile technology has provided the perfect opportunity for radio to make a much-anticipated comeback.
Recent consolidation has settled the industry and paved the way for a new era. The question is whether the commercial radio giants are doing enough to make their radio stations truly multiplatform. Travis Baxter, managing director of radio at Bauer, says that as far as the consumer and advertisers are concerned, there are no longer media platforms, simply brands.'We just provide quality content - how [consumers] get it is irrelevant,' he adds. 'Telling our advertisers that they can get the same thing on two platforms doesn't work.'
With the leading commercial stations now operating across at least five platforms - analogue, DAB, online, mobile and DTV - there is no question they are embracing a multiplatform model, but some are uncon-vinced that this is sufficient. 'If any-one says they have done enough to make brands multiplatform, shoot them,' says Baxter.
With the advent of stations on mobile, such as Bauer's Kiss Kube, commercial radio groups are now creating applications for the iPhone and Google handsets, but recognise that there will always be a steady stream of new platforms for radio content.
Robin Pembrooke, group director of online and interactive operations at Global Radio, believes its investment will pay off, but knows there is no time to rest. 'We have invested heavily to set up capabilities across web and mobile plat-forms, and see that paying back in terms of cash-generation and audiences,' he says. 'But the nature of the beast means everyone has got to be on their toes, looking out for the trends that will drive user-engagement and growth.'
Nonetheless, while it is important to keep up with new technology, the brand and its content remain the most crucial element in the mix. 'You must have a good product,' says Chris Lawson, brand director at Absolute Radio - his company's iPhone application has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. 'That is where internet-only radio stations will struggle. You have to be able to invest in output.'
Critics suggest DIY services such as Spotify and Last.fm, with their modern, listener-as-DJ business models, will make radio obsolete. They argue that the key factor for today's audiences are getting the content they want, when they want it.
However, Andrew Curry, director of innovation and research consultancy The Futures Company, claims that this is not the case. He argues that the number of registrations on Spotify does not reflect the number of regular listeners, and says research shows most music fans do not prioritise such services in their discovery of new music.
'The radio is familiar; it has a DJ, doesn't involve any work and you just turn the thing on,' he says. 'But the fact that the MP3 player phenomenon is so widespread shows a real audio culture has re-emerged, and is a more important part of people's lives than it was 10 years ago. More than 20% of the population has invested £50 in a DAB set, suggesting it is a high-value medium.'
As for pure-play and digital services stealing radio listeners, Curry points out that chart-topping podcasts such as the one from Radio 1's Chris Moyles Breakfast Show prove that traditional radio is still popular.
The availability of radio on so many platforms, not to mention the fact that most people who stream radio through the internet are multitasking, might dilute its strength as an advertising medium. Curry disputes this, saying there is no evidence to suggest 'people listening with half their brain are hearing less advertising than those listening full-time'.
He adds: 'Advertising recall when doing something else is not significantly weaker, and it seems the younger generation, which has learnt how to multitask, is good at absorbing more.'Moreover, while youngsters may be listening while doing other things, the availability of radio on mobile and online allows them to listen for longer, increasing the chances of ad messages registering.
Other activity includes offering listeners extensive information about every track played. Global Radio, for example, has linked its Top 40 show to iTunes in a unique deal that allows listeners to buy tracks as they listen, influencing the chart while it's on air. The Top 40 iPhone app has hit the number-one spot in downloads.
'We are able to bring specific benefits to each other and show the power you can get when you combine on-air reach with an online application,' says Pembrooke.
Elsewhere, Barclaycard sponsored Capital Radio's Summertime Ball, and as well as branding at the event, the package included on-air mentions and presence on the website, where tens of thousands of people logged on to try to win tickets. It later received 2m hits from fans checking out photos of the event.
Greg Grimmer, partner at ad agency Hurrell, Moseley, Dawson & Grimmer, says it is not how much cash is spent, but where that counts. 'There are 330m abandoned blogs on the internet because you can publish with no cost, but it doesn't mean anyone will look at it,' he argues. Grimmer does believe, though, that the rise of digital listening presents an unmissable opportunity for commercialisation.
Despite such initiatives, Amanda Barrett, radio engagement specialist at media agency UM (formerly Universal McCann), fears DAB is failing to live up to its promise. 'It has a long way to go before it becomes the killer application it needs to be to attract more audiences away from analogue services,' she says. She even predicts the online space 'could quickly become the preferred platform for developing digital radio'.
Barrett claims some radio web offerings need some 'serious attention'. 'Sites need to be richer in video content, such as music videos and interviews with artistes,' she says. 'Stations could package these up into sponsorship opportunities, or at the very least offer the pre-roll/post-roll format in order to commercialise this.'
The strength on which a radio brand can sell advertising, though, will always be directly comparable with the accuracy of listening figures, an issue that is rarely out of the spotlight. Rajar provides figures on how many people are listening to each station, but has come under fire for not providing enough solid data showing how they are accessing it.
Baxter, a supporter of Rajar, accepts the measurement system has faults but has yet to see a foolproof alternative. '[Advertisers] are still buying audiences from yesterday, no matter how the data is gathered,' he says. 'At some point, people will be buying real-time audiences measured in real time, but, for now, the data is robust enough to show digital listening is growing.'
Pembrooke is confident that a more in-depth analysis will soon be available.'The Internet Advertising Bureau and Association of Online Publishers are trying to get a consensus established across the market, and I think we'll see lots of developments over the next few months,' he says. Every major commercial radio group has a healthy presence on a range of platforms, and is continually adapting its commercial offering accordingly. Radio has slowly, but surely, found a way to co-exist with, and even benefit from, the internet, where press and TV still struggle. Radio and online complement each other more neatly than any other two media. So, as long as media owners keep their eye on the ball, there is every indica-tion that radio will not only reverse its revenue decline, but become a success story once again.