Radiocentre’s Matt Payton talks BBC, smart speakers and the future of radio

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The below was written for Campaign Magazine

The industry body’s CEO was appointed in April of this year, following Ian Moss’ departure. 

Matt Payton hands over a paper press release. “There you go, old school,” he says.

Old school isn’t quite the word though. Methodical seems more fitting, which is perhaps the best word to describe the new chief executive of Radiocentre.

Each of Payton’s words is carefully considered and thorough. Later, I speak to Lucy Barrett, client director at the company, who says Payton doesn’t “say or do anything without proper due diligence”.

It seems that diligence and a panoramic knowledge of the company have been very much welcomed. Payton’s appointment came without a formal interview process and after a period of turbulence for Radiocentre. When long-term chief executive Siobhan Kenny left in April 2021, former civil servant Ian Moss was appointed to the role.

A source close to Radiocentre described Moss’ tenure as a “year of uncertainty” for a team in danger of becoming demoralised.

Payton is quite the opposite of uncertainty. His career at Radiocentre could be characterised only as steady. Having started as head of policy in 2009, three years after the trade body was founded, he moved through different roles until eventually being named chief executive in July 2022. 

Now, Payton has taken the reins with a steady hand, which he’ll definitely need if the audio industry continues to be stretched and re-configured.

“It’s easy to think all the sexy stuff is happening in on-demand audio or the digital audio market. You forget that radio is still the biggest part of audio listening,” he says. 

And the facts are there to back him up. Radio reaches nearly 49 million people in the UK, according to the most recent quarterly Rajar results.

Rather than threatening radio’s popularity, Payton says “the cake has grown for everybody”. However, his job is to make sure that Radiocentre reflects those ever-changing needs.

The press release he handed over at the start, for instance, was the news that Radiocentre has appointed creative agency Fold7 to rejig the organisation’s identity. 

New Threats

But it’s not just the creative platform, Payton is anticipating new threats which come in the innocent-looking form of devices such as the Amazon Echo (“Alexa”) and Google Nest.

Figures for listeners via speaker continue to grow. In Q2, Rajar’s data revealed that smart speakers accounted for 10.8% of listeners, up from 9.9% in the previous quarter.

“What we’re concerned about is in a world where a significant portion of your listening is reliant upon Amazon to play fair.”

So far, he says, they have. But the content played on the speakers is unregulated. There is nothing stopping Amazon, for instance, from charging a broadcaster to play on there, to insert their own ads before radio shows, or to develop their own shows through gathering data from listeners.

Payton clarifies, repeatedly, that companies such as Amazon and Google have “played fair” – so far. “It’s about what may happen in the future,” he adds.

Luckily, Payton’s Mastermind subject is liaising with the government.

Payton initially started as a parliamentary researcher at the House of Commons in 1995, before becoming an executive officer for the Department of Trade and Industry. 

Soon though, he switched to the other side, and took on roles such as head of research for the Communication Workers’ Union and a senior research and parliamentary advisor at Equity UK.

So, much like his understanding of Radiocentre, he has a thorough understanding of government communications.

Last October, Radiocentre completed the “Digital Radio and Audio Review” and recommended that legislation be brought forward to regulate speakers.

Radiocentre’s “hope”, Payton said, was that the review would be included in a White Paper published by the government in April and, later, for Radiocentre’s recommendations to be included in the Media Bill.

The White Paper, while it agreed that “new measures” may be necessary, said that the government would need a “deeper understanding of the policies and practices of the smart speaker platforms”.

From Payton’s understanding, the Media Bill is ready to go, but he acknowledges with a smile that the government is “somewhat distracted”, and the issue of smart speakers remains suspended in midair.

Old Threats

When Payton started at Radiocentre in 2009, the issues the body was tackling then were markedly different from now. 

“When I first came in, we were lobbying about the levels of regulation on commercial radio.”

The rules for radio had been set in the 1980s, and it meant you had to have a radio station to be able to broadcast.

Increasingly, though, it didn’t matter where you were “spinning the decks from”.

