BBC local radio shows suffer drop in listeners over past two years

BBC local radio shows have suffered a drop in listeners amid planned cuts to their programming by the corporation, new figures show.

The average weekly audience for local and regional stations has fallen by 20% in the past two years, from 9.2 million in the third quarter of 2021 to 7.3 million in the same period for 2023, according to data from research body Rajar.

The BBC World Service has experienced an ever sharper drop in listeners, with its average weekly audience down 33% from 1.4 million in July-September 2021 to 940,000 in the same period in 2023.

MEDIA Rajars
(PA Graphics)

The figures come as the corporation has sought to make savings in the face of high inflation and a licence fee freeze, including plans for local radio stations to share more content and transmit fewer programmes unique to their areas.

Journalists at the BBC have taken strike action in protest against the proposals, which also include shifting some World Service TV and radio broadcast services to digital.

In its recent annual plan, the BBC stated its savings target has increased by 40% to £400 million.

Besides experiencing a sharp drop over the past two years, the World Service saw its audience fall by 13% from April-June to July-September this year, while listeners to local and regional stations dropped by 4%.

Industrial strikes
NUJ members at the BBC on the picket line at Broadcasting House in central London (James Manning/PA)

A BBC spokesperson said the figures are “consistent” with those in the first quarter of the year but acknowledged the “dip” over the summer months, adding: “We’re determined to grow the impact of local radio across the country and we’ll be looking in detail at the listening changes over the last period.

“Alongside our commitment to local radio, we’re also growing our digital offering. For example, online traffic to BBC Local news stories in England is up by 21% over the last three months compared to the same period last year.”

But there was better news for the corporation at Radio 2, where the audience appears to have stabilised following the departure of veteran broadcaster Ken Bruce.

The station had an average of 13.5 million listeners in the third quarter of the year – broadly unchanged on the previous three months, after a drop of one million from 14.5 million in January-March.

Scottish broadcaster Bruce left Radio 2 on March 3, having presented his mid-morning programme for more than three decades, and began a new show on Greatest Hits Radio in April – taking with him his popular music radio quiz PopMaster.

Veteran BBC DJ Gary Davies filled in as mid-morning host until May, when Bolton-born broadcaster Vernon Kay took over permanently.

Greatest Hits Radio appears to be continuing to enjoy a Bruce bounce, with the average audience now at 6.6 million: up 14% on the previous quarter, and more than double the 2.9 million listeners two years ago.

King’s Birthday Honours list 2023
Radio presenter Ken Bruce (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Ken Bruce said he was “delighted” with the latest figures, adding: “Much like myself, it’s great to know more people are enjoying the very best music from the 70s, 80s and 90s as well as my fellow broadcasters such as Simon Mayo and Jackie Brambles.

“It’s been an honour to share this new adventure with those that have made the switch, and talking of honours I have an appointment to keep this Friday which explains why I’m not on air this week” – a reference that Bruce is due to be made an MBE in the next few days.

The latest Rajar figures also show that:

– Zoe Ball’s Radio 2 breakfast show had an average weekly audience of 6.5 million in July-September, down 3% on the previous quarter and down 10% on the same period in 2021.

– Radio 4’s Today programme was up slightly quarter-on-quarter, from 5.5 million to 5.6 million, but down 15% on the equivalent period two years ago.

– Five Live saw a boost in listeners in the latest quarter, which coincided with the women’s World Cup, with its breakfast show up 4% on the previous three months and its overall audience up 10%.

– No comparable figures are available for the Radio 1 breakfast show, due to recent changes in the time of the programme’s transmission.

BBC chief content officer Charlotte Moore said she is “delighted” by Kay’s start with his Radio 2 programme, adding that he has brought “his warmth, energy and charisma to listeners up and down the country”.

She added: “We’ve had an incredible summer of music and sport with record-breaking figures at the Proms reflected by Radio 3 reaching over two million listeners with their unique commitment to live classical broadcasts.

“The Ashes, Wimbledon, the Women’s World Cup boosted 5 Sports Extra significantly as well as delivering for 5 Live and BBC Sounds.

“Speech radio continues to thrive with a strong linear showing. There were over 600 million plays on BBC Sounds for all content – a new record and an incredible achievement for a platform we launched only five years ago.

“Our digital offer for audiences continues to go from strength to strength, delivering standout live and on-demand content for listeners, wherever and whenever they need it.”