Media Forum: Has talkSPORT upset radio?

Is the station's break from RadioCentre bad news, Alasdair Reid asks.

There were mixed signals emanating from the radio medium last week - it was a bit like listening to the football on your old AM wireless in the shed, on a cloudless night, with lots of static and Radio Stockholm deciding to trial its mischievously powerful new transmitters. Something like that, anyway.

On the plus side, we had the news that the UK's car manufacturers had finally been bounced into a commitment to introduce digital radio reception equipment as standard from 2014.

On the slightly less positive side, however, there were intimations that all is not entirely sweetness and harmony at the medium's trade body, RadioCentre.

But, the good news first. The notion has always been that DAB will be good for commercial radio. DAB means more choice - and, after all, it was an expansion of choice, when the commercial sector was first granted national licences more than a decade ago, that underpinned the medium's first golden age. More choice, so the argument runs, will mean the evolution of more big national commercial radio brands and that, in turn, will allow the medium to steal audience share from the BBC.

There are, it has to be conceded, one or two potential flaws in this argument. It tends to ignore the notion that the BBC is a single unified force with an aggressive sense of its own destiny and a propensity for taking the long view. Whereas the commercial sector sometimes seems comprised of factional interests prone to infighting.

As was, perhaps, evidenced by the decision from UTV Media, the owner of talkSPORT, to withdraw from RadioCentre. A statement from Scott Taunton, the managing director of UTV Media, argued that, these days, RadioCentre tends mainly to reflect the interests of its most powerful member, Global Radio, to the detriment, presumably, of talkSPORT's interests. It's not cheap being a member either.

Does talkSPORT's move highlight a continuing structural malaise in the commercial radio sector? Certainly not, Andrew Harrison, RadioCentre's chief executive, suggests. The medium's determination to fight on a unified front is barely diminished. He states: "Our agency and advertiser customers tell us we are at our best when we work together and I am in no doubt that we are strongest when we speak with one voice.

"Inevitably, as traditional analogue broadcasters change and adapt to the digital world, these are testing times for all companies. But the best thing for radio is to maintain a common, coherent approach for those who invest in our medium."

But Gemma Labadini, the broadcast account manager at Media- edge:cia, isn't so sure. She says: "It's true that radio companies complain that membership of RadioCentre is expensive. It's also true that talkSPORT is good at selling its product. We'd be confident it can carry on doing that. But we might have longer-term worries. A year ago (when Global had completed the acquisition of GCap and Bauer had absorbed Emap's radio interests), the industry seemed to be moving forward. So it has to be a concern when talkSPORT doesn't see things that way."

However, Richard Jacobs, the head of radio at MediaCom, argues that this only affects the industry in lobbying mode. It doesn't detract from the medium's ability to market itself. He says: "This was an amicable split. TalkSPORT is the only national speech station and it is bound to have a perspective that is different from Global Radio's or Bauer's."

And Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD, tends to agree. He concludes: "This depends on which side of the fence you sit on. Representing advertisers, no, this won't make any difference. TalkSPORT is a relatively small player and this won't stop RadioCentre pushing forward the merits of radio. The headlines may look damaging, but RadioCentre and the Radio Advertising Bureau have done a brilliant job."

NO - Andrew Harrison, chief executive, RadioCentre

"It's unfortunate as commercial radio is a small sector in a broad media landscape. Listening is at record levels and the innovation shown by the major radio groups will drive RadioCentre to better serve its customers."

MAYBE - Gemma Labadini, broadcast account manager, Mediaedge:cia

"TalkSPORT says that one of its concerns was that it didn't have enough influence on how the digital switchover happens. But, in taking this decision, it has no further influence on this process. I'm not sure that adds up."

NO - Richard Jacobs, head of radio, MediaCom

"This decision lets talkSPORT take the RadioCentre money and use it to pursue its own marketing goals. But that doesn't mean it will pull out of all of the industry's initiatives."

NO - Daren Rubins, managing director, PHD

"For the lobbyists, it is inconvenient that everyone in the industry can't all be pointed in the same direction. But the reality is that UTV Media has a very different business model to its competitors, so this isn't all that surprising."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

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