Does losing half a million listeners mean BBC Radio 2 is in trouble? While headlines scream that older listeners are deserting the popular radio station after the departure of Paul O’Grady and Vanessa Feltz – soon to be followed by Ken Bruce – rumours of its demise are overstated.
A radio station operating on such a big scale – with more than 14 million listeners, compared with fast-growing commercial rivals such as Greatest Hits Radio with 4.4 million – will inevitably see rises and falls in its Rajar figures every year.
And rumours of a shift to appeal to a 90s-loving younger demographic of “mood mums” might also be overstated. “Radio 2 will continue to be a multi-generational radio station that serves a 35-plus audience, a target audience which hasn’t changed in decades,” says a spokesperson.
When it comes to presenters, Radio 2 has no duds, from Zoe Ball’s Breakfast Show to Sara Cox’s bouncy tea-time party. Ex-Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills is already bedding in brilliantly in the 2-4pm slot: it’s hard to find a better-paced and more authentic show on radio. And when it comes to warm personalities, Radio 2 has the king of mood-enhancement Rylan Clark, who shepherded listeners through lockdown and beyond with his easy chat and upbeat pop.
All good ingredients for a radio station, but there’s no doubt that commercial radio is having a moment and making bold strides to gain ground as some older listeners struggle to connect with Mills and the gang. If they’re looking for a new home, those 50-plus youngsters have two places where they’re very welcome: Boom Radio and Greatest Hits Radio, which made headlines by signing the beloved Ken Bruce last month.
Boom has just doubled its audience in a year to nearly half a million, which is a real achievement for a niche radio station where DJs, including the legendary David Hamilton, broadcast from their homes. One of Boom Radio’s founders, David Lloyd, is clear about its appeal. “We don’t see ourselves as an ‘oldies’ station, because to us the songs are not oldies – they’re just great pieces of music. We’re not stuck in a timewarp, we sprinkle in newer songs as well,” he says.
“GHR tends to target under 60s, whereas we go for young people who happen to be over 60, so between us we can catch those who fall out of Radio 2. There’s nothing wrong with targeting younger people, but you can’t serve people who are both 35 and 65.”
Ex-Radio 2 DJ Simon Mayo presents GHR’s Drivetime show and he’s in no doubt about what his audience wants. “Most of our listeners can listen to all their record collection on their phone, so if you’re going to listen to the radio you want a host who’s going to be good company,” says Mayo.
“You need a presenter who’s considered a friend behind the microphone, who makes you feel better than you did when you turned the radio on.”
And Mayo, like his stablemate Mark Goodier, knows how to deliver on that brief, backed up by a playlist of familiar songs from the 1960s to 1990s, plus regular features.
Mayo’s Confessions, which has been exposing listeners’ darkest secrets for more than 25 years, is still a regular part of his show, while Goodier hosts the daily Top Ten at Ten, an addictive guess-the-year quiz that rivals Bruce’s PopMaster for fiendishness.
As strong as commercial rivals are, Radio 2 still has so much to be upbeat about. While Boom and GHR’s line-up is predominantly white and more likely to be male, Radio 2’s is more diverse, with Trevor Nelson and DJ Spoony (both in their 50s) bringing banging tunes.
And last weekend, Tony Blackburn celebrated his 80th birthday on air, proving that there’s still room for a veteran DJ with an unrivalled knowledge of soul music from every era.
But the real winners are Radio 2’s older listeners – both current and lapsed – with more high-quality broadcasters targeting them than ever.
• The subheading and text of this article were amended on 2 February 2023. An earlier version said that Steve Wright had left Radio 2. Although he no longer does his afternoon show, he continues to present Sunday Love Songs.