Mythbusting: why Nick Grimshaw losing 500,000 Radio 1 listeners is only half the story

This morning, headlines across the UK revealed the same news: Nick Grimshaw’s Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 1 had lost 500,000 listeners in the space of a year. It’s a headline we’ve heard before, and it simply doesn’t tell the whole story. Grimmy is good at his job – excluding Chris Moyles, he’s lasted longer as Breakfast host than any other Radio 1 DJ since Simon Mayo in 1993 – but this story isn’t really about Grimmy. It’s about how young people’s listening habits are changing – and what that means for radio’s future.

Nick Grimshaw is actually doing much better than Radio 1 as a whole

Radio stats (RAJAR figures) come every three months, and the news from today is about the fourth quarter of 2016.

From Q3 to Q4 of 2016, Grimmy’s audience has increased from 5.25m to 5.37m listeners. But Radio 1Xtra lost listeners in the same period, dropping from 1.03m in Q3 to 909,000 in Q4. And Radio 1’s overall audience also fell from Q3 to Q4, down by 3.2 per cent to 9.56m.

In Q4 2015, Grimmy had 5.87m listeners, which is why it’s being reported that he’s lost half a million listeners in the last year, but Radio 1 as a whole lost 7.4 per cent of its listeners since then as well, and Chris Evans’ Breakfast show on Radio 2 has lost 200,000 listeners across the same period.

Radio 1 is suffering because its core audience is turning away from live radio

Last year, BBC News reported the number of hours 15 to 24-year-olds spent listening to radio had fallen from 29 million hours in 2010 to 16 million in 2016. This age group used to make up 45% of Radio 1’s listenership (3.7m); it’s now just 36% (2.9m). This is largely thanks to the arrival of streaming services, and that’s why Radio 1’s head of music, Chris Price, wants to start some kind of streaming service.

“A BBC music discovery service… to me feels like a very natural and necessary evolution of linear radio,” Price told Music Week yesterday (February 8) after he was asked where he sees Radio 1 in five years. “Taking the music we already curate across our linear networks and surfacing it in new ways for new audiences to discover. I’d really love [that service] to happen – what the music industry and audiences need right now is a fair deal and a market-maker and that’s the role that a BBC music discovery service could play. At the moment, radio and streaming, rather than being the strong marriage it ought to be, are like two nervous teenagers eyeing each other across a High School prom. A BBC music discovery service sitting between the two could play matchmaker.” Could this be the solution for radio’s falling listenership? Possibly.

Younger listeners engage with radio stations via social media

Right now, Radio 1 doesn’t have that streaming service, so it’s targeting its 15- to 29-year-old demographic elsewhere online, because they’re aware that 42% of 15- to 24-year-olds on social media follow their chosen radio station’s social pages, compared to 31% of those aged 25 or older. On YouTube, Radio 1 has 3.5m subscribers compared to Radio 2’s paltry 42,069. Radio 1 has 2.55m Facebook likes compared to Radio 2’s 633,053. Radio 2 may have higher listening figures for its live shows, but the reach of Radio 1 – particularly with viral content – is much higher on social media than it is for Radio 2, and that’s because its audience is younger. In your face, Radio 2!

Radio 1 isn’t just about radio any more

As Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper explained this morning: “Radio 1’s Listen, Watch, Share strategy means that RAJAR is only part of the story. Alongside the 10.5m listeners, our YouTube videos have received over 1.4 billion views and we have 8.7m followers across social media.” The reason Radio 1 has so many social media followers is because it’s producing content that works on YouTube and on social media as well as on radio. These things are funny, they’re usually video-based, and they just happen to act as breadcrumbs that entice people on social media to tune in. When it gets famous guests, Radio 1 plays games like Innuendo Bingo or Playground Insults that are rivalling Carpool Karaoke, the hugely popular spot from James Corden’s massive US TV show, in terms of actual funniness and in what execs like to call ‘shareability’.

Radio 1 is changing: you can no longer fairly compare its listening figures with Radio 2’s, because the way people consume Radio 1’s output isn’t uniform anymore. The biggest radio stations have high listening figures because their audiences are older, more loyal and more predictable. Radio 1 undeniably the more exciting station – there’s far more innovation happening there – and that means the long-term future of what radio actually is might depend on what Radio 1 does next. If Radio 1 can figure out a way to win over young listeners, who have so many other options than radio, that’ll probably end up being a model for every other radio station in future. Because millennials aren’t just going to start listening to radio more when they hit a certain age: for radio audiences to return to growth, this young audience will need to be convinced to start tuning in somehow – and if they aren’t, won’t Radio 2, Radio 4, and all the other big stations be facing the same crisis of ‘falling listenership’ in 20 years’ time?