The best of British broadcasting: Top UK radio stations
When radio first began, it was a simple mode of communication.
The father of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, experimented with broadcasting to bring people together around the world. Eventually, his innovations led to the creation of radio stations dedicated purely to sharing information and entertainment. Who could have guessed that those stations would still be changing the world today?
In an age where entertainment is changing through the arrival of streaming services and digital channels, UK radio stations still have a phenomenal hold over the country. About 89% of British adults listen to their radio every week according to the latest studies. What’s more, they’re not just popping in for brief sessions either. The average adult listeners to about 21 hours per week!
With new DAB radio sets to deliver higher quality broadcasts, and the diversity of online radio to give us access to more diverse stations, it’s no wonder that the demand for radio is as strong as ever.
The question is, which are the top UK radio stations on the market today?
How do you define the best radio stations, and what kind of programmes do British listeners tune into each week?
Here’s your guide to the most popular radio stations in the UK.
Defining the best UK radio stations
One of the most challenging parts of listing the top UK radio stations is deciding how we separate the leaders from the rest of the pack.
In the UK, radio as we know it today started in the 1920s, with a tiny station from the BBC hosting shows in Chelmsford, Essex. For a long time, the BBC dominated the radio waves of Britain, until the 1960s when pirate stations began to appear, offering new kinds of music for a changing marketplace. In the early 1970s, we saw radio change once again when commercial stations entered the scene for the first time.
Now it’s 2019, and the UK has a vast number of national and local stations to choose from. The best British radio stations offer everything from music shows to top 40 charts, news reports, and talk-based entertainment. However, selecting the top UK radio stations can be difficult. After all, everyone has their own opinion on which station is the best.
One option could be to look at the radio station owners that are responsible for populating the British airwaves. If we look exclusively at listener count and market reach, then the BBC is still leading the way, with 31.8 million national radio listeners every week. The list of the best British radio stations by reach also includes:
Global Radio (23.5 million listeners): Responsible for Smooth, Classic FM, Heart, LBC and more.
Bauer Media (17.6 million listeners): Responsible for Kiss, Magic, Kisstory and more.
Wireless Group (5 million listeners): Responsible for Wire FM, The Wave, Peak FM and more.
Communicorp UK (3.5 million listeners): Responsible for Heart North Wales, Capital Scotland and more.
If you combine the BBC’s national radio reach with its local/regional radio and world service stations, the group accounts for 41 million listeners each week by itself! That means that the BBC serves 53% of the UK’s total audience.
However, there are other ways to rank the most popular radio stations in the UK besides looking at their market share. For instance, if you were to choose the best British radio stations by looking at the total number of listeners they have, then Asda supermarket’s own ASDA FM radio would be the most popular. Whether people are actively choosing to tune into Asda FM or not, the station reaches 18,000,000 shoppers and around 167,500 staff every week.
Asda isn’t the only retailer in the UK that reaches its customers through a branded radio station either. Debenhams, Ikea, and Morrisons supermarkets also have their own in-house stations. The now-defunct Topshop radio station was legendary in its time, thanks to the fact that DJs were pushed to work in front of full view of shoppers all day long.
Top 10 UK radio stations (by listener numbers)
With so many different metrics to consider when choosing the best UK radio stations, it’s easy to see why companies have so much trouble ranking the contenders.
Often, the easiest solution is to choose the top UK radio stations based on the number of listeners that decide to actively find the station each day. As the longest-running radio provider in the UK, it’s easy to see why the BBC is still dominating the airwaves, with more than 40 million listeners for local, regional, and global services. Here’s what you need to know about the top contenders.
10. Magic FM
Magic FM only just makes the list of the top 10 UK radio stations, with an audience of 4.1 million listeners for 2019. That’s a significant increase from 3.4 million in 2018.
A mostly northern station, Magic has eight stations across the North of the UK and one hub in London. Compared to other companies on this list, Magic is also one of the youngest stations on the market, launched in 1990. Today, Magic belongs to the Bauer Radio Network and delivers a wide variety of shows and music to listeners every day.
Popular presenters include Ronan Keating, Emma B, and Angie Greaves.
Frequency: 105.4 FM.
9. Kiss FM
When Kiss FM first began, it was a pirate radio station without a license. It wasn’t until 1985, following a massive brand overhaul, that the station became legal. The Kiss FM station is owned by Bauer Radio, and delivers a wide range of musical genres to listeners, including hiphop and dance.
Currently, Kiss FM has 5.2 million listeners and broadcasts across East Anglia, the Severn Estuary, and London. Kiss FM also offers national broadcasts via DAB and television broadcasts.
