SPOTLIGHT ON: TALK RADIO: Machiavellian Murdoch sees the value of MacKenzie’s bid - Backing MacKenzie’s bid for Talk is a wise business move, Alasdair Reid writes

The media industry needs a good conspiracy theory now and again - and this one’s a classic. The Sun, as we all know, is having a tough time. It is being undermined by uncertainty from within and is under attack from without by a revitalised Mirror.

The media industry needs a good conspiracy theory now and again -

and this one’s a classic. The Sun, as we all know, is having a tough

time. It is being undermined by uncertainty from within and is under

attack from without by a revitalised Mirror.



Its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, decides to act on both fronts. The first

bit’s easy - merely a little rearrangement of the office furniture. The

second half is a little more problematical, given that the Mirror’s

revival is being masterminded by the one-time Sun editor, Kelvin

MacKenzie.



But news reaches Murdoch that MacKenzie, after years of kow-towing to

media magnates, now wants to be fat controller in his own right. In

fact, MacKenzie has been trying to raise the cash to take control of

Talk Radio.



Talk Radio? Surely an unlikely ambition for a man of MacKenzie’s

talents?



It’s hardly likely to impress Murdoch as an investment opportunity

either.



Strangely, though, he opens his cheque-book. Last week, he backed

MacKenzie’s bid (Campaign, 12 June).



Why? Well, from Murdoch’s point of view, it obviously makes sense for

MacKenzie to be out of newspapers and into something harmless. The

theory is that he’d have bankrolled anything that MacKenzie had set his

heart on.



That’s the story. And it’s obviously believable, at least as regards the

role ascribed to Rupert Murdoch - his Machiavellian credentials are well

documented. But does the conspiracy theory really add up?



Talk Radio is, after all, one of the three big national radio

franchises.



Admittedly, it got it wrong from day one, choosing to go down a

disastrous ’shock jock’ route. But, as Robert Ray, the joint managing

director of MediaVest, points out, the station’s star is in the

ascendant. ’It had something of a false start, but I’ve always thought

that Talk Radio was one of the big opportunities in commercial radio. It

has quality presenters with attitude - people like Danny Baker. It has

started attracting quality audiences. The common strand with MacKenzie

is that the Sun’s success was built on attitude. I think it has a great

potential to attract new audiences.’



Yvonne Scullion, the head of radio at Zenith Media, agrees that Talk has

turned around. But she is unsure about what MacKenzie could bring to it.

’Talk looks pretty healthy these days and the interest in acquiring it

is a testament to what’s happened there in the last year. But the speech

format is far harder to get right in the commercial sector than it is on

the BBC. It is a mistake to be too downmarket or populist - which is

where MacKenzie’s instincts probably lie. A downmarket approach is only

of interest to advertisers if it delivers a huge audience.’



This sort of reservation adds credence to the theory that MacKenzie

should look a bit harder at radio before he leaps. He acquired notoriety

in television (as head of Mirror Group’s Live TV), but the jury is still

out about the success or otherwise of his small-screen career. Like

other forms of juggling, topless darts isn’t really going to work on

radio.



But all of this is based on one supposedly unassailable fact - that

Murdoch has no real interest in radio. That might be the most dangerous

assumption of all.



Some observers point out that Murdoch’s interest doesn’t exactly come

out of the blue. It was rumoured weeks ago, when the speculation was

that Talk would evolve into a sports station, becoming a sister

organisation to Sky’s sports channels.



It would take Murdoch slightly outside of his core strategy. But it

would be right up MacKenzie’s street. Possible? As theories go, it may

score poorly in terms of Machiavellian conspiracy - but it’s just about

credible for all that.



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