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The internet will never be able to replace the power of live radio

More than nine million people tuned in to Zoe Ball's Radio 2 breakfast show
More than nine million people tuned in to Zoe Ball's Radio 2 breakfast show Credit: BBC Pictures

The reports of live radio’s death have been greatly exaggerated. But, goodness me, you’d be forgiven for thinking that every radio in the country had been condemned to the dustbin, such has been the recent handwringing at the BBC about how few people supposedly listen these days.

James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio, all but tolled the bell himself when he was speaking at the Radio Academy Radio Festival in London this week. "At the BBC, we know we won't be as big as we were before,” he said, talking about the listeners that the BBC has lost to global online streaming giants Spotify and Apple.

He said the BBC had to accept it would get a “smaller share” of listeners’ attention in future, and talked about plans to improve the algorithm of the much-maligned BBC Sounds app – which has been roundly criticised for being difficult to navigate – to get better at recommending good programmes. The accepted wisdom in radio at the moment seems to be that the only way forward is online and on-demand.

Yet the latest Rajar figures, which actually measure how many people are listening to what on their radios, tell a different story. The Radio 2 breakfast show was widely expected to have haemorrhaged listeners after Chris Evans was replaced by Zoe Ball, but in fact Ball’s numbers remained steady at just over nine million, showing that Radio 2 listeners are a loyal congregation. Evans, for his part, attracted a healthy million to his new breakfast show at Virgin, somehow without stealing them directly from the BBC. Lauren Laverne posted a record audience for 6 Music with 1.28 million listeners. Radio 4’s Today programme also increased its audience, with more than seven million people now tuning in.

These are not small numbers, and those are just the breakfast shows. When you combine the figures for all the networks, nearly 90 per cent of people in the UK listen to the radio at some point every week.

It’s not hard to understand why. Live radio, especially in the morning, directly tunes you into what’s going on in the rest of the world. Breakfast shows have a fizz of spontaneity that it’s impossible to fake in anything pre-recorded. They are reactive, interactive, and the best ones make you feel part of something bigger, with a sense of personality that means you’ll find your tribe somewhere or other across the networks.

Podcasts are wonderful things to be sure, and my smartphone is stuffed full of them, but still, you can’t beat the sense of life unfolding in the moment that live radio gives you.

Video didn’t kill the radio star in the end. And it looks as if the internet hasn’t managed it either.

What role does radio play in your life? Do you agree that radio is irreplaceable?

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