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6 Music hits right note on digital as Radio 3 struggles to stay tuned in
[August 03, 2014]

6 Music hits right note on digital as Radio 3 struggles to stay tuned in

(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) It hasn't exactly been a Rachmaninov v rock'n'roll battle to the death, but last week BBC Radio 6 Music snuck past sister station Radio 3 for the first time in the quarterly Rajar audience figures.

Although neither station would see the other as a competitor, it's notable that this is the first time that a BBC digital upstart has surpassed a predominantly analogue BBC big beast. 6 Music long ago outpaced Radio 3 in the volume of listening - 16.2m hours v 10.5m. However, last week it beat it on "reach" - radio-speak for how many are tuning in each week on average across three months - 1.89 million v 1.88 million. A tight victory for Lauren Laverne over Petroc Trelawny and chums, but is it a true sign of digital radio's coming of age? Digital radio's growth has been steady rather than stratospheric, but it is, quarter by quarter, year by year, changing listeners' habits. Today, more than 57% of the population (and more than 78% of Guardian readers) listen to some form of digital radio each week - that could be via the internet, on their digital TV or on DAB digital radio. The latter accounts for the lion's share of use, delivering more than 24% of all UK radio listening (compared with the internet's 6% and digital TV's 4.8%).

6 Music's growth has come from a number of sources. The catalyst was the inadvertent PR coup of the BBC threatening closure, but that isn't really key to its success. It was escaping from the shadow of Adam and Joe, dispensing with George Lamb and becoming the spiritual heir to Sammy Jacob's XFM (alumni: Laverne, Shaun Keaveny, Steve Lamacq, Guy Garvey) that really cemented its position. A lack of adverts and less Kings of Leon no doubt helped too. All this meant it had finally found a consistent identity and could hitch a ride as digital radio's takeup grew.

6 Music's newly acquired confidence contrasts with Radio 3's lack of it. Stuck between the cultist Friends of Radio 3 and Global Radio's sprightly three-times-the-size Classic FM, the network vacillates between populist copying and public service broadcasting stodge. Its figures, however, remain the same as they've ever been - about 2 million a week. In a digital world it need not copy, it should double-down on distinctiveness and "own" musical passion. Listeners admire stations with clear propositions and consistency - this is a much greater part of Classic FM's success than merely playing popular classics. Radio 3 need not dumb down, it just needs to stand for something and communicate that to listeners old and new.

6 Music beating Radio 3 isn't the only example of son challenging father. Over in commercial radio land, Bauer's Absolute 80s, home to Visage, Kim Wilde and Blondie, has been doing well, too. With 1.2 million listeners it's now scoring 70% of the audience of the traditionally larger AM/FM/Digital Absolute Radio. Absolute 80s' figures have also been helped by new technology that allows it to combine the main station's Christian O'Connell's breakfast show with its all-80s playlist - an idea it now replicates on its five other digital stations.

Radio historically has been a very limited medium. A small number of licences locally and nationally meant there was a big barrier to entry for any new entrants. As a result of the rise of DAB (to which half the UK population now has access) alongside listeners tuning in on the internet and digital TV, new stations have enough scale to become significant players. 1Xtra, Radio 4 Extra, Absolute 80s, Kisstory, Planet Rock, Kerrang and Heat Radio are all around the million or more mark. These stations are scratching the itch of the people who feel that the content on their FM radio doesn't really cut it, while eliminating the hassle of having to self-curate on Spotify.

Although Radio 3 isn't short of its own innovations (Proms on Demand on the iPlayer app, Womad live video streams on the website), it appears to lack the ability to catch these millions of listeners who are sampling new types of radio, on new devices, building a radio repertoire of what they would like rather than what is given to them.

Listeners seem to be saying that they don't need a please-everyone-some-of-the-time schedule, they're generating their own by picking and choosing from a myriad of choices at the touch of button. 6 Music's growing audience is coming from listeners carving out a space for a new station, their digital radios allowing them to no longer be set to the least worst option on the FM dial.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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