Teamtalk 252 gets off to a lame start

Teamtalk 252 may be on the right track with its ‘advertiser-led’ programming, but it will struggle to keep up with rivals 5 Live and TalkSport

Tune in your radio to long-wave 252 and you can listen to the nation’s new sports radio station. That is unless you live in London or the South-east.

Teamtalk 252, the station that replaces Atlantic 252, was launched this week, with Paul Gascoigne delivering the kick-off. Billed as a national station, it has a slight problem in that its transmitter range does not stretch as far as London and the South-east because it is stationed in Ireland.

But that could be just the start of the station’s troubles. Teamtalk 252 has no plans to buy live rights to major sports events, but it has made a commitment to transmit sports programming “100 per cent” of the time. That’s a big undertaking considering Teamtalk’s two rivals. TalkSport and BBC Five Live devote only 54 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively, of their output to sport.

One thing will play in Teamtalk’s favour – owner Teamtalk Media Group supplies sports news content through various media for third parties such as Ladbrokes. So the station will have the support of a team of journalists who have a track record in providing a stream of sports news.

In order to fill air time, the station says it will explore sport in more depth, reporting the results of lower league football matches and featuring minority sports. On Saturdays, for example, the station will transmit live match coverage of the British Basketball League, which is allowing Teamtalk to cover the game free to boost the sport’s profile. Mixed in with sports coverage will be sport phone-in shows featuring sports guests.

The station may have its programming in hand, but whether this strategy will appeal to advertisers is less certain, and it is crucial that Teamtalk attracts them if it is to meet a sponsorship and advertising revenue target of £5m by 2004. Neither is Teamtalk Media in a strong position to absorb any profit failings the station may have – it posted losses of £7.6m in its third quarter to December 2001, compared with £3.8m losses for the same period in 2000.

Teamtalk also faces the challenge of performing a radical change of direction from its previous guise as Atlantic 252. When Teamtalk Media bought 252 for £2m last year, the station had a strong following among young women, who accounted for 60 per cent of its audience. Teamtalk 252’s main target will be young men.

The station says it is adopting a flexible approach to programming and plans to work with advertisers and media buyers to develop programmes which fit in with their sponsorship plans.

MediaCom radio director Mike Hope-Milne, who was initially sceptical about the station but has since warmed to it, says: “Advertisers increasingly want to build programming around themselves, so if Teamtalk can adapt to that it has a chance. But it must be careful it doesn’t lose sight of its audience’s needs.”

Teamtalk Media chairman Bill Wilson acknowledges that the quality of long-wave is a hurdle, but believes Teamtalk 252 will work because of the variety of sport covered. “Terry Wogan has a niche radio audience, but it’s still a huge number of people. With our schedule we will cover the main sports, such as football, during the day, but if you want to listen to basketball in the evening you can.”

But Carat broadcast director Mark Jarvis is not convinced. “I don’t understand why there is a third broadcaster moving into this area when it is already serviced. The BBC has a good product and TalkSport is working hard to develop its business. There will be some advertisers who will be interested in Teamtalk 252 but they will be in the minority.”

Wilson argues there is a need for a new station. He says: “We sit in a niche which is somewhere between Five Live, which tends to be high brow and takes its audience for granted, presuming they know everything about sports, and TalkSport, which is more of a chat station.”

But the competition is tough. TalkSport, which was rebranded from TalkRadio in January 2000, is now well-established, with an audience of 2.4 million, up 11.7 per cent quarter on quarter according to Rajar figures. But Five Live is Teamtalk’s biggest rival – the station attracts 6.2 million listeners and has rights to the FIFA World Cup. No commercial radio station bid for the rights.

The ailing Atlantic 252 had an audience of 1 million according to the last Rajar report. Teamtalk is aiming to attract 150,000 listeners in its first quarter, rising to between 750,000 and 1 million by the end of the year.

Teamtalk Media is investing £8m in Teamtalk over the next two years, but this pales to insignificance compared with the £30m the BBC invested in Five Live last year, excluding undisclosed sports rights. Purchasing live rights is therefore out of the question, although Wilson says this is a matter of principle, not just financial expediency.

“Rights are hugely expensive and major sports have an inflated idea of their product,” he says.

A press and bus-side campaign for Teamtalk 252, created by Junction, will run in April. Listeners will be targeted through Teamtalk Media’s sports website – teamtalk.com – which it says attracts 3 million users per month, and its sports information text messaging service, with a claimed 120,000 users.

The opposition is in fighting mood. Five Live controller Bob Shellan says: “In the two years since the advent of TalkSport we have proven that we are competitive. We have got the most impressive portfolio of sports rights and aim to stay in that position.” A spokesman for TalkSport says: “Teamtalk 252 is a commercial competitor and we are taking it seriously.”

It seems that when the FIFA World Cup kicks off in a few months’ time, the level of competitiveness on the pitch will be matched by that over the airwaves. Teamtalk 252’s flexible approach to programming may be commercially sensible, but if the station tries to please too many people it may end up pleasing no one.

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