An analytical look at the history of Commercial radio in the UK.

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This report will look at how ‘pirate’ radio stations, such as Radio Atlanta and Radio Caroline, and then Radio 1 filled a vacuum in the 160s by providing pop music for the British people and the impact this had on the launch of commercial radio in 17. The report will also look at how commercial radio has developed since 17 and at how it looks set to develop in the future with the introduction of digital radio.

The main focus on commercial radio’s development will be on the advertising revenue it receives. In particular why it was significantly lower than other countries in the early 10s and why it rapidly increased in the late 10s.

The report will examine how stations have become far more focused than when first set up and pay greater attention to targeting audiences than ever before along with the effect that the Radio Authority regulating the commercial radio marketplace has on the type of radio that stations produce. It will also examine how people in Britain view radio compared to television.


The role that commercial radio plays in developing British culture and talent as well as giving British people the opportunity to participate in public debate through talkback radio will also be analysed.

In the early 160s, as pop music culture developed rapidly, there was not a single British radio service dedicated to pop music. The only source of pop music was a couple of hours a week on the BBC and nightime transmissions from French and Luxembourg based transmitters. This goes against most ideologies that in a market where there are little or no independent producers then the private run firms should provide not just for the majority but for everyone. Argued by John Reith, first Director General of the BBC, who believed that all interests and needs should be catered for. (Underwood, 001)

This vacuum was filled in 164 when Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta began broadcasting high-powered signals from ships just outside British territorial waters, just beyond the reach of British law. The number of ‘pirate’ stations grew and some historians argue, “led a teenage revolution.” (Swain, 00) What is beyond dispute is that in the mid 160s Britain’s youth culture came of age. “Young people had their own clothes, their own hairstyles and, at last, their own music and the medium to broadcast it; radio.” (Swain, 00)

‘Pirate’ stations were short lived however. The Labour Government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offence Act, which meant that from 14th August 167 it was illegal for advertisers to use the ‘pirate’ stations, and thus took away the stations main source of revenue. Radio London closed at pm the same day, the rest of the stations followed.

Most critics agree that the government passed this act because they could not control or censure what was said on the air. However, some argue that they were worried that the British public may be open to offensive or unsuitable material whilst others suspected that the government was more worried about what would be said about their policies and actions as it could be politically damaging if these stations were to campaign against them with the following they had built up.

“Following the years of offshore ‘pirate’ radio, the BBC was forced to provide a pop music channel to accommodate the disgruntled music fans robbed of their favourite music stations and DJs.” (Silby, 18) So within a few months Radio 1 began broadcasting very similar shows to the old ‘pirate’ stations, most of the disc jockeys were exclusively veterans of the shut down stations “and some of them such as John Peel even occupied the same time slot as they did in their ‘pirate’ days.” (Swain, 00)

“Radio 1 provided listeners with an electric mix of MOR, Pop, R&B and many different streams of music as one station tried, impossibly, to replace the many that had been closed in 167.” (Mishkind, 00) The one station simply could not tend to everybody’s tastes and the pressure for commercial radio grew, there was even a short resurgence of offshore radio in the early 170s.

A law, which made commercial radio legal in 17, quickly followed the return of the Conservative Government in 170, with LBC and Capital Radio being the first stations launched.

By the beginning of the 10s the radio’s share of total UK advertising revenue was significantly lower than compared to most other countries. (Swain, 00) This is due to a number of reasons. The new, legal, commercial radio system got off to a bad start by being launched in the 17 three-day week. This is when the miners went on strike for higher pay and better working conditions and forced the country to reduce the number of working days to three a week. This meant attracting advertisers was incredibly difficult during this period. New stations also faced the task of living up to the standards of the old stations. As a result the “early stations struggled to recreate the excitement and loyalty that listeners had.” (Silby, 18)

Disc jockeys were unable to work more than eight hours a day due to union constraints and as a consequence the other sixteen hours were often filled with film soundtracks and “dodgy foreign albums containing English hits with no performance details printed on the labels!” (Silby, 18) This reduced quality and the amount of time available for adverts.

Until Classic FM began broadcasting in September 1 national advertisers usually had an impression of commercial radio based on their local station. This impression was often adverse unless they lived in London. (Swain, 00) Stations were also unable to prove when commercials were played or identify the audience listening and as such advertisers did not know if or whom their adverts were being played to.

Advertisers had the option of turning to television advertising instead. Britain is the only developed country where a mature television industry preceded a mature radio industry. UK commercial television was created eighteen years before commercial radio. (Swain, 00) Advertisers stuck with what worked, television.

Since the 10s, however, commercial radio advertising revenue has grown by 0% whilst the total display-advertising marketplace grew by just 65%. Also /100 top advertisers used radio in 1 compared to just 61/100 in 10. So what made the “10s the decade of radio’s success”? (Marketing, 000)

In the beginning of commercial radio adverts would often be forgotten and the music played depended on the disc jockeys collection, these days stations are more focused, they do extensive research into audiences which means advertisers can target certain consumers. (Swain, 00)

The commercial radio is regulated by the radio authority, which awards licences to stations. Stations abroad are allowed to choose whichever format they want and inevitably they end up with many very similar stations, in the UK however the authority makes sure there are real differences between stations by only giving licences to a certain amount of certain types of stations.

Audiences are rising with 160s youth still listening and the 10s youth also listening to commercial radio.

People often feel defensive about the amount of time they spend watching television whilst radio is seen to have a positive effect on people’s lives. Radio is more personal,

“When they say it on TV, they’re saying it to everybody, whereas when I hear it on the radio they’re saying it more to me personally.” (Millward)

Music is personal and emotional and helps radio seem more of a friend than television. You can do other things whilst listening but not so much when watching.

In a survey conducted only % of people said they did not trust radio whilst 5% said the same about television. (Radio Days , 1)

Digital development means new listening opportunities such as radio chips in mobile phones and more choice through expansion in the number of stations. There will also be improved sound quality, which altogether will result in more listeners and so more advertisers willing to advertise on radio.

Radio can be said to play an important part in democracy as it gives people the opportunity to participate in public debate through talkback radio and increases knowledge through news services which are easy to digest.

Commercial radio was created out of demand. Demand for pop music meant that ‘pirate’ stations were able to operate, until the Marine Broadcasting Act, and make a good quality product. Radio 1 tried to take over the pop music broadcasts but the station could not offer enough variety of alternative music on its own and so commercial radio came to be launched in 17. A lack of organisation meant that advertisers were unwilling to deal with them and it was not until the late 10s or early 1st century that commercial radio has begun to look like a well run, competitive business.

Commercial radio is an example of how demand and pressure from the British people can force the big companies to act and produce what they desire.

Radio has not yet fulfilled its potential though. With digital radio coming to act there are many new opportunities to generate an even greater audience, especially with the mobility of radio and the numerous new stations such as One Extra.


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