It's not just broadcasters who are obsessed with understanding teenage audiences. As Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt pointed out at last week's Radio Festival in Cambridge, everyone from sporting bodies to political parties want to understand teenagers and young audiences better. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost they are a very commercially valuable audience for some industries. A younger audience can offer an industry a chance to refresh traditional services and brands. But as Parfitt points out, the most significant reason is that "they make a very good story." He says: "We live in a western society, where the overwhelming majority of people are over 25-years-old. Societies seem to need scary elements, and teens provide those scary elements. If you believe the mainstream press, you would think every one of them is off their faces on some drug that you don't know the name of, and they've taken that drug after 48-hours of binge-drinking. If they're a boy, they will be an abject failure academically, and if they're a girl then they will have at least two unwanted pregnancies under their belts by the time they're sixteen. And they are all carrying knives."
Does Parfitt think this 'fear' of its audience is why the media industry finds it so hard to crack the teen market? "When you're growing up, what you don't want is parents or organisations telling you what to do. Media organisations that try to 'dress up in the wrong clothes', or try to be like you, are easy ones to reject. It's about authenticity and being yourself; then any audience will be attracted to the content. It's a hard one to crack as most organisations aren't full of 14-year-olds; they're full of 25-35 year olds who aren't like the audience."
For the past six months Parfitt has been leading a UK-wide research project which has spent time with around 120 different groups of 12-16 year olds. The findings revealed some key insights into what it's like being a teenager in the UK today. The most interesting of these insights was that teenagers feel 'Boxed in' by a life that is controlled by school bells, parental restrictions and, in particular, financial limitations. "They don't have the weekend jobs and the paper rounds that we thought they did," says Parfitt. "In terms of finances, they're absolutely strapped for cash. When you go into Starbucks, have a look round for the 12-16 year olds. Why aren't they there? Because it's £3 for a coffee. So life is limited to what is free and cheap."
So why has the BBC decided to undertake study now? Parfitt explains: "All this came out of [BBC director general] Mark Thompson's Creative Futures project, where he asked me to do a study of BBC output for children and teens. In my position at Radio 1 we've been doing research with 15-24 year olds for many years, which gave me the expertise to take this on. It's not that the BBC hasn't done 'teens output' in the past, but it has tended to drop off. So we felt it was necessary to reconnect with this generation and improve and regenerate content for them. It's not a new service; it's just looking at what we do - on the net and on television - and re-energising it."
Parfitt went on to explain that for teenagers, when this 'boxed in' feeling is released, like when they get out of school for example, then "crazy stuff happens." Describing what it might be like at the Radio Festival if the industry execs present were to behave like teenagers, Parfitt joked: "Jenny Abramsky [director of BBC audio] would push Ralph Bernard [chief executive of GCap] into a hedge. Tim Blackmore, [chair of the Sony Awards, amongst other things] wouldn't help; he'd get out his mobile and video it. He'd then Bluetooth it to Andy Duncan, who would watch it and chortle with his mates at Channel 4. And then it would end up as a clip on YouTube. These are the strange things that happen when the boundaries get released."
Other insights which came out of Parfitt's research included the 'transition' teenagers experience - both physically and emotionally - between the years of 12 and 16, along with how they feel about their identity. The research found that most teenagers belong to some kind of 'tribe' or 'gang', whose identity is defined by either school, postcode or the type of music they like. The study also showed that friends were more important to this age group than poor old Mum and Dad. A lack of 'real life learning' was something else highlighted by the research, revealing that there are real gaps in teenagers' knowledge about how to 'do stuff': open a bank account, apply to the local college, and how to approach certain conversations with parents or authority figures. "It seems to be missing with this particular generation. What they do is look to the media for role models," Parfitt said. One slightly worrying remark from a teenager in the study was how great they thought Big Brother was for 'real life learning' because it depicts, "ordinary people showing you how to have an argument and stand up for yourself."
What followed from the insight about feeling 'boxed in', was the idea that teenagers feel both 'local and global'. This means that they are restricted locally in terms of 'where they can and can't go', but identify globally with brands and institutions via the Internet and the global interaction it allows. The final insight the study provided was teenagers' attitudes to technology. This 12-16 year old group are the first generation to grow up with full broadband access to the Internet at school. But the BBC study debunks the commonly held myth that teenagers are all "totally teched-up." Parfitt explains that, on the whole, the group felt "technologically frustrated," by the digital devices they used, saying that they "weren't working" for them. "What this means is that analogue media [radio] has far more impact than we are led to believe," says Parfitt. Consequently, in terms of DAB radio, teenagers are just not tuned in to the idea of going and buying a stand alone piece of kit called a radio, because for them, "radio is invisible and it's free."
Unlike parts of the commercial sector, Radio 1 has had a healthy relationship with this particular audience, and has seen its market share grow to a seven year high. "That's a result of really focussing on those audience insights to build our programmes and choose our DJs," says Parfitt. Rather than moving to a 'jukebox' style of radio currently being trialled on Xfm, Parfitt highlights the importance of knowledgeable and engaging radio presenters, who help young listeners navigate their way through the mass of music available on air and online. "Characters such as Zane Lowe, Bobby [Friction] and Nihal are figures that make sense of the mass of information and music that's around. They become more important as the world gets busier and more full of content and comment."
As well as alarmist stories in the news about teenager behaviour, there are some in the radio industry who have been creating their own scare stories about how teens are deserting radio in droves in favour of other types of media. Parfitt disagrees: "Analogue linear radio is still incredibly powerful, and forms quite a big part of their listening life. Clearly it's going to take you time to fix your MySpace pages or talk to your friends on your mobile. But radio is a fantastically adaptable medium in that you can listen to while you're doing other things."
In the RadioCentre's survey of 10,000 commercial radio listeners, The Big Listen, it found that 88% of all respondents felt that "radio should be available on as many devices as possible." The opportunity for grabbing teenage listeners also exists in having radio feature in all the spaces teenagers inhabit, and in different forms: the car, the iPod, the mobile and online, via catch-ups, podcasts and social networking sites. So if, as the BBC research suggests, teenagers' digital audio devices 'aren't working', listeners can still get their radio content elsewhere.
Fortunately for BBC Radio, it is already ahead of the game. As the RadioCentre points out, this is because the BBC has "invested heavily online and exploited their national scale to access the most popular content opportunities." The BBC has maintained its reach and listening hours, and continues to increase its audience share among younger listeners. By comparison, perhaps the commercial sector has been a bit slow to react. Meeting audience need is an issue for the whole industry, and one that needs support from other parties including manufacturers, ISPs, Ofcom and the government. But if it doesn't rise to the challenge, then teenagers are going to give radio 'a bit of a kicking'.