17/08/2012 12:10 BST | Updated 17/10/2012 06:12 BST

An Age-Old Question

Next month, Radio 1 will make the biggest change to its schedule since announcing its plan to increase focus on younger listeners. Nick Grimshaw will take over the Radio 1 breakfast show from Chris Moyles in a move that has reignited a long-standing debate; should BBC radio stations target audiences by age?

Without doubt, we live in a time when age seems less defining than in previous generations. In a recent interview on Radio 4's Front Row, 64-year-old Vincent Damon Furnier (aka rocker Alice Cooper) declared defiantly "now, 60s, you're in your 40s". And with many hip-hop fans heading towards 50 and thousands of young people attending the Proms, is it right that age remains a factor in targeting and judging BBC services?

Like many people, I tend to recoil when I am told that I do not fit within a certain age target, particularly when it comes to music. Therefore, it is important to emphasize that, as head of BBC radio, I welcome all listeners of any age to our networks. The very essence of the BBC is that it offers Licence Fee payers open access to all of the services they have funded. Indeed, ahead of any demographic concerns, our first priority must be to create programmes of the very highest quality that are distinctive versus what can be found elsewhere. A plan that was solely driven by attracting the largest audience of a certain age would be fatal for a public service broadcaster. However, this does not mean age should be discounted as a relevant measure. Here are a few reasons why:

Firstly, it is important that, as an industry, radio is doing what it can to attract new listeners. While the overall radio industry has been enjoying remarkably good figures over the last few years, listening to radio among younger people has suffered some declines and, if not addressed, presents longer term risks. The causes of this issue are well documented, ranging from online music services to the appeal of video games. Therefore it must be right that, despite the challenges of an ageing population and hipper adults, a service such as Radio 1 looks to recruit new users into the habit of radio and ensures that young listeners are getting something of real appeal and value from the BBC. This may alienate those not interested in the very latest music releases or a documentary about teen issues but, as the BBC, we should be covering this territory.

Secondly, the BBC should be sensitive to its impact on commercial companies and their radio stations. The truth is that while the BBC can muse on the importance of age, the commercial radio sector is reliant on advertising revenue driven by those targeting primarily by age. It is appropriate that the BBC takes this into account as it defines the target listeners for all stations. We should be doing things differently to rest of the market, and age, as a key yardstick for the commercial sector, cannot be ignored.

Finally, age is one useful way of assessing whether the BBC is offering a wide enough range of services. It is surely right that we look at a range of demographic measures - I'm focussing on age but it could equally be gender or geography - and see that our portfolio of services offers maximum value to a broad spread of those paying for them. That is the very essence of what the BBC must do and the reason why we offer a range of services which, among other things, appeal to a very wide array of ages.

So, while it is not our only priority, it is right that BBC stations pay attention to the age of their listeners, and in Radio 1's case takes steps to ensure it is reaching a young audience. It should be one of a basket of measures used to assess progress and success. Finally, I would emphasise that the age of listeners rather than presenters is the relevant factor in achieving the above. Their passions, musical knowledge and connection to the audience are what is important here, not the number of candles on their birthday cake. I have a feeling that both Nick Grimshaw and Alice Cooper would agree on that.