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Don't bring me down, Bruce. Why Radio 2 losing more talent to commercial radio is not a disaster.

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

As Ken Bruce completed his last Radio 2 show on Friday (March 3rd), the outpouring of messages on social media was extraordinary. He is a much-loved presenter and Bauer has been savvy in getting him to move to Greatest Hits. It has a good brand and a station that offers more than many of its commercial music rivals. Having Bruce in its portfolio makes great business sense.

Much of the focus has been on the BBC's talent drain, after similar high-profile departures in recent years. But that movement of talent to the commercial sector has been inevitable as the BBC's budget is squeezed and the future of the licence fee questioned. As the battle for an audience becomes even more fierce, the BBC just can't compete and neither should it be trying to (in terms of salaries). Increasingly the BBC should be focusing on providing services that commercial rivals do not. Like local radio for example.

Bruce says leaving was not about money but feeling refreshed with a new(ish) challenge. The decision could well have suited Radio 2 but the timing is not good. Radio 2 is trying to replenish its ageing audience but it has now had a huge change to its schedule in a relatively short amount of time. When Vernon Kay settles into Bruce's shoes, nearly all the main weekday daytime shows will have had a new presenter (or presenters) in the last five years. Only the Jeremy Vine slot has stayed the same. That's a lot of change in a short space of time on a station serving people over 35. Listeners like familiarity. The noise around Steve Wright leaving still won't go away (for what it's worth I feel that was the right decision).

However, what hasn't changed is that Radio 2 is the most listened to station. Chris Evans leaves, Simon Mayo leaves, Graham Norton leaves; but millions of listeners do not. In fact, in some cases the audience has growned after those departures. Commercial radio knows names can attract listeners, but the hard facts are that most people will not move stations. When Evans moved to Virgin Radio he boosted the audience by nearly a million. That happened straight away, but that growth did not continue. And the Radio 2 audience didn't go down by the same figure. This could be largely down to the flawed audience research system from Rajar, which relies heavily on human memory for listening. Never ideal. Most people in the industry know it is not a perfect science but it is "all we've got".

Moving listeners from the BBC is hard because of adverts and people's rigid behaviours. Greatest Hits, like Virgin Radio, will try and mitigate for the dislike of commercials by offering advert free consumption but for many that won't be enough. Radio 2 is on the preset. And it will stay that way. For Bauer, a million extra listeners to that slot will be a win. A big win. But growth after that will prove difficult. For Radio 2, despite the stickability of listeners, it cannot rest easy. Consumption is changing and linear listening is going to fall away over the next decade or so. As mature audiences get used to listening to what they want, when they want (just like with linear TV), 'live' audiences will drop off.

Finally, with regards Ken Bruce, there is a significant caveat. What's different about his move is that it is not just about the presenter. He has a good personality and people really like him. But the main attraction of his show has always been Popmaster. Owning the brand and taking that with him is a huge asset to Greatest Hits. That is why the first audience figures after his move could prove surprising. Popmaster is a genuine appointment listen. Kept in the same slot, it could see a huge spike of listening at that point (1030). Bauer will look to maximise that and draw listeners in for longer around his show and beyond. Whilst Mayo had regular features that he took to Greatest Hits, they were not as big an attraction as Popmaster. I will be playing along for sure, but how long I stay with the station will be the big question.

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