LBC’s James O’Brien overtakes Nick Ferrari as radio audiences tune in later
Latest figures show changed listening habits as well as commercial stations’ appeal to younger audiences
LBC’s left-leaning mid-morning presenter James O’Brien now has more listeners than breakfast show host Nick Ferrari, in the latest indication that British radio listening habits have changed substantially during the pandemic.
For decades the breakfast show slot has been the highest-profile programme on almost every radio station, usually garnering the most listeners. Audiences traditionally increased as people turned on the radio when they got up in the morning and continued listening if they drove to work in a car, only to fall away after 8am as they turned up at work.
Yet the substantial increase in working from home during the pandemic, increased listening on the move via smartphones and the popularity of presenters with particularly strong personal followings are now upending this longstanding industry rule – with audiences peaking much later in the morning.
The change is particularly symbolic at LBC, which over the last decade has transformed itself from a London-only station known for phone-in shows into a national speech radio station with consistently rising ratings. Official RAJAR listener figures, released on Thursday, show that Ferrari, the longstanding breakfast show host known for hisbruising tabloid style, now reaches 1.295m listeners for his 7am-10am programme. By comparison, O’Brien has edged narrowly ahead with 1.307m listeners for his lengthy critiques of Boris Johnson’s government during his 10am to 1pm slot.
Elsewhere, the listening figures for the final three months of 2021 show the audiences for major national BBC radio stations remained largely flat. Radio 2 remains the most popular station in the country with almost 15m listeners a week, while Zoë Ball has slightly rebuilt the audience for her Radio 2 breakfast show to 7.5m listeners – still the most popular breakfast show in the country but attracting fewer listeners than Ken Bruce in the station’s mid-morning slot.
Yet commercial radio stations continue to gain ground on the BBC, with advertising-supported outlets already substantially outperforming the public broadcaster among listeners aged under 45.
At the same time, the number of younger listeners using streaming apps on their phones to listen to radio has continued to increase rapidly. As a result, the BBC is increasingly trying to future-proof its audience by pushing audio listeners towards its BBC Sounds app, and is putting episodes of popular shows such as Desert Islands Discs online before they are broadcast on Radio 4.
Rupert Murdoch’s TimesRadio, the upmarket speech radio station launched last summer, was one of the biggest losers as it shed a fifth of its audience since the previous quarter and dipped to 502,000 listeners a week. It was overtaken by its more bellicose sister station talkRadio, which now attracts a record audience, aided by debates about whether it is possible to grow concrete.
In commercial music radio, Heart remained the biggest brand with 10.2m listeners across its stations, while the Chris Moyles-fronted Radio X grew its audience substantially to 2.1m listeners a week.
The national Hits network, formed by merging a number of previously independent local radio stations and largely replacing their distinct identities with national programming, lost 8% of its audience to reach 5.6m listeners.
Radio audience research was suspended for most of the pandemic due to lockdown restrictions, meaning there are no comparable year-on-year figures. Most of the listening figures are collected by members of the public keeping diaries of their listening, although some data is now collected through a mobile phone app that monitors background noise and checks if it is a radio station.