GWR in trouble 

15 August 2001

Back in the late 19th Century, ask anybody in the South West what GWR stood for, and they’d say either, God’s Wonderful Railway, or Great Western Railway. Now in the 21st Century, ask that same question, and you’d probably get a reply along the lines Gormless, Worthless Radio or words to that effect.

Here in the 21st Century, GWR is known as a radio conglomerate and not a particularly popular one among the listeners. Their listenership is down, and the advertising market is down too, meaning that their profits slumped 70% in the last financial year. These are troubled times for a company which started off from a merger between Wiltshire Radio and Radio West back in 1985. So just what has GWR done so wrong in the past year?

Well, it could be that they created a bad strategy within the past couple of years, when they bought up a whole raft of stations, when the ownership rules were last relaxed. The company had a new station, only on Digital Satellite, called The Mix. The Mix was and is basically what GWR wanted their local FM stations to be, albeit with a few changes to reflect the smaller, more localised audiences the local stations had. So, where the local stations had local info, The Mix usually had promos. Then on top of that, The Mix was networked for at least 11 hours a day from 7pm to 6am, consisting basically of a listeners top 30, late night love, and an overnight programme.

However, the worst was yet to come. Over on AM, there was a completion of a process that had been going on for years. Those AM services that had not been assimilated under the Classic Gold brand were then brought under that brand, among them, Plymouth Sound AM, who had been running a successful local service on AM separately from FM for 9 years. In the 6 months following that re-branding, Plymouth’s AM service dropped from a regular audience of well over 60,000, to a regular audience of barely over 20,000. Similar patterns were happening right across commercial local radio with every service losing listeners, but the GWR owned services seemed to be worst hit out of them all.

This meant that advertising revenue fell away, quite sharply in some areas, as advertisers looked for bigger audiences elsewhere. The Radio Authority also intervened saying there should be a minimum local requirement of 16 hours on FM. This meant that suddenly 3 extra hours of local programming had to be found in the stations’ schedules. Most took an early breakfast slot of 3am to 6am, but some did go for the 7pm to 10pm evening slot. However, they were only local versions of the Top 30 listeners’ chart.

GWR was expecting advertising revenue to pick up in 2001, but two things prevented that from happening. One was the Foot and Mouth outbreak, which did not help business confidence generally and caused a lot of problems for many local economies across the country from Devon to Scotland. The second incident was September 11th, and although this didn’t have as great an impact as Foot and Mouth, it did help to keep a downer on business confidence. It is now expected that the advertising market won’t pick up until the second half of 2002, and although commercial radio has seen a pick up in the number of listeners again, GWR is seemingly lagging behind the rest of the sector.

It is this writer’s opinion that GWR needs to rethink its network-orientated strategy. Stations that are truly local by name and by nature are doing well again, in some cases, even better than they were before. It would therefore seem to indicate that locally produced programming is far better at getting listeners for any potential advertiser, than a semi or mostly networked schedule.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Wednesday 10 April 2024