Media Forum: Is SunTalk a serious station?

Can the internet brand become commercially viable, Alasdair Reid asks.

On launch day, it only took "top radio star" Jon Gaunt a couple of hours on air to get to the nub of the matter. No - not whether his first guest on his new SunTalk show, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, David Cameron, might one day become Prime Minister.

Cameron was certainly an impressive bag for the first show. But a far more pressing issue, especially where Gaunt's pride and sense of well-being is concerned, is the question of whether SunTalk is actually a proper radio station or not.

On balance, Gaunt revealed that he thought it was - the internet, he reasoned, is the way forward. Which is just as well, as it happens, because SunTalk is available only on the internet - streamed live between 10am and 1pm each day courtesy of and then available in "listen again" or download format thereafter. And for those on the move, it can be turned into virtual radio by streaming the service via smart phones on to Bluetooth-enabled car stereos.

SunTalk is an interesting move for all sorts of reasons - not least in the choice of Gaunt as the figurehead of such a cutting-edge initiative. Billed as "the most rabid ranter" on radio, this is the man who parted company with talkSPORT, when some of the rabid ranting became hard for it to swallow.

As a Sun columnist, he fits perfectly with the title; and News International is serious about spreading its brands across as many delivery platforms as possible - but at this stage, SunTalk remains a relatively modest proposal. Commercially, for instance, there's little in the pipeline, beyond jokey talk of it offering a sort of local events noticeboard - ad hoc commercials for car boot sales, fetes, that sort of thing.

So for now, it will function primarily as a marketing extravagance - seen much in the same way as the podcasts of upmarket newspapers such as The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph are.

Some, not least Gaunt, will hope it can aim higher. But can a radio station on a newspaper's website - and thus a brand extension to a brand extension - ever be a serious proposition?

Possibly, Sue Unerman, the chief strategy officer at MediaCom, responds. She says: "The Sun is a brilliant product but it's debatable whether the brand can stretch on to radio - though it's great to see it being tried. SunTalk is being billed as 'the home of free speech' and because there are no rules (internet 'radio' is not covered by Ofcom regulations) it might help reinvent what radio can be. On the other hand, you have to wonder - will builders listen to this?"

And Simon Blackburn, a group account director at MPG, says that SunTalk will appeal to a growing band of new radio listeners - and there's evidence that more and more listening is taking place on a time-shifted basis via the internet. "So, the fact that it is only on air live between 10am and 1pm, Monday to Friday, is not a major concern for an online radio station such as this," he reasons. "With numerous podcast and vodcast opportunities, along with editorial environments that will attract Sun-loving advertisers, I believe this channel has a great chance of attracting commercial interest."

Nik Vyas, the strategic partnerships director at ZenithOptimedia's Newcast, argues that success or failure hinges on the quality of content and relevance to the target audience. He comments: "Gaunt, while not to everyone's taste, will appeal to Sun readers and the paper's influence will ensure a steady stream of big names for Gaunt to interview. SunTalk is clearly at the top of The Sun's list of priorities at the moment and it is directing a lot of resource to it."

As you'd expect, Howard Nead, a managing partner at PHD, agrees. He concludes: "I think The Sun and talkSPORT appeal to similar people, so Gaunt's involvement makes sense. It has taken The Sun a while to get its head around the web so it's by no means a foregone conclusion that it will get this right. But if you assume that it will, then advertisers will be interested."

MAYBE - Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer, MediaCom

"If it can help push the boundaries about what you can do on radio, then great. But the really big question is whether it can be commercialised. We're not exactly looking for more radio opportunities for our clients."

YES - Simon Blackburn, group account director, MPG

"With The Sun's website claiming around 330,000 daily visitors - and five million unique users a month - and with familiar presenters in place, SunTalk has a head start when compared with typical station launches."

MAYBE - Nik Vyas, strategic partnerships director, Newcast

"The numbers aren't huge, so their attractiveness to us lies in whether they form part of a broader solution, delivering a deeper level of engagement across a range of NI platforms."

YES - Howard Nead, managing partner, PHD

"There are certain media brands that can stretch - and The Sun is certainly one of those. It's also true that advertisers are always looking to reach audiences in interesting ways - and I don't think we'd have a problem with this being presented to us as a multiplatform opportunity."

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