Talk Radio rethink sparks sports war

Kelvin MacKenzie is reinventing Talk Radio as a dedicated sports channel. It will make, break or turn it into a better merger proposition.

Kelvin MacKenzie is not used to trailing the field. But as chief executive of Talk Radio’s parent company the Wireless Group, with only 1.9 million listeners tuning into his flagship station, he is doing just that.

According to Rajar figures, Talk Radio lost nearly half a million listeners in the last quarter to November. But MacKenzie wants to win those listeners back by reinventing Talk Radio as talkSPORT, the UK’s first dedicated sports station, which launched on Monday.

The relaunch smacks of a last-gasp attempt to bolster a failing station, after several revamps, the only way MacKenzie knows how: by reaching out to 25- to 44-year-old males with yet more tabloid shenanigans.

Some media insiders believe there is room in listeners’ schedules and advertisers’ budgets for a dedicated sports station. Others say the purpose of the relaunch makes Talk Radio a better merger proposition.

But talkSPORT has a scrap on its hands. BBC Radio 5 Live, renowned for its high sports content, had 5.5 million listeners in the last quarter. It also has licence-payers’ money to help it acquire sports rights.

MacKenzie admits that, as yet, he does not have enough sports content, and fresh broadcasting rights bidding wars between the two stations will no doubt erupt.

The rights to Premier League matches, broadcast by Radio 5, will be reviewed in 2001. MacKenzie must be eyeing those rights as his main prize.

“The BBC will put up a phenomenal fight to keep the Premiership on radio because it has lost so much sport on TV,” says Simon Beales, managing director of radio specialist Mind’s Eye. Manning Gottlieb Media head of radio Helen Keable adds: “It depends on how deep MacKenzie is prepared to dig in his pockets to give Radio 5 a run for its money.”

Mark Jarvie, broadcast director of talkSPORT’s media agency Carat, says: “Sports rights are not cheap but MacKenzie obviously thinks he has enough money.”

A marketing war is imminent. Rainey Kelly/Y&R has the &£2m task of relaunching talkSPORT. “MacKenzie is going to have to market the hell out of this to the audience and advertisers,” says Jarvie.

Radio 5 has already moved to bolster its position, appointing Steve Conway as its new marketing manager to raise awareness of the station among 25- to 44-year-olds.

The launch of talkSPORT comes just over a year after MacKenzie, backed by his former employer News International, bought the station from CLT-Ufa for &£24.7m. At the time MacKenzie promised upmarket, intelligent comment, but he has been increasing its sports content ever since.

“The station has hedged its bets for too long, trying to please too many people,” says Keable. “Putting all its eggs in one basket is the best move it could make.”

Jarvie says the relaunch will give talkSPORT an “opportunity to reach a clean audience” at a time when it is often difficult to differentiate between radio audiences.

But it is hard to see how a sporting agenda will be profitable in the short term as the new format is likely to alienate some listeners.

Advertisers may also be turned off, says MindShare head of radio Howard Bareham. “It will lose some advertisers. The likes of Kimberly-Clark may have done something around the Anna Raeburn show during the day – but it won’t now.”

Jarvie believes talkSPORT’s young, male audience will boost its appeal to brewers, automotive and telecoms companies. And Tim McCabe, head of radio at BBJ, believes the wide sports coverage will be attractive to advertisers.

Beales disagrees: “Talk listeners are C1, C2 and Ds – not high-spending ABC1s. The audience is small and you can get the coverage on other upmarket national stations.”

Many observers believe attracting daytime listeners – during the traditional “housewife” hours – will be hard, even with the station’s 25 per cent news output.

Beales goes further: “It is difficult to know where the audience in the evening and weekend are going to come from, when sports fans will be out playing, watching or listening to the Premier League on Radio 5.”

Keable says MacKenzie will struggle to build listening hours, he believes the target market will cherry-pick the talkSPORT airtime as an add-on, “it won’t provide the backbone of their listening”.

There is speculation that MacKenzie’s new strategy could be the launchpad for other Talk platforms – finance or entertainment perhaps. Others believe he is trying to make TalkCo a more favourable takeover or merger target. A handful of media owners control most of the radio licences in the UK.

McCabe says: “There are likely to be mergers. The question is: who is going to acquire more stations? It could be Talk or Clear Channel.”

MindShare’s Bareham points to Wireless Group’s acquisition of Independent Radio Group and The Radio Partnership’s local stations: “Has MacKenzie bought the local stations to make his company bigger and more attractive, or as a fall-back if talkSPORT fails?” Meanwhile, McCabe questions the intentions of shareholder News International.

We are likely to witness an onslaught of MacKenzie-inspired PR stunts during the early life of talkSPORT, but comparable listener figures will not appear until the end of the year.

We will not know until then whether the dedicated sports station will be his making – or undoing – in the radio industry.

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