Over time, through the Digital Economy Act, Ofcom and various legislation, Radiocentre helped bring radio to where it is now. 

Bauer and Global have consolidated various brands under their (huge) umbrellas. Global’s Heart Radio, for instance, has a network of 33 stations across the country.

Talking to an industry insider, they mentioned that the consolidation of these brands means there is a risk of losing regional programming, which is valuable to many listeners.

Payton himself grew up in the Midlands listening to BRMB, and he said there was “uproar” when it changed to Free Radio.

He’s not immune, then, to the controversy that comes with centralising programming.

Payton doesn’t see it that way, though. Although stations will retain local news and “local voices”, he adds: “We’ll have a more coherent national proposition. Before that, there were hundreds of little licences, which, on their own, probably weren’t viable.”

He views it as simply a different business model, but Radiocentre still retains an advisory group for the smaller stations to ensure that their voices are heard in the conversation.

Existing threats

Payton seems somewhat unflappable. He bounces easily between opinions on industry issues, to statistics, to insights into the audio sphere, and each answer seems off-the-cuff, but measured and carefully thought through.

The closest he gets to churlish is answering “How do I put this politely?” when asked about the remit of the BBC and whether it overlaps with commercial radio.

Ultimately, though, his answer remains comfortably on the side of diplomacy.

“There’s a lot more that unites us rather than divides us on the key policy issues,” he says. “Overall, we think the BBC is a good thing, it keeps standards high and is good for competition, but it needs to make sure it’s distinctive and not overlapping with commercial radio services.”

He adds that BBC Radio 1 and 2’s daytime programming often sounds too much like commercial radio. “They get given their funding to do something that’s distinctive and different.”

In terms of a solution, however, pickings are slim. He describes the licence fee as the “least worst” way of funding the BBC, which is the least desirable way of describing the best answer to a very big, very expensive problem.

Advertising definitely isn’t a solution in Payton’s eyes either. Following economic modelling by Radiocentre, it found that BBC Radio 2 and 6 would break even, while other BBC stations would become loss-making by “quite a significant margin”.

It would also decimate advertising revenue for other stations, because, by adding a huge load of advertising inventory, the price of radio advertising would plummet.

Whether Payton is concerned is another question. He seems positive about “productive” conversations with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. 

Whether a better solution is reached remains to be seen, but with Payton at the helm of Radiocentre, it seems like commercial radio at least is in safe hands.

Five Things That Made Me

Radio: always number one for music discovery

Radio was always my first place to listen and discover music, from recording the chart show on my parents old tape recorder to listening in avidly to Pete Tong as he curated the dance music soundtrack of my youth. Although, these days, I’m more likely to be singing along to the radio in the car with the kids than throwing shapes.

Politics up close

Early in my career, I was fortunate to work in parliament and government in the late 1990s during a period of great change. Contrary to the popular image, I found the vast majority of politicians on all sides to be dedicated public servants trying to do the right thing. This has stuck with me to this day as I work with some great people across Whitehall and Westminster.

Commercial radio transformation

One of the biggest changes in radio in the past 10 years was the reform of Ofcom localness rules, advocated successfully by Radiocentre. This change, along with significant investment, helped support local stations and enabled the growth of national brands like Heart and Hits Radio. This gave commercial radio the scale and reach to take on the BBC and other digital competitors. Radio’s use of digital platforms and smart speakers provides an opportunity to build on this achievement.

Covid response

Radio was a lifeline to millions of us during lockdown, providing trusted news, information, entertainment and companionship during the big shift to homeworking. It was not only able to demonstrate its public service credentials but also its power as a force for good. At Radiocentre we were proud to highlight this role and help ensure a continuous service despite the difficult environment.

Discovering running

Life can be busy and challenging sometimes, especially with three children. Running is a brilliant form of escapism for me (only radio listening comes close). It not only benefits my physical and mental health, but also provides the basis of some fun and healthy competition with other members of the Radiocentre team.

This was first published on Campaign Monday 5th September



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