Young listeners are helping LBC break the BBC's stranglehold on speech radio

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

After monopolising the field of serious speech radio for nearly a century, the BBC finally faces some stiff competition.

The commercial station LBC has increased its audience by 800,000 listeners (62%) since it took the decision to go national three years ago. In its last quarterly Rajar listening figures, it posted a record reach of 2.1 million, up 283,000 year-on-year.

Once an acronym for “London’s Biggest Conversation”, LBC’s tagline has been geographically extended to “Leading Britain’s Conversation” as the station owned by Global, the UK’s largest commercial radio group, seeks to break the dominance of BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Five Live in news and current affairs.

Prime minister Theresa May chose LBC’s Drive show, hosted by Iain Dale, for her first interview following her disastrous speech at the Conservative Party conference in October.

LBC’s approach is based on employing big character presenters with overt political views or personal opinions who together create a radio tableau more vivid than the BBC can paint within the limits of its strict requirements for neutrality and balance.

It employs divisive figures like Nigel Farage, on the right, and James O’Brien, on the liberal left. While the BBC studiously keeps politicians at an objective distance, LBC relentlessly welcomes them into its fold. The more outspoken they are, the better. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson had a slot on LBC. Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, has just been hired to host a new show on Sunday afternoons.

This strategy is meticulously overseen by LBC’s supremo, James Rea. Unlike LBC’s high-profile presenting line-up, Rea is little known to the public but was recently recognised by his industry peers with an IRN Gold Award for “outstanding contribution to commercial radio”. He arrived at Global in 2012 when it acquired the Guardian’s GMG Radio network, where he was a news chief.

Taking on the BBC

In an interview with The Drum, Rea says LBC is starting to make up significant ground on its more-established BBC rivals. “A few years ago, 5 Live was way ahead,” he says. “We now beat them in London and James O’Brien levels with them nationally – and they have 20-plus years (national broadcasting history) on us.”

The challenge provided by BBC Radio 4 represents “a bigger mountain”, he concedes. “But right now there are more and more day parts (slots in the schedule) where we are closing the gap. We are in the business of expansion and it’s not an impossible dream.”

In fact, Radio 4 is – in terms of audience demographics – the more direct competitor, he says. “Lots of people say that it must be 5 Live that is our main competition… but our audience is ABC1-led, more than 60%, so when we do share audience we actually share it with Radio 4”.

The BBC might argue that it still rules the airwaves. Radio 4’s reach of 11.22 million is little changed from last year and means its audience outnumbers LBC’s by more than five to one. 5 Live still reaches 5.07 million listeners, down from 5.50 million last year.

Where LBC does look well-placed to make up ground is among more youthful demographics. Its 15-34 year-old audience is at 493,000, up 64% since the station went national in 2014. “While the BBC is heavily reliant on older ‘demos’ we have at LBC the next generation coming in,” says Rea. “Rajar after Rajar we are reaching more and more younger listeners.”

One of the key reasons for this, he says, is O’Brien, whose eloquent and passionate riffing on the story of the day has generated a succession of viral hits on social media. This formula has benefitted from an enlightened decision, made at the time of the national rollout, to upgrade the LBC studio for improved video coverage. This has helped LBC to a monthly social media reach of 80 million and 20 million video views.

“James is an absolute triple espresso every morning at 10am and he shoots from the hip,” says Rea. “He has made radio viral because of the new technology that we have invested in… so people aren’t just listening but viewing him on their timeline. We are now reaching more and more younger listeners and i think James is a big part of that.”

Looking north for new listeners

LBC, which was founded in London in 1973, is still heavily dependent on the capital, which contributes half its audience (1.11 million reach). Because of record listening hours it is now London’s leading commercial station in share (5.8%). It even has the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in its presenting schedule (his predecessors, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, also had shows). Rea talks of this big city performance as having “cemented” LBC’s position in “an important market”.

His challenge is to avoid becoming so synonymous with London life that potential new listeners in the provinces feel excluded, and at the same time to not lose touch with its historic roots as it reaches beyond the capital. “Attracting new listeners from outside London while not alienating existing listeners is a big, big challenge,” he says. “LBC has a long history in this city but I don’t think it has ever been parochial. It hasn’t got into library closures in Brentford and lots of what we did already had a national relevance.”

