Radio in Norway - more futuristic than you think

Visit Oslo, and you’ll be impressed with the way the city merges its Nordic tradition, and a laid-back, hurry-free attitude, with some pretty impressive technology. Jump off the plane, and you’re whisked into town, underground for part of the way, on bright new trains which give you latest news, on a flat screen, from NRK and the BBC.

The radio station P4 is no exception. I was there on Thursday to talk to their sales team and some of their clients.

P4’s Oslo offices (which I should have photographed, but didn’t) are inspiring. A standard office block contains a really impressive open space - studios in all four corners (glass walls facing inwards), all visible by the news team, the producers, and internet production team.

P4 is fascinatingly similar to the station I currently work for, Virgin Radio. P4’s national, like Virgin; is 15 years old this year (six months older than Virgin). It employs around 85 staff (again, similar to Virgin). Its website justifiably crows about its success in terms of market share - it enjoys 24%. That’s not similar - but Virgin has more audience than P4 if we’re splitting hairs.

Their DAB-only radio station, P4 Bandit, has live programming - they feel very strongly that stations like this shouldn’t just be jukebox services. They’re experimenting with new technology, too - both their stations are running DAB slideshow, for instance - and have an impressive website. They’re a young-feeling station - and, just like Virgin, have seen around five marriages between staff!

Where they differ is their incredible audience statistics gathering. They use people-meters to monitor their audience, rather than the UK’s antiquated diary-based system. This allows them to measure radio by the minute, rather than the UK’s antiquated 15-minute interval. This means they know what happens to their audience with every feature they do. (They say they don’t lose audiences during the commercial breaks). Oh, and audience statistics for each show appear to be available pretty quickly after the broadcast, instead of the two months it takes RAJAR to get the paper diaries back, and then to work out a three, or six, month average.

So, with these new statistics, how are P4 selling radio?

They’re not. They’re selling broadcast advertising.

In Norway, you buy radio just like television. You’re no longer buying on figures that might be the average of a six month survey - you’re buying exactly how many people heard that ad in that exact timeslot. So, if the station broadcasts a feature which is a turn-off, it loses financially. Alternatively, big events - think V Festival, or Party in the Park, or football commentary - don’t get lost in the six-month RAJAR, but add money, instantly, to the bottom-line.

And, of course, the benefit of this method of selling advertising is that radio - a medium always criticised for being too difficult to buy - suddenly becomes as easy as buying television. Which means that anyone can do it, without additional training for radio.

And guess what? Radio ad sales in Norway are increasing. Compare that to the UK, where GCap Media, the country’s largest commercial radio company, are having a torrid time: Ralph Bernard announced to the City on Wednesday that “like-for-like [ad] revenues for April and May 2007 will be down just 2% and 1% respectively year-on-year”. Apparently, this is good news.

The UK’s radio listening survey is one of the most impressive pieces of research in the world; even more impressive when you consider the vast amount of dog-eared, pizza-stained diaries which are (to some degree) works of fiction but yet give vaguely consistent, mostly-believable figures. Programme directors criticise the electronic replacements for dramatically cutting hours, and for decimating breakfast show figures. (How can any meter measure my listening habits, which is generally 30 minutes of BBC Five Live before I get out of bed and pull my clothes on, therefore activating the meter?)

However, Norway is showing that, for all the concerns about portable people meters, they have the capability of dramatically changing the commercial future of radio. We should take note.

Tussen tak to my friends there; and I look forward to seeing you in the UK soon.