MacKenzie turns his cannons on Radio 2

Kelvin MacKenzie is taking on Radio 2 in his ongoing offensive against the BBC. But has he got enough firepower to emerge the victor?

It’s no secret that Kelvin MacKenzie, chairman and chief executive of The Wireless Group and former editor of The Sun, believes he can take on the might of the BBC.

He relaunched Talk Radio as TalkSport to rival BBC Radio 5 Live in January and, while not yet proving a threat to 5 Live, the revamped station is adding listeners.

But in an announcement at the end of last month MacKenzie revealed that his next BBC target is to be Radio 2, the most listened-to radio station in the country.

The Wireless Group (TWG) has acquired 33 per cent of Delta Radio, whose principal asset is a new national analogue radio station licensed from the Dutch government and transmitted from two masts, to be built off the Dutch coast near Zeeland. TWG will launch the station, 171 The Lounge, in 2002 with a music intensive, easy-listening format feat uring music of the past 40 years, from Sinatra to Simply Red. The Lounge will be broadcast on Long wave.

Manning Gottlieb Media’s head of radio, Helen Keable, says: “It’s one thing going after 5 Live with speech, but quite another to go after a music-formatted station. The crackle [on Long wave] is a real problem – people are becoming less and less tolerant.”

TWG will manage the station’s programming, while advertising will be through its sales house, Impact. But it faces a struggle to lure Radio 2’s loyal listeners.

Radio 2 is going through a renaissance. It attracts 13 per cent of radio listeners, reaching 10.2 million people a week, according to the latest Rajar figures for the quarter to September 17 2000. This compares with 12.2 per cent of listeners and a reach of 9.5 million last year. One in five adults listen to Radio 2 and the average listener stays with the station for more than 13 hours a week.

It not only has big-name presenters such as Terry Wogan, but also trendier stars such as Jonathan Ross and Mark Lamarr. It has the might of the corporation’s marketing budget and cross promotions on BBC properties behind it, and recently launched a TV campaign.

TWG will have to fund a launch advertising campaign for The Lounge and many doubt the group has deep enough pockets for the stat ion to compete with the BBC. TWG spent just &£1.6m on advertising over the past year, according to AC Nielsen Register-MEAL.

MGM’s Keable says: “Kelvin has spread himself very thinly buying up sporting rights for TalkSport. I don’t know where he’ll find the kind of money needed for this new station.”

Sports rights remain the key factor in TalkSport’s challenge to Radio 5 Live. Although the BBC has held on to the football Premiership rights, TalkSport has just won the rights to broadcast two-minute ‘snippets’ – goals and major incidents – from each match. It’s a foot in the door.

The reformatting of Talk Radio as a sports station is starting to pay off. It has increased its weekly reach by nine per cent year-on-year to just over 2 million, with a 1.4 per cent share of listening. This compares to Radio 5 Live’s 5.3 million reach and 3.8 per cent share of listening.

But crucially, TalkSport is attracting its target audience – its share of 15-34 year-old men has increased 78 per cent year-on-year.

Mindshare head of radio Howard Bareham says the station can almost guarantee its audience: “TalkSport reach of 25-44 year-old males has gone up quite considerably, which is what they promised. But they have to keep that audience growing.”

But the young male demographic is MacKenzie’s forte – it was his heartland as editor of The Sun. The listeners of Radio 2 are a different matter.

The blossoming of Radio 2 owes much to the station’s programming chief, Jim Moir, who took over five years ago. Moir’s arrival coincided with the relaunch of Radio 1, whose disenfranchised listeners tuned in to Radio 2.

The station also appeals to a diverse range of ages, from late 20s to late 60s, according to a Radio 2 spokeswoman. It could be difficult for a commercial entity to attract advertisers to such an unstable age range.

But MGM’s Keable does not believe this will be a problem: “While, perhaps, Radio 2 offers a broad audience, that isn’t to say you couldn’t buy into particular strands,” he suggests. This could be one direction for The Lounge.

Radio 2 can be age-specific with some of its programmes, such as Mark Lamarr’s Beginner’s Guide to Reggae, which mainly attracts people in their 30s. But Jonathan Ross’s show on a Saturday morning, which has attracted a raft of younger listeners to the station, is also popular with the over-65s.

Gilda Witte, BBC Radio’s head of marketing and music, says: “Radio 2 has changed a lot. It has a contemporary and diverse music input. The station is aimed at a broad audience – 35-plus people who enjoy music.”

Witte seems to be laid back about the launch of The Lounge. “We don’t have enough information about it,” she says.

Whether the BBC will be worried about it when more information emerges depends largely on how serious MacKenzie is about building a radio empire in the long term, and whether he has deep enough pockets to sustain a protracted attack on the BBC.

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