If Harvey Nichols can launch in Leeds without damaging its flagship store, then LBC can go north too, he argues. It helps explain why the station is currently running its first marketing campaign outside London, in high-population areas such as the West Midlands and North West. “We have got giant billboards, we have got trams wrapped with the LBC logo,” says Rea. “It’s about creating a great [radio] product that people are engaged in and making it accessible across the country.”

Perhaps the most important voice in the LBC output is that of breakfast show presenter, Nick Ferrari, who is enjoying a renaissance after a long media career in broadcasting and Fleet Street and was recently hired by ITV to co-present weeknight show After the News. Although such an opinionated figure is unlikely to be offered a future presenting role on Radio 4’s Today programme, Ferrari is seen by Rea as “one of the best speech broadcasters of his generation”.

Ferrari’s skewering of shadow home secretary Diane Abbott in May, over her lack of knowledge of policing costs, was one of several agenda-setting stories his show has generated.

The presenter’s newspaper instincts for what his audience are thinking about are trusted by his boss. “He edits his show as if he’s still running a news desk,” says Rea. “I do give a fair amount of autonomy to our presenters and producers. I try to surround myself with great people and let them get on with it. My job is to set a vision and a strategy. There’s a hand on the tiller but I give the presenters a lot of creative freedom.”

The breakfast host is also not afraid to share his personal story with his audience, something which Rea sees as another advantage his presenters have over the BBC’s. “Unlike at the BBC, they themselves can be opinionated, they can have a view on the story. They can talk about being divorced and being in trouble when they were younger, they are comfortable about opening up and letting the wall down on their own lives.”

This is why, Rea argues, LBC listeners are willing to ring up the station and share their own stories, such as when a caller recently disclosed to O’Brien his personal experience of childhood abuse.

LBC is essentially a phone-in station. The combative caller who wishes to take issue with Farage or O’Brien is an essential part of the offering, “otherwise we would have a completely boring and anodyne hour of radio”, says Rea. They also help ensure that LBC operates within Ofcom rules on impartiality.

“Everything has to stand up to the test of the Ofcom broadcasting code but our presenters are less constrained by the restrictions followed by the neutral BBC and I think the opinion, the character, and the personality of LBC’s presenters is the reason why so many new people are tuning in,” Rea says. “Imagine you were at a party or a pub and everybody was trying to qualify everything, all of the time – it would be absolutely bizarre! I think your audience is way more informed if you have two opposing views rather than sticking rigidly to the middle of the road.”

From controversy to credibility

Rea doesn’t always get things right. The right-wing polemicist and MailOnline columnist Katie Hopkins was fired in May, barely a year after joining the station, after she responded to the Manchester terror attack with a tweet calling for a “final solution”. Many LBC colleagues cheered her departure. Given that Hopkins caused uproar in 2015 with a piece in the Sun comparing migrants to cockroaches and calling for them to be pursued by gunboats, the decision to give her a national radio platform seems ill-conceived. The Sun did not appear sorry to see her go in 2016. LBC also fired Ken Livingstone amid controversy last year over his linking of Adolf Hitler and Zionism.

Despite this, Rea hasn’t lost his nerve in tackling difficult issues. “As long as there is an intellectual grounding I think everything should be up for grabs; from immigration to terrorism to Brexit,” he says. “I think it’s why, if you listened to LBC, you wouldn’t have been quite so shocked on the morning after the referendum, or you wouldn’t have been so surprised after Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. You won’t agree with everything you hear on LBC, and in fact you will hear stuff that you couldn’t disagree with more, but that’s the idea, that’s what it’s all about.”

LBC’s highly charged and personality driven approach to news must not deflect the BBC from its own well-established formula. But it is producing some compelling radio.

“The BBC produce programming that is the envy of the world for some people,” Rea concedes. “My job is to persuade the potential audience that we are a credible alternative, and I think that stranglehold is beginning to break, especially with the younger listeners.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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