An introduction to the UK radio industry

So, you're from another country and you'd like a quick overview of the UK radio scene?

By James Cridland
Posted 18 June 2017, 2.34am bst

The BBC runs ten national radio services, and a further 40 local/regional ones (which you might hear called 'nations and regions', since some cover the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The BBC isn't just the stuffy news channel you might hear outside the UK: Radio 1 is a great top 40 station, and Radio 2 is both the Europe's most listened-to radio station and also a format-defying one. The BBC runs no commercials, and it's paid-for by a mandatory 'licence fee' which is currently £147 (US $188) per household. The boss of a BBC national station is a "Controller", while the boss of a local BBC station is a "Managing Editor". It has a 53% market share.

Commercial radio is essentially made up of two large groups - Global and Bauer Media - and quite a few smaller ones. Global and Bauer have around 75% of all commercial radio listening. Commercial radio here is a £590m-a-year (US $755m) business. Most commercial stations are local, and FM licences are won on a 'beauty-parade' basis. Format swaps are forbidden by law (though formats can, and do, slowly creep; and may become rather more fluid shortly).

90% of all adults listen to the radio once a week. This figure hasn't decreased at all over the last ten years.

There is also community radio: mostly very low-power FM stations, many of which are forbidden from carrying radio commercials; and student radio, which (unlike the US) are mostly not broadcasting, instead using internet and leaky-feeder transmitters. All these services have less than 5% of all radio listening.

The UK is a multiplatform radio environment, and probably the most advanced of its type in the world. Only 53% of all radio listening is to AM/FM. 33% of listening is to DAB. DAB is essentially a different way of broadcasting radio, with names not frequencies. Typically DAB adds three-times as many radio stations for a listener to choose from. Radio is also on all TV services here - upwards of twenty stations. Internet radio and radio through the TV account for around 7% each of all radio listening. Five of the BBC's ten national services are digital-only, so run on DAB, online and DTV.

There are almost no internet-only radio services of any scale in the UK: partially because of expensive music rights (even more so than the US); and partially because of the variety of current broadcasters. We don't call internet radio "digital radio" here: that normally means DAB.

Our audience figures are done by a company called RAJAR who use diaries, not PPMs. They measure all listening, on whatever platform. They also measure where that listening is done: only 20% of radio consumed is done in a car in the UK. That figure's nearly 50% in the US: and reflects the UK's comparatively high public transport use, particularly in major cities. In our audience figures, we talk about "reach" and "hours", which is roughly the same as "cume" and "TSL" (but there's a bigger guide in our audience figures pages).

The UK Radioplayer is a collaboration between all major radio stations in the UK: an effort to ensure that radio is easy to listen to on whatever platform. It's an app, and also a unified player that you'll get to from almost every radio station here. The Norwegians, Belgians, Germans and Canadians liked it so much, they have an equivalent too.

We import very little radio from overseas: you'll hear a handful of shows from the US, but very few.

We like our self-deprecating humour, but are quite proud of what we do. We have a natural push against US culture. As the Brexit referendum showed, Brits also don't think of ourselves as fully part of Europe, either. We're jolly nice people, too. Come over and share a pint with us.

James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.