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Why Radio 1's plummeting listener figures could be the exact thing that saves it

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There was much wailing, gnashing of teeth and sharpening of knives yesterday with the announcement that the audience for Nick Grimshaw's Radio 1 show had hit a 12-year low.

The Breakfast Show now averages 5.5m listeners, his lowest audience since he got the job three years ago, and the worst since the last three months of Sarah Cox's tenure in 2003 before she was replaced by Chris Moyles.

However, before the vultures were able to demand blood, there came a seemingly strange declaration from Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper, who proclaimed: "I’m pleased that Grimmy is doing what I’ve asked of him by keeping his young audience happy and scaring off the over-30s.”

90% of the dip in Grimshaw's figures were from losing the over-30s, so what Cooper says is certainly true - but is that really what counts as a success for what is supposedly the BBC's flagship radio station?

Nick Grimshaw

"and this is how high my listening figures used to be!"

Radio 1's target audience is 15-29 and Cooper has been under constant pressure to reduce the station's average listening age of 32 (although the most common age of a Radio 1 listener is 21). And while many people bitterly complain about Radio 1's obsession with appealing to a younger demographic - "why should I be pushed away from a station that I've grown up and which consistently promotes the best new artists first?" - there are good reasons for the situation.

Despite the recession, a deeply unpopular coalition and the recent election of the famously artist-unfriendly (well, unless you're Phil Collins) Conservative government there has been an utter dearth of protest music and, in fact, anything new, exciting and reacting against the mainstream for a long time now. Even within the world of dance music, there has been nothing new and parent-angering since dubstep petered out a few years back. For counter-cultural music to regrow and become a force, it needs a space of its own away from the ears of older listeners. Nothing kills a movement quicker than your dad saying he thinks the latest hot new act have got a few good tunes.

Ah - but surely anything truly revolutionary will develop in the grassroots - on the internet, or soundcloud or via blogs and the like, rather than via a huge radio station? Well, it can - and that is indeed where it will start - but to become important and to affect things, it still needs that push into the mainstream of the youth (despite what they might tell you, not every schoolkid is cool, or down with every latest trend) - and there is still no better way of doing that than via Radio 1. Therefore, playing music that you find yourself describing (going against everything you promised yourself when you heard your parents saying it all those years ago) as 'just noise' is exactly what it should be doing.

Fearne Cotton

Fearne pulls one of her 'soooo random' faces

It is entirely right that Cooper should move on the likes of Fearne Cotton (who hosts her final show today) and Zane Lowe for people who are more on the cutting edge of the scene and able to champion music that may be different to what you're used to.

And, besides, it's not like older listeners don't have plenty of choice. Radio 2 is an incredible station, boasting a whole host of experienced broadcasting talent - and with a playlist policy that will ensure that anything that really needs to reach your ears, will do so. BBC 6 Music is your friend, as are any number of other commercial stations. The older you get, the more you inevitably have a sense of nostalgia and want to hear music similar to what you already know. That's fine and dandy - and nothing to be afraid of - but for music to progress and create new movements, that is the opposite of what is required.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but Radio 1 losing listeners is exactly what it needs to remain relevant with younger listeners and thus secure its long-term future. Fewer, but more engaged, listeners who feel like it's 'their' station will ultimately be more valuable for everyone.

So don't tune in and complain that it's all rubbish. Embrace the fact that you don't understand it and rest assured that the best artists will still reach you in the end.

You just have to be patient and wait for them to come to you.

Follow Dave Fawbert on Twitter

(Images: Rex/BBC)

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