Is Radio 1's quest for the elixir of youth doomed to fail?

Radio 1 have symbolically appointed a new breakfast show presenter, as the iconic station tries to address yet another BBC Trust warning that their listenership is too old. But has the digital revolution irreparably broken the relationship between young people and the Beeb?

Dan Hancox
14 September 2012

  • Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
  • Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
  • Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
  • Bring out Nick Grimshaw, for Moyles is done.

As of this morning, the flagship breakfast show on Radio 1 – previously hosted by such luminaries as Tony Blackburn, Noel Edmonds, and Chris Evans – has been passed on from the controversial but popular Chris Moyles to a younger DJ, Nick Grimshaw.

It’s not the personalities that are most interesting in this story, but Radio 1’s ongoing quest for the increasingly elusive elixir of youth. In 2009, the BBC Trust warned Radio 1 that they had a significant public service obligation to bring news to young people, and also that they needed to refocus quite specifically on their target 15-29 demographic, as the average age of their listeners slipped ever further upwards.

Shortly after this report from the Trust, I went on a special assignment for Q Magazine to spend the day at Radio 1, including being invited into the station's secretive 3 hour weekly playlist meeting, where the ‘sound of the station’ is traditionally determined. Age was of primary concern to the producers and DJs around the table that afternoon, as they debated which records would get the Radio 1 seal of approval that week. “At what point does Kylie become heritage for us?” one producer asked, as they chewed over her new single – ‘heritage’, I learned, was the Radio 1 short-hand for ‘this isn't cool enough for us, let Radio 2 have it instead’.

Despite their keenest efforts to stay down with the kids since 2009, they are fighting an uphill battle. In June 2012, the BBC Trust published a new report, which found the average age was not even within the 15-29 demographic at all:

"Our aim that Radio 1 focuses more clearly on a young target audience so that its median age is within the target age group is still outstanding, although work is under way to address this issue."

"The median age has remained constant since our review completed in 2009 although, due to a change in Rajar methodology, it stands at 30, rather than 29, so just outside the target age group of 15 to 29-year-olds."

The average audience age for Moyles’ breakfast show was 33, meanwhile.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the people at Radio 1 - this upwards age drift is almost impossible to arrest. Web-native teenagers, that in the past would have migrated naturally towards the station, are instead curators of their own entertainment experiences. They don’t need someone at Radio 1 to make a playlist for them: they have Spotify, iTunes, illegal downloads, streaming websites, Soundcloud, YouTube, podcasts, and internet access to any radio station anywhere in the world. The BBC’s cradle-to-grave public service remit is suffering a significant rupture as a result.

Quite simply, though they mean it no harm, the digital natives are ruining Radio 1. The vital existential question is, if young Brits aren’t forming a relationship with the BBC the way every generation before them have, will they eventually ruin the entire BBC?

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