The radio industry is much quieter after the departure of Kelvin MacKenzie from TalkSport owner The Wireless Group in May, but the magazine world is bracing itself, after MacKenzie upped his stake in troubled publisher Highbury House to almost 20 per cent last week.
There is little doubt among media industry observers that MacKenzie plans to take over as chief executive of the low-profile company, which publishes a number of consumer and niche titles such as men’s magazine Front and specialist title Practical Woodworker.
Despite MacKenzie’s failed attempt to launch football betting magazine SoccerBet, it seems certain he will try to use Highbury’s infrastructure to launch new titles. But his biggest challenge will be to revitalise the ailing business and, while some observers suggest MacKenzie is “simply looking for another roomful of people to shout at”, others believe he is serious about turning himself into a magazine magnate.
Paul Chantler, a radio consultant and former TalkSport programme director, says MacKenzie has wanted to move into magazines for some time. “He has a craftsman’s eye for design and layout,” says Chantler. “When he was in newspapers, he was all about persuading people to turn the page and he will apply that to magazines.”
But Chantler does not believe that MacKenzie is finished with the radio industry. It is understood he is keen to bid for new licences and there are suggestions he may use Highbury House as a way of raising money or even as a vehicle for radio bids. But he also appears to have set up a company called TalkCo, which could perhaps be a radio operator.
Highbury House, which has over 240 magazines and websites, is undergoing a restructure under its new chief executive, Mark Simpson. After an acquisitive phase several years ago, the group overstretched itself and has been forced to dispose of or shut down a number of magazines. It was close to being taken over by rival Future Publishing earlier this year, but the Competition Commission blocked the deal.
If MacKenzie increases his stake to 30 per cent, stock-market rules would force him to make an offer for the whole company. A former colleague of MacKenzie’s says that he would not be satisfied with just a seat on the board.
He says: “He could never be a passive investor or a director: that isn’t his character. He just wants a foot in the door somewhere so he can get in new people and turn things around. It is bad news for the existing management.”
MacKenzie clearly has the funds to make an offer. He received a reported &£6.2m from the Wireless Group deal and, as his former colleague points out, he has a lot of contacts in the private-equity sector.
MacKenzie knew little about radio when he bought into Talk Radio in 1998, but he has proved that he is capable of turning around ailing businesses. The industry will be watching him closely to see if he can pull it off again.