Popular presenters include DJ EZ, Carl Cox, Armin van Burren and more.
As the name would suggest, Classic FM is the go-to option in the top 10 UK radio stations for people who love classical music. The company claims to be the only broadcaster that provides 100% classical music and nothing else. This channel launched in 1992, and today, it’s owned by the Global Radio brand.
Since 2018, Classic FM has lost a few listeners, dropping from 5.3 million followers to 5.2 million. The station is one of the UK’s three independent national radio stations. Notable presenters have included Andrew Collins, Nicholas Owen, and Alan Titchmarsh.
Frequency: 99.9-101.9 MHz, or 11D for DAB in everywhere but Scotland.
7. BBC Radio 5 Live
BBC Radio 5 Live arrived on the broadcasting scene as one of the best radio stations as a successor to BBC Radio 5. The station broadcasts on both medium wave and DAB frequencies, and you can also tune in to listen to it online. Although it was initially designed to be a rolling news service, BBC Radio 5 Live is best-known today for interviews, news, and major sporting event coverage.
Radio 5 Live has 5.4 million listeners, placing it just above Classic FM in the list of the top 10 UK radio stations by listener count. The broadcasting company is also funded by the British TV license.
Frequency: 693/909 kHz (FM) 12B (DAB).
6. Smooth Radio
The popularity of Smooth Radio has increased significantly in the last year, from 5.4 million listeners per week to 5.7 million. The channel offers adult contemporary music and launched for the first time in 2014. Now, there are 24 stations that provide Smooth around the UK, with 9 offering FM signals, 14 providing AM, and one operating entirely through digital means.
The Smooth Radio station provides relaxing music, classic tunes, and a range of national and local content. There are drive-time and breakfast programmes available to tune into throughout the week. Notable presenters include Andrew Castle, Kate Garraway, Mylene Klass, and Paul Hollins.
Frequency: 97 MHz-108 MHz.
5. Capital FM
Capital Radio launched a lot earlier than many of the top UK radio stations that we’ve covered so far. Delivering some of the most listened to radio shows in the UK, Capital began in 1973 and is owned today by the Global Radio group. The company broadcasts on both DAB and FM and has 12 stations peppered throughout the UK.
Over the last year, Capital has lost listeners, dropping from a weekly follower count of 8.7 million to 8.1 million. The channel delivers networked programmes, contemporary music, news bulletins, and various shows. Presenters include Rob Ellis, Will Cozens and Vick Hope.
Frequency: D1 (DAB), 95-108 MHz (FM).
4. BBC Radio 1
One of the best-known UK radio stations, BBC 1 started broadcasting in 1967 and has offered 24-hour transmissions since 1991. Currently, the station plays the latest trending music throughout the day, followed by unique genres of music during the night. The station also offers regular news bulletins throughout the day.
Heart belongs to the Global brand, and originally launched in 1994, as the third independent regional radio in the UK. Today, the company has 22 local stations operating across the UK, and 3 of those stations are franchised. The station previously specialised in softer music. However, today Heart offers a great combination of contemporary trending music and rhythmic favourites.
To keep the station up and running, Heart delivers hourly news bulletins, along with advertisements and sponsored mentions. Presenters include Emma Bunton, Zoe Hardman, Amanda Holden, and many others. The station reaches 9.7 million listeners each week.
Frequency: 88-108 MHz (FM).
2. BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4 has been one of the best UK radio stations according to listener count for several years now. Although it’s lost some listeners recently, it still has a weekly following of 11 million people, making it the second most popular station in the UK. Currently, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts via television providers, FM, and DAB frequencies.
Radio 4 began broadcasting through the BBC network in 1967 and is best known for its witty programmes and intelligent talk-shows. Some of the most popular programmes include the Archers and Desert Island Discs. Some notable announcers include Alan Smith, Chris Aldridge, and Tom Sanders.
Finally, the top 10 UK radio stations’ number one contender is BBC Radio 2 – a channel that started at the same time as BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 1, in 1967. The Radio 2 channel is an evolution of the BBC’s original “Light” programme, and it currently earns about 15.3 million listeners a week. You can tune in on DAB or FM frequencies, or listen to programmes on the internet.
Like the rest of the stations from the BBC, the BBC Radio 2 channel is funded by the TV license, which means that it doesn’t have to broadcast advertisements. On this channel, you’ll find everything from popular music from the last few decades, to some of the latest tracks. There’s also plenty of news broadcasts, competitions, and other shows too.
