How radio has changed since Absolute 80s shaped digital spin-offs a decade ago

How radio has changed since Absolute 80s shaped digital spin-offs a decade ago

Paul Sylvester, content director of Absolute Radio, reflects on how its first digital brand extension, Absolute 80s, has helped shaped the medium.

Back in 2009, when Avatar dominated the box office and Obama was being sworn in for his first term, the world was a very different place - so was radio.

We had big stations as super-brands emerged at the expense of catering for niche or specialist tastes. The BBC had 6Music and 1Xtra but the commercial sector was a barren wasteland of bland brand extensions. Commercially, it looked very different too: digital revenues in radio weren’t driving cut-through on media plans and were often last-minute added-value conversations to drive sign-off.

Then we launched a game-changer in UK radio – Absolute 80s. this station re-imagined what radio spin-offs could achieve, perfectly tapping into the decade’s zeitgeist and catapulting radio firmly into the digital era.

We knew our audience of ‘reluctant adults’ loved 80s music – it transported them back to their youth and reminded them of times free of responsibility and full of mischief. We faced the challenge of wanting to keep a broad variety of music on the main station but identified a lucrative gap in the market and predicted the pull that nostalgia would have. We wanted Absolute 80s to be their second-favorite station and keep them in the Absolute Radio family.

The mission was to create a ‘modern’ station in terms of its tone of voice, production, and style, with one exception - a ‘retro’ playlist. There was a balance to be struck – how do you feel contemporary with an 80s playlist without falling into the cheesy trap that grates the wider brand’s irreverent personality. With a target of achieving what felt like an ambitious 150,000 listeners in its first two years, the first of Absolute Radio’s digital decade stations was born.

Long before the nostalgia boom of Stranger Things, and before Argos banged the Simple Minds drum to delight families with a festive trip down memory lane, we tapped into the past on digital radio. Such was the overwhelming response from listeners, Absolute Radio 90s followed in six months, with 60s, 70s and 00s in a further 12 months. The strategy didn’t end there with Absolute Radio 10s launched just last month as the decade came to a close.

Ten years later, Absolute 80s enjoys 1.8 million listeners every week. It has helped catapult the Absolute Radio brand to a network audience which is just shy of the 5 million mark, un-imaginable growth from those humble beginnings. The success of the Absolute Radio brand extensions has delivered a unique insight into digital listening and ambitions, fuelling further digital product innovation across the Bauer Radio portfolio.

This last decade, radio’s proposition has changed: the ways in which audiences can listen has evolved tenfold in the past decade, with 53.8% of the population aged 15 or over (Midas, Autumn 2019) accessing online audio every week and 68% of that through a smartphone. The surge of smart speaker ownership in the UK is widely reported to have aided record listening in radio and has seen audiences become more adventurous in their listening habits as commercial radio continues to take more market share from BBC.

Like any other medium, we face challenges in radio: competition for the ear is far greater than it was ten years ago, there are many more players in the field creating brilliant audio content and to capitalise on the smart speaker opportunity – we need to ensure our brand is the one audiences are asking for. Radio’s appeal, however, is everlasting: the power of the presenter will endure.

There is a temptation to over-personalise digital audio with data - what we’ve learned from Absolute 80s and its decade of success is the importance of understanding consumer demands and attitudes to act deftly offering a distinctive brand proposition that resonates with both listeners and customers.

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