Rupert’s Bear

Age has not withered Kelvin Calder MacKenzie. At 52, the chief executive of Talk Radio bounds into his boardroom barking hellos and cracking jokes. He still gets up at six and usually arrives at the office by 7.30am, just as he did more than decade ago. Those were the days when he edited The Sun, which sold 4 million copies a day and became the most talked about paper in the country.

He rises early because he has to. “This business is losing money,” he says. “So there is nothing to be relaxed about. There is a job to be done here.” The current estimate is that Talk loses about £500,000 a month. Under its previous owners ­ Luxembourg-based media group CLT-UFA ­ Talk regularly made a loss. In its last year under CLT ownership, the station, which was launched in 1995, lost £8m.

MacKenzie is eight months into a four-year project to turn the station round. His Talkco consortium ­ which consists of News International, venture capital company MVI, US media group TCI, media group Radio Investments, and MacKenzie’s own personal stake ­ won its £25m bid for the country’s smallest national commercial radio station last November.

The move reunites him with Rupert Murdoch, his stern paterfamilias. It also brings him back into the News International sphere of influence, where he will be able to benefit from the group’s programming, resources, and funds.

MacKenzie may complain about the unfairness of the BBC’s subsidy of its speech stations, but he works within a similar structure that can offer attractive cross-subsidies. In this case it is Murdoch, rather than the licence payer, who acts as Kelvin’s sugar daddy.

You get the impression that Murdoch is the only person MacKenzie respects ­ and fears. When he talks about the media baron, his voice lowers and his usual jocular manner disappears.

He is not in contact with Murdoch as often as in the old days editing The Sun ­ at that time they would speak by phone everyday. They last met eight weeks ago, when Murdoch sat in on a presentation MacKenzie gave. “If it wasn’t for Rupert and Peter Clark [MVI managing director], I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

Since MacKenzie left The Sun in 1994 his career has been eventful, rather than meaningful, as he has tried to spread his populist touch into other areas. He spent six months as managing director at BSkyB, where he famously clashed with the then chief executive Sam Chisholm over programming ­ and lost.

He was then hired by the Mirror Group to run its Live TV cable television network. There he clashed with managing director Janet Street-Porter over the channel’s direction. However, this time he was the victor. His reign at Live TV has become the stuff of legend: he introduced the news bunny, topless darts, the weather in Norwegian, and stripping women reading City results. The channel was much talked about, but not watched. Viewing remained modest, reaching about 2 million homes, throughout his time in charge.

The Mirror Group then made him deputy chief executive and group managing director of the whole corporation. He was moved across to steer The Mirror’s battle with his former employer, The Sun. But after only a few months in this role, he left to join forces with his business mentor Murdoch and bid for Talk Radio.

MacKenzie likes to keep things in the family. He lives with his wife, Jacqueline, just outside Sevenoaks in Kent. They have been married for 30 years and have three children, one of whom ­ Ashley ­ is the commercial director of Talkco.

Those who know him claim MacKenzie wanted a stake in his own business. But he says of his decision to leave Mirror Group: “I didn’t feel fulfilled. At the top of a large company there is a lot of corporate politics, which I’m not good at. And the opportunity at Talk was too good to turn down.”

MacKenzie now claims he has found a home. “I’m here for the long run,” he says. It will take time: in three to four years we will have a cracking station.” But he believes he is in danger of being evicted by the BBC. “The BBC is the last of the nationalised industries ­ it is trying to run me out of business,” he complains.

MacKenzie has accelerated Talk’s move towards sports programming, initiated by former managing director Paul Robinson. He has brought in new shows, such as SportZone, well-known presenters like Andy Gray, whom he was able to attract through Talk’s informal association with BSkyB, and has won some important sports rights. This autumn Talk will exclusively broadcast England’s cricket tours of South Africa and Zimbabwe, which it stole from under the nose of the Beeb. It will also broadcast live coverage of FA Cup matches and England football internationals in the coming season.

Despite these successes ­ or maybe because of them ­ MacKenzie still feels the BBC is out to get him. The battle between Talk and the corporation’s speech-based stations is fierce. It is a game that demands deep pockets. The BBC may be on the back foot in the acquisition of TV rights compared with commercial players such as Sky or ITV, but it remains largely unchallenged in radio. Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live’s programme budgets are £50m and £25m respectively. Talk’s is £6m.

EMAP Radio chief executive Tim Schoonmaker says: “Kelvin’s learning what’s different about radio, and what’s different is the BBC.”

Talk is the smallest of the three national commercial radio stations. Last week’s Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar) figures gave the station 2.3 million listeners a week. Virgin Radio has 3.5 million, while Classic FM is way out in front with 6 million listeners.

MacKenzie says that over the next 18 months he wants to increase his audience by 20 per cent and boost Talk’s revenues by more than twice that amount. He also wants to attract a different type of listener. As Zenith’s head of radio Yvonne Scullion says: “Kelvin inherited an older, more downmarket listener. It hasn’t got advertisers excited.”

MacKenzie agrees, saying that as more sports programming comes on air “we will lose older women and replace them with 25- to 44-year-old men”. Last week’s Rajar figures showed more ABC1s, and more men, are coming to the station.

He is clear about the pressure he is under: “My investors have put a bet on me and my team turning this station round.” They are gambling on something intangible ­ MacKenzie’s ability to read the mass market. Yet some believe that he has lost that flair since leaving The Sun.

He has enough money coming from Murdoch to last another three years. In that short time, MacKenzie has to fight off both the BBC and commercial rivals with 25 years’ experience in a medium where he has spent just eight months. No wonder he gets up early.

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