The BBC – or ‘Auntie’, as the Corporation is affectionately nicknamed – has monopolized British media kindly but firmly for the last century. After 100 years of essentially unrivalled broadcasting, it’s fair to say the BBC has secured its place as a dominant feature of British history and contemporary culture. The crème de la crème of radio and television have forged careers with Auntie. At the BBC, stars have been born and legacies made, controversies have erupted and storms have been weathered – and all the while, the Shipping Forecast loyally intones its soothing recitation from Radio 4’s airwaves day after day, year after year.
During the First World War, the need for cohesive media coverage in the UK became apparent. Four years after the end of that game-changing war, the privately-owned British Broadcasting Company Ltd. (BBC) was established. However, in 1927 it had been dissolved and replaced by a public corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation. With the support of the British government, the BBC as we know it was born: Impartial, independent of both corporations and the government. The BBC’s original interest was the medium of radio. The first major figure in the BBC, general manager John Reith (later knighted Lord Reith), developed much of the Corporation’s radio broadcasting and later began the first television service that the world had ever seen. Despite a little interruption when the Second World War came around, the BBC went from strength to strength and introduced the first color television service in Europe in 1967.
The BBC receives its income – nearly £2.7 billion to be exact – largely through yearly television licensing fees paid by the British public. Separating that income from transmission, maintenance and insurance costs, about £2.4 billion is left over specifically for Television and Radio. The BBC uses the public money to provide the a generally informative, neutral service to the public with high quality, reliable news and programming usually guaranteed. Few Britons would ever be heard complaining about where their money goes – save for when a controversy over top-tier salaries crops up, which it has been known to in the past. In 1996, investigative journalist Mathew Horsman calculated that the BBC would be worth $11 billion if privatized – equivalent to about $16 billion today, considering inflation. All things considered, the BBC is an enormously significant asset to the United Kingdom.
The BBC’s radio service has been around since the 1920s and BBC radio is the institution – with its almost innumerable international, national and local stations – probably most honestly representative of the Corporation and its diverse demographic . As of the turn of the century, the BBC’s radio broadcasting service was aired in more than 40 different languages worldwide. This is, of course, a costly service. The content, infrastructure and the broadcasting costs all empty the license payers’ pockets rapidly. But the BBC is probably the closest the world has ever come to democratic traditional media. With the motto ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation”, the BBC is paid for by the people and is made for the people. The BBC maintains no advertising and no endorsements so the radio stations with the greatest investment are, quite simply, the stations most worth investing in for their own sake. Discovering which stations are most significantly draining on the BBC’s abundant resources isn’t just a simple, mildly interesting economic study. It also shows us which stations are the most influential, most popular and most representative of the BBC’s listenership – a huge insight into British culture.
So, which radio stations has Auntie deemed worthy of the biggest investment? We’ve collected the latest information from the BBC’s annual report to bring you the breakdown of the BBC’s spending habits. In an age where radio is too often underestuimated, the BBC is perhaps the last bastion of popular, quality radio broadcasting – and with annual investment like this, and 90% of the British population still listening to the radio weekly, it’s not hard to see why.
5. Radio 1- $88.6 million
In 1967, Radio 1 was created as a successor to the BBC Light Programme – the latter established in 1945 as a popular music and entertainment station. Radio 1 wasn’t initially the enormous success it is today, in part due to its shared airtime with sister station Radio 2 which launched at the same time. It struggled with financial setbacks but gained major audiences during the 70s with over 10 million views, making it the world’s most listened to channel. Radio 1 was the first station in the UK to employ the American ‘jingle’ and it became a success among the younger generation – a demographic it still appeals to today. Music industry legend John Peel presented on Radio 1 since its inception until soon before his death in 2004 and was credited with launching the career of innumerable famous British musicians.
Radio 1 is now the single most popular radio station in Britain among young people – and it costs the BBC a lot. On average, with 24 / 7 broadcasting annually the music content comes in at about £41 million, and the stations costs the BBC about £5 million for distribution and £8 million for infrastructure, adding up to £54 million annual expenditure – that’s over $88 million USD.
4. Radio 3- $88.6 million
Back in 1967, BBC decided to create a third radio station after Radio 1 and Radio 2 had cornered the areas of popular music and mainstream entertainment. Radio 3 is often perceived as being slightly more ‘high brow’, typically broadcasting classical music and opera, while also featuring some jazz, world music and drama. The station has been cites as the most significant commissioner of new music in the world, and promotes young musicians of all nationalities through the New Generation Artists scheme. Radio 3 regularly produces plays and broadcasts news. In 2009, Radio 3 won the Sony Radio Academy for UK Station of the Year. According to RAJAR figures though, as of October 2013 this was the least popular of the 5 BBC stations on our list according to weekly listenership.
With the music costing £38 million, £5 million to broadcast and close to £11 million for infrastructure over the 8, 7000 hours of broadcasting time, it ties with Radio 1 for £54 million in expenses yearly, or $88.6 million USD.
3. Radio 2- $102 million
BBC Radio 2, created alongside Radio 1 in the 1960s, focuses on music. With its daytime playlist made up of Adult Contemporary (anything from the 1960s to today’s chart topping hits), as well as some indie music. With almost 18% of the entire population of the UK tuning in, it’s no wonder that Radio 2 has won the Music Week Award for National Radio Station of the Year for several consecutive years.
With almost £48 million spent on music content, a little more than £5 million in for airtime and £8 million in up keeping the station, broadcasting the same number of hours as Radio 3 (8,760 hours), Radio 2 jumps ahead of its sister station in costs. With more listeners tuning in, costs are bound to be bigger.
2. Radio 5 Live- $125 million
Radio 5 Live is the youngest station in our top 5, founded in 1994 to replace the original Radio 5. The station broadcasts live news, interviews and sports commentaries. 5 Live os the principal radio station for sports in the UK, and all major sports events either in the UK or involving British players are broadcasted here. Due to rights restrictions some event coverage – particularly in the domain of live sports – is not available to be streamed online or to be broadcasted anywhere outside the UK so 5 Live is the place to go for all those sports. That’s definitely a bonus for all dedicated British fans of soccer, boxing, rugby and cricket.
With the sport broadcasting costing £55 million, roughly £7 million to air it and virtually £14 million to maintain the radio station with 8,760 hours of output, it is no surprise that Radio 5 live would rack up £76 million in expenses – equivalent to $125 million.
1. Radio 4- $200 million
And now for the BBC’s most iconic – and most expensive – station, Radio 4. A wide array of spoken word programmes are broadcasted on Radio 4, covering almost all areas of British culture including news, dramas, comedies, science and history. Coming to life in 1967 as a replacement for the BBC Home Service programme, it has gone on to become the second most popular radio station in the UK after Radio 2. It covers everything but music and sport – although sports were included in the station’s remit until the creation of Radio 5.
Radio 4 is not only the most costly radio station in the BBC – it’s also the 3rd most expensive station overall in the BBC, including television stations. That’s despite the fact that Radio 4 has the lowest broadcasting hours of any of the stations on our list, at just over 8000 hours annually. The plethora of content on Radio 4 costs up to a whopping £91 million, plus almost £10 million to broadcast and £21 million in maintenance. Radio 4 is often considered the epitomy of British culture, and that’s little wonder when you consider that £122 million of the British license payers’ money is funding the station annually that’s $200 million USD.