Over a century from its invention, radio continues to evolve and has proven its resilience as a broadcast medium. While it has constantly adapted to new tastes and modes of listening, its core goals—to entertain and inform—have never changed.
One of the most significant changes has been the shift from local radio stations to nationwide programming. With the advancement of the internet and the growth of huge media empires, the era of smaller, more localized broadcasting stations seemed at mortal risk.
Yet today, these smaller stations not only continue to exist but are thriving. In a world where everything is globalized and standardized, local radio can feel both more personal and relatable—and is as essential as it’s ever been.
Why is local radio important?
Ofcom has long reported that the radio is the UK’s most trusted form of media—and increasingly so amongst younger audiences. As one of the most reliable and accessible sources of information, it is perhaps no surprise that so many people continue to tune in to stations.
Whether it’s a regional BBC station, or an independent outlet like LBC, many people trust information on the radio more than any other source. Two-thirds of listeners report listening to local commercial radio stations specifically because they trust the medium.
Not every community’s news will reach the TV or newspapers, even local ones. Whether the story is too small, too specific, or too contentious, TV stations and newspapers can have different editorial guidelines, and may not be able to react to emerging stories.
In contrast, community radio stations often have fewer boundaries. Local radio provides localized information, with planners specifically seeking out a community’s news and small events, from local disputes to fairs and exhibitions.
Besides the usefulness of this information, this hyper-specificity also helps to bring the residents together and provides a sense of community. More than any other medium, local radio stations provide a service that zeroes in on the most relevant issues for the listeners. In the case of heavy snowfall, for instance, the local radio will be first to inform the community which schools are open, which public transport is running, and which roads to avoid.
Local radio also provides opportunities for spokespeople to talk about a broader range of topics and provides a wide array of guests – including local celebrities and experts. Local BBC stations commonly offer interview opportunities in their ‘Make a Difference’ slot, which helps to bring communities together to make a difference closer to home.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy benefits of local radio is that it can offer unique and varied programming compared to the mainstream output of big corporations. Local radio programming is designed to appeal to a particular audience. It could not work anywhere else as it reflects its audience and is a product of its environment, made for and by the local community. Even the music choices on local radio are likely to be more creative and diverse and might include lesser-known genres and artists and prominent local musicians.
Regional and local radio stations create and empower communities, invite conversations, and make listeners feel connected and involved – even if they are apart. As BBC Radio and Education Director, James Purnell, said: “People turn to us during significant events for our news and analysis, but also for music, entertainment, and companionship… The rise in local listening comes down to many factors, with trust being one of them.”
How has the reach of local radio changed over the years?
In the last 15 years, the broadcast regional landscape has changed drastically. Rewind to 2006, and local stations such as Orchard FM in Somerset, Sunrise Radio in Bradford, and Juice Liverpool were thriving as independent outlets. Today, Global owns around 70 percent of the entire UK market—making it the largest commercial radio provider in Europe—with Capital, Heart, and Smooth dominating the rest of the sector.
Despite this shift in control, the importance and value of local radio have remained consistent.
What was the role of local radio during the COVID-19 era?
Radio remains the most widely consumed form of media globally and has often seen a surge in times of crisis. 2020 fit that bill, and broadcast media was there to take advantage. Radio consumption, in particular, shot up during the pandemic and has continued to sustain its popularity.
While TV has proved useful for viewers during the pandemic, radio has offered a lifeline for many people—especially those isolating or living alone. From the daily COVID-19 press conferences to the regular entertainment slots, local radio has played a significant and trusted role over the last two years, perhaps more so than anyone expected.
The ability to have live, moderated conversations between experts and viewers has made it a solid medium to discuss complex issues and subjects and played an essential role in an otherwise divisive period. When the UK’s loneliness crisis has been heightened, the 24-hour nature of most radio has also proved invaluable, with many noting that the radio was the only voice they heard in a week.
Many people have also reported tuning into the radio when they needed light relief, using it more for entertainment than serious news. As valuable as local news of the pandemic has been, the public relied on their local radio stations for something else. This might have been music, debate on topics—serious and fun—and anything else to help people cope with the events around them.
All of this is reflected in the latest radio statistics. When it comes to regional output specifically, 26 percent of those surveyed said they tuned in every day without fail (12 percent BBC and 14 percent commercial), while a further 34 percent said they listened two to three times a week.
Radio remains the most widely consumed medium globally, and the pandemic has elevated its importance. We may watch BBC Breakfast or GMB to find out what’s happening in the world, but it’s local radio that provides safe, trusted information on the things that are closest to us.
Local radio stations have a unique broadcasting style because they reflect their audiences. They exist in their own context, and provide an outlet for local voices that won’t be heard elsewhere. They might operate on a smaller scale, but their purpose and perspective set them apart from the crowd.
As remote working looks set to be a key part of the ‘new normal’, the listener figures for local radio should continue to rise. While centuries-old newspapers may be going out of print, the wireless is winning the day.