LONDON — The defections of top-rated BBC Two radio morning show host Chris Evans and BBC Radio 4 news host Eddie Mair to privately-owned Virgin Radio and LBC respectively, signal that the BBC is losing its status as the United Kingdom’s top radio platform.
Thomas Falconer, radio industry researcher at IBISWorld, a market research firm with offices around the globe, attributes the BBC’s declining status to changes within the UK’s radio industry; both outside of and within the public broadcaster.
According to Falconer, BBC Radio’s greatest undoing has been the U.K.’s transition to digital radio and the wealth of new content options the medium is offering U.K. listeners.
“Since the digital switchover, it is no longer axiomatic that the best platform for radio broadcasting is the BBC,” he said. “For instance, the opportunities presented by the ubiquity of DAB radio in cars and a sharp uptake of voice-activated and connected household devices have made listening to commercial radio easier than ever, resulting in year-on-year growth in listenership.”
Falconer also points to the BBC’s ongoing budget cuts as affecting its ability to engage U.K. listeners, at a time when digital radio is making non-BBC options more available to this audience.
“BBC Radio has not been immune to BBC budget cuts in recent years,” said Falconer. “Relative to commercial radio, promising audience numbers; extensive transmission coverage; record advertising revenues; and further growth prospects offered by new-age commercial platforms have encouraged a degree of defection from public broadcasting.”
The impact of government funding cuts on the BBC’s ability to retain its audience was cited by BBC Director general Tony Hall during a speech to the Royal Television Society (RTS) conference in London.
“We do not believe what we currently do is sustainable with the resources we have,” Hall told the RTS audience on Sept. 18. “For the BBC to do the most for Britain and the most good for the British public, Britain needs to support the BBC.”
Whether the U.K. government listens to Hall’s plea for more money remains to be seen. In the interim, the fact is that BBC Radio stars like Evans and Mair moving to commercial radio “could be indicative of deeper issues within the BBC,” said Falconer; as well as to their desire for bigger paychecks in commercial radio.
“Media pundits have speculated that the likes of Chris Evans and co. leaving the BBC are pre-empting inevitable discussions regarding the widely publicized salaries of big-name BBC presenters, which came under intense scrutiny in early 2018,” he explained. “However, more generally, money and growing listener numbers seems to be the main drivers of this trend for the time being.”