Some of the most popular current presenters include Michael Ball, Sara Cox, Jo Whiley, Claudia Winkelman, Dermot O Leary, and countless others.
Frequency: 88.1-90.2 MHz (FM), 12B (DAB).
What are the most listened to radio shows in the UK?
There’s a big difference between the top UK radio stations, and the most popular shows on the broadcasting market today.
Usually, the easiest way to track down the most “listened to” radio shows in the UK is to check the figures delivered by Rajar each year. The Rajar Group is the body responsible for measuring the radio audiences of Britain and learning about their preferences. One interesting finding from Rajar in 2019 is that the number of people listening to commercial networks is increasing. Currently, commercial has the largest lead over the BBC of all time, and many specialists believe that it has something to do with specific presenters taking over certain shows.
For instance, the BBC 2 radio host, Chris Evans, made a move to ad-free Virgin Radio this year. Additionally, popular presenter Simon Mayo moved to the new Scala station for 2019 too. The radio station owner that’s seeing the biggest transformation caused by the adoption of commercial radio is Global. Channels like Heart, Capital FM, Smooth Radio and Classic FM make up much of our top 10 UK radio stations list. Additionally, Global is responsible for all of the four most popular commercial stations in the UK.
The Bauer Media company said this year that it had improved its reach by 1.1% in the last year, launching new channels like Country Hits Radio and Scala Radio. This allowed the brand to attract new listeners, particularly when combined with the growth of the Bauer Media digital radio stations.
Often, it’s the presenters and disk jockeys that listeners form deep and resounding relationships with that create the best British radio stations. While the programmes and broadcasting are essential, there’s still a part of the UK audience that relies on radio as a form of communication and personal growth. We turn to radio to feel connected to a community of people that we can resonate with. Radio presenters help us to feel more connected to the shows that we listen to.
For instance, in 2019, Virgin Radio station saw its traffic increase by a massive seven times during the first 10 weeks of its presenter, Chris Evans taking over the breakfast show. Virgin accomplished an incredible growth within a short period, just by bringing in the right presenter. Today, the Virgin breakfast show is delivered by Sky, and it secures around 1.05 million listeners each week.
What are the trends among the best British radio stations?
As mentioned above, it’s often difficult to list the most popular radio stations in the UK with certainty. There are so many ways to measure the “best” station on the market, and everyone has their own unique preferences when it comes to what they want to listen to. However, if we look at things like market growth and listener count, it’s worth noting that a few trends and patterns begin to appear.
For instance, as mentioned above, the top 10 UK radio stations today all provide a diverse range of programmes, news, and music to listen to, rather than just focusing on one specialist niche. This means that they can each reach a larger audience overall. Additionally, many of them broadcast on a variety of frequencies, giving listeners the option to choose how they want to tune in.
Additionally, the best UK radio stations all have a wide selection of beloved presenters that have built a rapport with their listeners over time. The importance of the right presenter on the best British radio stations is so significant that hiring the right presenter for a breakfast show can change a channel’s listening figures overnight. As with many things in the modern world, it seems that we form connections with other people more aggressively than we form relationships with specific brands or radio channels.
One interesting thing to note about the top UK radio stations is that most of them tend to offer a lot of talk and entertainment shows alongside music. This may be an indication that Britain is beginning to see the benefit of things like podcasting and streaming entertainment. Rather than listening to the same top 40 tunes every day, we like programmes with more depth. BBC’s Radio 4 is responsible for providing the UK’s most popular radio show of all time – Desert Island Discs.
The Desert Island Discs programme was named the most popular show of all time by a panel of experts, beating classics like The Archers and countless others. The panel of judges said that the genius format of the show gets to the heart of what people care about, which means that viewers wait eagerly to hear the latest edition each week.
Other popular programmes include:
The Archers (number 2 on the most listened to radio shows in the UK of all time).
Radio comedy: Round the Horne.
Hancock’s Half Hour.
In the Psychiatrist’s Chair.
Discovering the top UK radio stations
Finding the best UK radio stations isn’t easy.
It’s not just witty programmes and interviews that UK listeners love. YouGov studies found that listeners rate BBC 6 Music as the best radio station ever – even though it doesn’t appear on our top 10 UK radio stations list. According to the survey, the station is the best on various fronts, providing entertainment that’s innovative, exciting, and relevant.
One thing is for sure. While opinions on the best radio stations in Britain might differ, it’s clear that UK listeners still love their radio. No matter what they listen to – whether it’s classic tunes as they drive to work, Breakfast shows, or Radio 4 programmes, UK citizens are constantly tuning into their favourite radio channels.
What makes your list of the best UK radio stations?
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