An old friend of mine, Chris Sievey, was in a band called The Freshies – this was the late 70s – he sent his latest song into a radio station called Piccadilly 261 (here in Manchester) hoping for radio play. However, he sent the 7 inch vinyl into the station via the post and in a small envelope, so when whoever opened it saw a broken up record stuffed into the 5 inch envelope with a hand written note asking ‘’ please play my record’’ it had the desired effect, which was that people saw the funny side and the madness of his PR; hence when he sent in the record again, in more suitable packaging, the record got played. Result. Sadly it’s not as easy as that nowadays
So who are the majors?
The top 10 radio stations with the most listeners
Normally, when people ask for the most popular radio station, they mean the one with the most listeners. This will always give national or London stations as a result, and ignore smaller, local radio stations – even though, in many areas, the most popular station is a local one.
- BBC Radio 2 (15.1m listeners every week)
- BBC Radio 4 (11.2m)
- BBC Radio 1 (9.9m)
- Heart (9.6m)*
- Capital FM (8.7m)
- BBC Radio 5 live (5.5m)
- Smooth (5.4m)*
- Classic FM (5.3m)
- KISS (4.3m)
- Magic (3.4m)
*Heart and Smooth both include their National Extra services, which mainly simulcast the Bauer City Network, a group of local radio stations from Bauer that shares some programming and branding elements, reaches 7.0m listeners, which would place it at #6 on this chart.
The top 10 radio owners with the most listeners
It’s also important to look at radio owners, since they have the market in commercial terms.
- BBC national radio (32.1m listeners every week)
- Global Radio (23m)
- Bauer Media (17.9m)
- BBC local/regional radio (8.4m)
- Wireless Group (4.6m)
- Communicorp UK (3.3m)
- BBC World Service (1.5m)
- UKRD (0.9m)
- Celador Radio (0.6m)
- Lincs FM Group (0.6m)
Actually, the biggest radio station in the UK is really...
If you purely count radio stations by the total amount of listeners they have (irrespective of whether they choose to listen), then the in-store station for ASDA supermarkets, ASDA FM, is the most listened-to radio station in the UK. It reaches 18,000,000 shoppers, and a further 167,500 staff, each week.
Giving the BBC some credit, they have a platform for independent, unknown artists. They call it “Introducing”. There is still massive competition and talent to contend with/compete against, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to get aired using that method. Also, we have the rise of Internet based radio stations, which in the beginning were deemed a joke or not worthy but are now reaching huge audiences around the world, for example I work at Fab Radio International and we have three stations with Fab 2 hitting over 40,000 streams per hour during live transmission. However, most artists strive to be on the playlist of the big five companies.
For an artist to even be considered by a head of music at one of these stations, an enormous amount of other activity must be going on. For instance, the artist could have a genuine buzz around them, and be selling out shows with decent numbers. Have many thousands of hits on YouTube have thousands of likes on Facebook and other social media platforms and one of these major stations may“test” their music during one of their “speciality” shows (i.e. shows that feature local music, which are typically aired on weekends or late at night — when few people are listening), and it goes so well that other stations pick up on it.
All this seems very fair, but this type of grassroots and merit based radio play doesn’t usually end with the track being play-listed for play-out during the day.
The other approach is as always money, money and more money. For a major record label to recoup its outlay they must get decent radio play to have any chance of success. Long term ‘old boys networks’ always kick in; relationships with certain PR/plugging companies who are paid by the label will generally always win out. This is always backed up via TV promotion, which is now such an important factor–have a look at how many TV shows have some artist appearing at the end of the show, and notice how many artists who are connected to, for instance, the X factor always pop up on certain shows. Even if you put your own money into the tracks and spent lots and knew the right people, of course you could probably get a play or two late night, but this is an old boys network and the majors have always won out. Every once in a blue moon a song will be so powerful that it can’t not be played, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on a major or not. But this is so rare as to be almost non-existent. The reality is the songs you hear on major radio stations all got there the same way, and if you look at the label who released these songs, 99% of the time, they’ll be on a major.
In many ways I personally feel it’s like payola, which was criminalised in the 50s; the system stinks
I am sure the system also frustrates many quality radio presenters who have their hands tied, and who are passionate about promoting good music but are only allowed to have nominal freedom to play what they want.
The good news is how people access their music nowadays – the rise of Spotify, YouTube, community radio stations, and as mentioned before, internet based radio stations have all helped to try and give independent artists a chance to succeed.
The Ripman show