Evolution preferable to revolution at Talk Radio

Radio is going through curious times. Not only has it wooed TV celebrities off the box and onto the airwaves, but now it has courted ex-newspaper editors and media moguls. Shameless flirting still goes a long way in the media.

When CLT-Ufa decided to put its portfolio of radio stations up for sale, it was Atlantic 252 that generated the most interest from commentators. Would Capital snap it up with the unspent cash from the Virgin bid or not?

But with little news on that front, attention is now turning to Talk Radio. The bids come from Kelvin MacKenzie’s News International-backed consortium and a management buyout headed by Paul Robinson, the current managing director. Which one looks the best bet for advertisers?

To answer this, the advertising fraternity needs to question whether Talk Radio should continue to evolve, as it has been for the last year, or if it needs a fresh focus from a new investor.

Talk Radio is now starting to win over previously sceptical advertisers.

When it began broadcasting in 1995, it was less shockjock and more ‘hamjock’ programming that made it stutter in the market, but it’s programming has improved considerably since then.

The current management team has begun to understand the station’s place in the radio mix. It has instituted serious programming initiatives – the hiring of Kirsty Young, the inherent attraction of James Whale, and the ‘can’t lose’ rationale of broadcasting football – though without Premier League broadcast rights this may falter.

On the other hand, it remains the smallest of the national stations and it continues to require an owner with deep pockets. It is not clear if the management buyout team can raise this kind of long-term backing.

This leads us onto Kelvin MacKenzie’s bid. Undoubtedly the investment would be there to make Talk Radio a competitive player into the millennium. And MacKenzie and News International’s track records are impressive.

However, a niggling question remains. The current operators of the station know their product, their potential consumers, and how to sell that product to advertisers.

MacKenzie’s expertise, on the other hand, comes from a very different arena. And further, that expertise has principally been honed in a tabloid environment. Do we want to listen to ‘shock-bunny’ programming, if that is what is planned?

Speech-based programming is a difficult beast to tame and an even harder one to master. If the backing is there for the management buyout, my feeling is that advertisers are better served by evolution rather than revolution. Talk Radio has had enough of that in it’s short history.

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