Talking about a revolution

Talk Radio, with its line-up of `controversial’ presenters, is causing some concern in the industry. Is it planning a shockjock format for its listeners?

SBHD: Talk Radio, with its line-up of `controversial’ presenters, is causing some concern in the industry. Is it planning a shockjock format for its listeners?

What are we to make of Talk Radio? Indeed, what are we to make of talk radio in general?

Talk Radio UK – the third national commercial service – launches on St Valentine’s Day; London Radio, which took over the two London news networks from LBC is relaunching after a pretty disappointing start; and two new London stations – London Christian Radio and Viva! – are limbering up to launch later this year with a predominanatly speech-based service.

Add in the BBC’s Radio 5 Live (approaching its first birthday) and Radio 4 (fresh from the departure of Gerry Anderson) and it may be concluded that words are where it’s at right now.

Even the stations that are not ashamed to call themselves music stations have been making news because of what they’ve been broadcasting between the records. Virgin 1215 has been fined ú20,000 by the Radio Authority for a third offence by its “shock jock” Nick Abbott, after listeners rang his programme and made “lewd and tasteless” remarks about “scatological practices”.

Kiss FM was fined ú10,000 for a first offence after a caller gave a candid description of having sex with her dog, bestiality being one of the few areas of discussion that is specifically banned on commercial radio unless there has been “consultation at senior radio management level”.

Which brings us to Talk Radio, allegedly. For the new national commercial speech station – which, had another bidder won, might have offered the country a 24-hour news service – is widely assumed to be planning a “shock jock” format, on the lines of those which are popular in the US. There are two versions of American “shockjockdom” – one a right-wing political phenomenon, the other a phone-in format, often dealing in matters of sex.

According to several newspaper articles generated by Talk Radio’s PR company, MCM, the new network will bring the shock jock to the UK (though after their recent fines, Kiss FM and Virgin might claim they got there first). Presenters signed up so far include Jeremy Beadle, The Word’s Terry Christian, The Moral Maze’s Dr David Starkey, Scott Chisholm, who left Sky after a well-publicised fight with fellow presenter Chris Mann, and Caesar The Geezer – most recently heard on Kiss FM.

If it is to be shockjock radio, it’s very British shockjock – and, of the so-called “nightmare” presenters, only the last two will be there every day. The other daily bread-and-butter presenters seem relatively reasonable human beings, such as Anna Raeburn and Tommy Boyd. Oh yes, and Steve Wright – whose arrival is either imminent or not, depending on who you believe.

As it happens, they also deny that Talk Radio is intended to be a “shockjock” station. Provocative, yes. Entertaining, yes. But if by shockjock you mean presenters who insult and abuse their listeners and force opinions down their throats, that’s not the station they have in mind.

Unfortunately, pinning them down much further is difficult as well, which may be why journalists have latched onto the Radio Loudmouth concept, in the hope of making it interesting to their sub-editors and readers. Keeping your cards close to your chest is understandable in this highly competitive talk market, but you need to give potential listeners an idea why they should want to listen (and advertisers a reason for believing that they might)?

Aumonier does not want to blow his advertising budget before anyone can hear his station. But listeners do need a reason to switch from their current station, and a speech network needs to give a clearer idea of what it’s offering than most .

People can understand the concept of a news or sport station, a station for Christians and a station for women. They can understand a phone-in station, which is how Talk Radio was pigeonholed when it won the licence (“interactive radio”, as Aumonier called it then). They understand well-known presenters. They can also get to grips with the idea of a station for the young or the old, the upmarket or the mass market.

The problem for Talk Radio is it is refusing to be categorised. Aumonier wants “lots of listeners”, and preferably from 25 to 35 years old. He is promising advertisers “a large, middle-market audience” (though he is also telling them to expect slightly fewer listening hours a week than Classic and Virgin, which each get between 20 million and 30 million). Scott is offering programmes based on the standard format of interviews, phone-ins, discussions and so on. It doesn’t give MCM, or the advertising agency FCB, much to go on.

The other problem – though Talk Radio prefers to see it as an opportunity – is that listeners outside London have little experience of speech stations, other than the BBC’s national and local offerings. They have not had 20 years of LBC, in all its various formats, to show what a commercial speech station can sound like, unfettered by BBC public service obligations.

Which brings us to London Radio, and its relaunch. I am confused by the company’s programme strategy. When it won the licence – under a previous ownership – the promise was straightforward, even if many doubted its commercial viability. The “old” LBC management – Peter Thornton and Ron Onions – persuaded the Radio Authority to award it both the LBC licences, on the grounds that it would run two complementary services.

On FM it would run a strictly clock-based “rolling news” service, with news, sport, weather, traffic and business news updated every 20 minutes (or, for some segments, every half hour). The AM station would offer greater background, with interviews, phone-ins and the other elements of a more traditional station.

We never found out how it would have worked under Thornton and Onions because they sold the station to Reuters before getting on the air. London Radio’s version seems watered down, with the FM news service full of fillers while the stronger presenters and programmes – such as the Hayes and Cameron breakfast show and Simon Bates in the morning were on the “less newsy” AM.

Now, with beefed up shows on FM, they seem to be offering two similar services competing head-on. They assure me it still meets their “clock-format” promise of performance – but which do they want me to listen to?

The danger for London Radio – as for Five Live – is that some of their listeners may now try Talk Radio UK. Fortunately for them, Talk Radio hasn’t yet told listeners why they should bother.

I assume that in the next ten days, it will start offering very big cash prizes indeed.

Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent.

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