C4 prepares to invade the BBC's radio stronghold

Can Channel 4 make a go of a national digital talk radio station?

Channel 4 might have had its fingers burned by commercial ventures of recent years (the FilmFour production business springs to mind) but that doesn't seem to have stunted its ambition.

Recent reports suggest that it is working on the launch of a national digital talk radio station to rival BBC Radio 4. Luke Johnson, the entrepreneur recently appointed as the chairman of Channel 4, has cautioned that plans for the radio station are at an "exploratory" stage, but a launch early next year seems likely.

Johnson has been developing plans for the station with Rob Woodward, Channel 4's commercial director and the director of 4 Ventures. Kevin Lygo, Channel 4's director of TV programming, is also said to have been closely involved.

Rumour has it that the new digital radio station will be talk-based with some music programming but with a more edgy feel than the BBC's speech stations Radio 4 and Radio 7. The channel will aim to complement Channel 4's main television station.

A launch would be welcome to many in the radio business, with talkSPORT the only significant speech-based commercial rival to the BBC. "Let's hope for a repeat of Classic FM's huge success in taking on Radio 3. Many people said taking on the BBC would not work and now it is the most-listened-to commercial station in the country," Michael O'Brien, the operations director at the Radio Advertising Bureau, says.

The station might get some serious backing. Last year, Channel 4 almost tripled its profits to £45 million after Woodward slashed costs at 4 Ventures.

The broadcaster has since made £90 million available to him for commercial projects.

Woodward has hinted that Channel 4 is in discussions with an existing radio company. A potential contender could be UBC Media, the digital radio company behind the Classic Gold Digital network.

UBC also owns a licence to broadcast talk-based radio, which is currently used by its Oneword station.

UBC disclosed two months ago that it had held negotiations with Channel 4 about exploiting certain television formats, such as the youth show Popworld, for radio. UBC has also stated that it aims to boost the popularity of digital radio using major media brand names.

Channel 4's interest in launching a channel coincides with a growth in national commercial radio. Julian Hawkes, the account manager at Manning Gottlieb OMD, says: "Digital radio is allowing commercial radio to reach more national audiences - something that the BBC has a stronghold on in the analogue world. As digital radio evolves, advertisers can look forward to being able to reach far more of what until now has been the core BBC audience."

However, whether there is listener or advertiser appetite for this type of radio station remains to be seen. Channel 4 will work hard on its positioning and if it fits closely enough to that of its TV services then cross-promotion, in the style of that used by the BBC, will become a powerful opportunity.

A cross-media sell could also help Channel 4's sales team. "Currently, RSVP (the joint venture between Capital Radio, IPC ignite! and Viacom Brand Solutions) and Emap have similar portfolios for cross media so the extra choice that Channel 4 could offer would be welcomed," Derek Manns, the group head of outdoor, radio and cinema at Starcom Motive, says.

However, critics of Channel 4 warn that a brand with its own radio station as well as Big Brother, Test Match cricket and Channel 4 News is eclectic to the point of confusing the market. But then it's always been in Channel 4's remit to be challenging.

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