Friday 23 March 2018

Radio has the listeners, so why so many bad ad vibes?

For the past few years, survey after survey has shown that radio still commands a big chunk of our media consumption time
For the past few years, survey after survey has shown that radio still commands a big chunk of our media consumption time

John McGee

Every time the Irish radio industry publishes its quarterly research figures - the Joint National Listenership Survey (JNLS) - it's hard to escape the joyous back-slapping, concerned finger-pointing and, yes, a degree of schadenfreude that unfolds as celebrity broadcasters are taken down a peg or two, while others are praised and elevated in the all-important listenership stakes.

To its credit, no other medium does it better than radio. And while good ratings and listenership figures were often linked to frothy salaries in the past, there's no escaping the fact that they are still inextricably linked to the level of advertising a station can expect to attract.

For the past few years, survey after survey has shown that radio still commands a big chunk of our media consumption time.

According to the most recent batch of figures from the JNLR, which were published two weeks ago, 83pc of the adult population in Ireland listens to radio, spending an average of four hours every day doing so.

As anyone from beyond the Pale will testify, radio is tightly woven into the fabric of Irish society. Much the same as local newspapers, local and regional radio stations have strong links back into the communities which they serve - and do a good job of it too.

As the JNLR figures highlight, local radio stations practically dominate all listenership trends in most counties outside of Dublin.

At a time when other media is under the cosh, the radio industry seems a bit like the little Dutch boy in Mary Mapes Dodge's 19th century novel, The Silver Skates, who saves his community by jamming his finger into a leaking dam. Only in this case, the digital deluge that has been staved off somewhat valiantly by the radio sector, has already found new cracks through which it can seep.

Like its other media cousins, the Irish radio sector is facing its own set of challenges, some of which are unique, others which it shares with the rest of the so-called traditional media sector. Top of the list is the ongoing struggle to generate meaningful revenues to keep them afloat. And if recent forecasts emanating from some media agency groups are anything to go by, these challenges will only intensify further this year.

Core, Ireland's largest media agency group, for example, has pencilled in a 3pc decline in radio advertising this year to €119.6m, according to chief investment officer Eddie O'Mahony. This comes on top of a 5pc decline in 2017 and a 6pc decline in 2016.

"Last year was a difficult year for radio, particularly in Q4, and we don't see it being any different in 2018," says O'Mahony.

Meanwhile over at GroupM, the outlook is equally gloomy with a forecast decline of around 6pc to €66m in 2018, from €70m in 2017. The 2017 decline was on the back of a 4pc drop on the 2016 figure of, according to GroupM.

While the difference between the two forecasts is significant, it does underline the perilous nature of forecasting and the health warnings that should be attached to them. It also highlights the need for much better industry reporting mechanisms not just the radio sector but the entire industry.

But that's a column for another week.

What is clear, however, is that the overriding sentiment among media agencies is broadly negative, despite radio's perceived pulling power. So, what's behind negativity?

Some of the blame lies with Brexit and the adverse fluctuations in sterling and the impact it is having on campaigns booked from the UK. Some of it is also attributable to budgets being shifted into digital channels, particularly by FMCG brands. But there is also a growing concern among media agencies that the industry needs to produce more robust research that justifies its positioning on media plans.

"The JNLR needs to be scrapped. It is treated far too much as a sacred cow," says David Hayes, chief executive of the GroupM agency Wavemaker. "All advertising needs to be accountable and not just digital. Radio is no different. Accountability is as simple as, 'did my ad run, did anyone hear it, did they engage with it?' Simple. But not enough is being done."

Radio is a fantastic medium. It is a companion for many and for others it is both an educator and informer on current affairs through the wealth of talk radio we have in Ireland. Radio is also one of the original interactive media. However it needs to move forward and it needs to move faster.

"The industry needs to take a look at its enormous strength as entertainers, educators and interactors and see how this can be brought to a new and wider audience," adds Hayes. "Great strides are being made with things like Off the Ball, but in a world where the pace of change dictates everything, it's not enough and it's not fast enough".

Hayes is not a lone voice in the industry. Other agencies have also singled out the JNLR, as well as the need for a new currency, for how radio advertising is bought and sold.

The question is: is there anybody listening?

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