Media Headliner: Amiable Australian Taunton targets profitability

Media agencies find talkSPORT more approachable under Scott Taunton, UTV Radio's new chief executive.

There have been big changes down at talkSPORT's South Bank offices since the acquisition of its parent company, The Wireless Group, last June by Ulster TV for £98.2 million. Not least the departure of its bombastic chief executive, Kelvin MacKenzie, and the arrival of Scott Taunton to run talkSPORT and TWG's 16 local stations.

Taunton, a proud Australian who loves his cricket and rugby, is certainly different from MacKenzie in his approach to business, but there are similarities in that he is passionate about what he does and can talk ten to the dozen.

We meet to discuss talkSPORT's commitment to the forthcoming Fifa World Cup (it is an official broadcaster and will carry all the games live on its various platforms) and the change in the station's outlook since UTV took over.

UTV's approach was to cull management, and senior staff, including MacKenzie's sales director son, Ashley, departed. "Kelvin had a big team, which we felt we did not need," Taunton says. "There were times when The Wireless Group looked more like a family business than a company with shareholders.

We needed to make changes quickly - we got rid of most of the senior management and the rest was done by internal promotion, especially by empowering people on the programming side."

Improving relationships with advertisers was also a goal. "The main focus was on re-establishing good relationships with London agencies and on dealing with them in a professional way. Once they put their toe in the water and realised if we said we'd deliver then we'd deliver, then this worked," Taunton says.

Taunton has come to the job of chief executive of UTV Radio in a roundabout way. Hailing from Canberra, he was a computer programmer in Australia when he came to Belfast to visit some friends in 1995. He ended up staying to launch his own business, which was acquired by UTV in 2000. He then worked on UTV's mergers and acquisitions strategy before taking his current role.

The advertising industry has found Taunton refreshing to work with. Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, says: "TalkSPORT is approachable, practical and there's been a noticeable shift in the style and stature of management. Taunton is a very open, approachable guy, in contrast to his predecessor. Previously, you felt every single deal was waved under Kelvin's nose, but Scott has empowered people and the dialogue we have is open."

The next stage in talkSPORT's development is World Cup coverage. It may have pre-sold £2.5 million in sponsorship packages but it is spending £2 million on broadcast rights and £1.5 million on an advertising campaign. The emphasis looks to be on encouraging new listeners to trial the station during the tournament rather than on making a fast buck.

There have been adjustments to the station's content and presenting style that could encourage those who have been put off before. Barrowman says: "It was too much like The Sun. It's now a little bit more professional and sober - sports rights are the key thing in this but the challenge is converting this to revenue."

However, this sobriety is not being taken too far. The station still has a knack for promotion - its recent hiring of George Galloway as a presenter is an example - and some of its content still pushes the boundaries of good taste. Taunton refuses to discuss yet another reported bust-up between station management and the breakfast presenter Alan Brazil, apparently over some on-air trails.

Taunton's main frustration in attempting to take the station into regular profit is that he reckons the talkSPORT audience, often assumed to be cabbies and white-van men, is undervalued. "We're much cheaper than Capital Radio, yet we have what is supposed to be a hard-to-reach audience of men who love talking about sport," he says.

Under Taunton, UTV Radio (which made a UK operating profit of £4.8 million in 2005) is investing more in its local stations and recently launched the speech-based station Talk 107 in Edinburgh. Critics feel its strategy lacks focus but Taunton argues investment in local news, travel and entertainment will unite its stations against more music-driven rivals.

UTV Radio has been more conciliatory with the radio industry than in Mackenzie's TWG days. TalkSPORT's last Rajar figure was down significantly (its national reach fell 16.6 per cent to 2.1 million) but Taunton is more patient with the system than MacKenzie, who set up a rival audience panel.

"I agree with Kelvin but not the way he went about it. It's our currency and, until we have another, we have to work with it," he says.

UTV also broke bread with the radio industry and agreed to rejoin its industry body, The RadioCentre. This did not go smoothly, with UTV initially refused a seat on the body's board. This has been resolved in UTV's favour and Taunton says he has no problem with other board members.

However, he sees his role as something of an agent provocateur: "There has been this recent tendency to think that we operate these big radio companies, but they are small in media company and big corporate terms.

We need to recognise we are a cottage industry scraping for every penny we can get. Magic isn't the number-one station in London, Radio 4 is. We need to wise up and start fighting as a group."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 35
Lives: London
Family: Single
Most treasured possession: A piece of the Melbourne Cricket Ground turf
Interests outside work Rugby, cricket and a good night out
Favourite place for a holiday: Great Barrier Reef
Radio show you unwind to: Given my job, I have to turn the radio off to
unwind
Describe yourself in three words: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie

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