When the talking stopped…

Paul Robinson may have left Talk Radio for Disney, but few believe he is through with the medium which has been his life for the past 20 years.

Zenith head of radio Yvonne Scullion says: “It will be interesting to see whether, if another good job in radio comes up, he will be tempted back, as he’s had such a love affair with it.”

A consortium headed by Kelvin MacKenzie and backed by News International took over the station in October for 25m.

As one Talk Radio insider, who worked with Robinson for two years, says: “He was devastated when he lost the station. He thought he was 18 months away from taking it into profit and was upset that he wouldn’t be there when it happened.”

The station was losing something like 10m a year when Robinson took over, and he was optimistic if he thought turnaround would come so soon. Currently, losses are thought to be about 7m.

Publicly, Robinson is stoic about his move. “Disney is the biggest entertainment company in the world and I couldn’t turn this chance down,” he says. Friends close to Robinson say he intends to stay with the company for some time and work his way up the structure.

The beginning of the end of Robinson’s time in radio came over a lunch with Kelvin MacKenzie in June this year. CLT, which owned the majority of the speech-based commercial station, had already announced it was selling its UK radio interests in order to channel funds to its German digital TV venture. And MacKenzie had thrown his hat in the ring as the only serious bidder.

A Talk insider says of the lunch: “They were chalk and cheese. They did not agree on anything. Paul is quite conservative, he is very middle England, and he is very BBC. Kelvin is obviously very different. He lives on his wits, and the BBC’s liberal culture represents everything he hates.”

Both men knew they could never work together. Within a week of that meeting Robinson had launched a management buyout with backing from United News & Media and the Guardian Media Group.

Estimates of Robinson’s achievement at Talk are remarkably consistent across the board.

When he left BBC Radio as head of strategy to join Talk in May 1996 he was heading for a station in big trouble. Virgin Radio managing director John Pearson says: “When Robinson came to the station it was in freefall. He brought order to the chaos.”

The station had introduced US-style shock jocks and although they captured press headlines, they alienated audiences. As the station searched for a new format, it haemorrhaged staff both on and off the air.

Zenith’s Scullion adds: “It was very downmarket, but without the audiences that advertisers demand if you are going to take that route.”

In Robinson’s two-year tenure he was able to stabilise the audiences, attract mainstream presenters like Kirsty Young, and bring in revenues of about 10m a year. However, views on Robinson’s failures are equally consistent.

One senior radio figure says: “He didn’t have the flair to take the station on. That’s where MacKenzie has the edge. People believe that Kelvin has the ability to make something happen, in a similar way to Chris Evans at Virgin.”

Jonathan Gillespie, head of Radio at BMP Optimum, adds: “When you make a radio station sexy you can put on revenues through advertising faster than your audience grows. Because you are front of mind with advertisers and they want to be part of that stir, your sales figures can actually outpace your growth in Rajar figures.”

Another radio media buyer confides: “We are in discussions with Talk Radio. Things are happening there and we want to be close to their programming.”

One Talk Radio insider admits: “We became so mainstream that we were boring. We weren’t being talked about, and a talk radio station needs to be talked about to survive. We were not different enough. We kept on being compared with Radio 4 and of course all the comparisons were unfavourable because they have a programme budget of about 100m a year, ours is closer to 10m.”

Supporters of Robinson say that in only two years at Talk he brought in talent like Danny Baker and Lorraine Kelly; introduced successful football coverage to the station; and raised revenues over 400 per cent. This, they say, are not the actions of a man without imagination.

The transition of power at Talk ended bloodily and has yet to be completed. When MacKenzie took over the station in late October, Robinson, commercial director Stan Park and head of programming John Simons were all dismissed.

Robinson believes he has been unfairly dismissed, without a pay- off, and has put the matter in the hands of his lawyers.

Talk claims Robinson altered the contract of new recruit John Simons to give him favourable terms once it was clear the MacKenzie bid would go through, and the majority of existing directors would lose their jobs. Talk has instructed its lawyers to defend its position.

One senior radio industry figure says of Robinson’s new job at Disney: “It’s a nice move but not a great one. He has moved very quickly. It would normally take someone at his level up to six months to find the right job.”

The danger of working at Disney is that you can become trapped managing success in a well-organised company, and never do anything that makes a noticeable difference to the company’s fortunes.

Classic FM managing director Roger Lewis, who first met Robinson when they were DJs on Radio Tees almost 20 years ago, agrees: “The challenge is to bring flair to that business. Paul studied engineering at university, and that will come in useful at Disney. He will have to take a long look at the company to see how it works, then see where he can add value to the organisation.”

However, one Disney insider thinks Robinson will find more than enough to do. He says: “People think that at Disney all you have to do is put the products in the shops and they walk off the shelves. But that is not the case. This company has very high sales targets, and it is important that you meet them. Besides, any manager at Disney has to have very good brand management skills.”

Robinson is well placed in Disney to work in TV. Walt Disney Television International, which handles the corporation’s TV interests outside the US, is based in London. The company’s international consumer products division is in France, while all its films are produced and distributed from the company’s headquarters in Burbank, California.

“London is an influential centre for Disney’s television interests,” says the insider. “If Robinson wants to make a career for himself here then this is the place to start.”

At the new Talk Radio, change is certainly in the air. MacKenzie has brought in newspaper reporters, and more are expected to follow. He has told staff he wants to make the station into a talking newspaper: the aim is to create a hybrid of The Sun and the Daily Mail.

Last month the station read out the news in German as a protest against European Union pressure to bring UK taxes into line with the rest of Europe. It will look at acquiring sports rights, particularly football, whenever it can. MacKenzie is described as more hands-on than Robinson, but less approachable. Robinson, they say, ran the station like an extended family, while MacKenzie’s stock in trade is fear.

If the station is to prosper then a man of MacKenzie’s proven track record may be what it needs. However, most in the radio industry – except the current Talk management – recognise the debt owed to Robinson, who kept afloat a national station that very nearly drowned at birth.

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