FORUM: Talk Radio set to undergo MacKenzie makeover - What now for Talk Radio? Last week, Kelvin MacKenzie’s consortium completed its pounds 24.7 million acquisition of the station, bringing with it promises of great things to come. Will the stati

Speech-based radio is the media sector’s Bermuda Triangle. Speech-based radio outside of the BBC, that is. Not since the earliest days of breakfast television has a media genre promised so much and delivered so little. Never have so many high hopes and good ideas disappeared without trace. When commercial speech-based franchises came up for grabs a few years ago, radio had really begun to hit its stride - and the advent of national stations plus opportunities for more diversity promised to take the medium on to a whole new level.

Speech-based radio is the media sector’s Bermuda Triangle.

Speech-based radio outside of the BBC, that is. Not since the earliest

days of breakfast television has a media genre promised so much and

delivered so little. Never have so many high hopes and good ideas

disappeared without trace. When commercial speech-based franchises came

up for grabs a few years ago, radio had really begun to hit its stride -

and the advent of national stations plus opportunities for more

diversity promised to take the medium on to a whole new level.



Granted, some of the franchise applications were wacky, but we seemed to

be witnessing a quantum leap in creativity. We were about to explore an

imaginative new world full of richness and variety. Radio 4 without the

hang-ups, the complacency and the chattering-class smugness. Radio 5

without David Mellor. It hasn’t happened. Not even at Talk Radio, which

seemed to have everything going for it being not just speech-based but

national too. But not only has Talk Radio struggled since its launch in

1995, it has struggled in a pretty unimaginative way.



It has conspicuously failed to challenge the dubious notion that

speech-based means plonky phone-ins. Or the assumption that commercial

radio should largely be seat-of-the-pants, totally unrehearsed and

unstructured. Unless you are blessed by genius, this only works when you

have carefully crafted content - called quality music - around which to

build programming.



The good news is that Kelvin is riding to the rescue. Kelvin, as in

Kelvin MacKenzie, the one-time editor of the Sun and champion of the

News Bunny during a subsequent spell as the boss of Mirror Group’s Live

TV.



Last week, a consortium headed by MacKenzie finalised its pounds 24.7

million acquisition of the station from CLT-UFA, and MacKenzie

immediately started dropping hints about a new dawn. Big names could be

coming on board. Ideas will be imported from the US and Australian

markets. Talk will become more intelligent, chasing a more upmarket

audience. MacKenzie might, despite his natural modesty, be persuaded to

fill the station’s all-important breakfast slot.



Is the advertising market heartened by such notions? Where exactly

should MacKenzie be taking Talk? Yvonne Scullion, the director of radio

at Zenith Media, believes Talk’s biggest problem is that its current

positioning is not particularly well defined. She states: ’It’s not the

station you go to for today’s big news story but it’s not pure

entertainment either.



I’d like to see it adopt a more distinctive style, moving closer to

Radio 5 Live in content but with an edge and attitude which is

definitely non-BBC.



’As part of this, the breakfast segment desperately needs a rethink.



This should be Talk’s flagship show, but it is seriously

under-performing against the competition. Moving in a hard-hitting

presenter with big name guests and giving the whole thing a punchier

journalistic style could give Talk a show that creates the news as well

as reports on it. Overall, I’d like to see significantly fewer phone-ins

and the development of sports as a major strand. Given MacKenzie’s

connection with BSkyB, producing a high quality evening sports magazine

in addition to covering live major events should be possible.’



Many in the market echo these sentiments. Radio 5 should be the basic

inspiration and sport, in particular football, should come courtesy of

Talk’s new links with Rupert Murdoch’s media properties. However, many

are sceptical about any proposition that couples the words

’intelligence’ and ’Kelvin MacKenzie’.



But according to Robert Ray, the joint managing director of MediaVest,

there is still a huge untapped potential for speech-based radio in the

UK. ’Talk was pretty poor at the beginning but it had started to get a

number of elements right. I believe that Kelvin MacKenzie can deliver a

slightly more approachable version of Radio 5 - he has a feel for what

the punters want and he has an incredibly strong journalistic

background.



He needs to attract stronger personalities and he needs to establish a

stronger presence - in the broadest sense - in the breakfast and

drivetime slots.



’I think MacKenzie would be ideal for breakfast time. He has weight and

he delivers a punch. He will make sure he appears on, and gets coverage

from, other media.’



Jonathan Gillespie, the head of radio at BMP Optimum, has a different

take. He thinks Radio 4 should be the main target. He says: ’Kelvin

MacKenzie has arrived at a good time - he has a radio station ready to

start competing for audience and an award-winning sales team. If he

takes the station upmarket, as he has stated he will do, and achieves a

reasonable audience, Talk will be quids in. Advertisers have coveted

Radio 4’s listenership and Radio 4 has taken a fall in the recent Rajar

figures. Inventive programming can guide these disenfranchised listeners

to Talk’s door.’



Gillespie admits there’s one potential snag - none of the parties in the

MacKenzie consortium have experience of quality programming. He’s not

alone in worrying about this. Morag Blazey, the media director at New

PHD, agrees with the widespread view that the breakfast slot is crucial,

but she’s sceptical about rumours that MacKenzie intends to fill it

himself.



’Personalities will pull people in but when the shine goes off, the

audience tends to disappear again. Sustaining it is the difficult thing,

especially when you are not sufficiently differentiated within the

market,’ she says.



’The real question, though, is whether MacKenzie is a big personality.

He may have big ideas but I’m not sure that’s the same thing. If he has

a big programme idea, he should tell people the idea and let them get on

with it. If I were MacKenzie, I wouldn’t change much. Talk has been

improving steadily - it’s certainly better than it was a year ago. The

audiences for radio stations don’t take giant leaps - not ones that can

be sustained. Talk has been taking steps in the right direction. It has

got to keep that going.’



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