Opportunity knocks for commercial talk stations

Of the 352 commercial radio stations operating in the UK, just four of them are speech formats. Elsewhere in the world, a myriad of commercial talk stations thrive in markets such as Sydney, Cape Town and Chicago, but interest in the concept in the UK has so far been limited. The only stations operate in London, Edinburgh and, most recently, Liverpool, alongside national commercial station TalkSport.

The BBC is the key reason for the lack of interest in talk stations in the UK, say industry experts. It dominates the market with Radio 4 and BBC Radio Five Live and, as a result, few commercial operators have been tempted to launch into the sector.

Natalie Schwarz, the chairman of digital radio consortium 4Digital, which will launch Channel 4 Radio and Talk Radio later this year, says that the imbalance in the national analogue distribution between the BBC and commercial radio, and the high cost of content production, means it is “hardly surprising” that so few talk stations exist.

Scott Taunton, chief executive of UTV Radio, which owns TalkSport, adds: “The problem with the UK market is that too many operators have put it in the ‘too hard’ box. Too many would-be operators look jealously at Radio 4 and try to compete with it. Commercial radio competing with the BBC is suicide.”

American approach

That is why Liverpool speech station City Talk 105.9 has taken a more American approach to programming, says station director Richard Maddock. “We have always had a US version of talk radio in our head for this station.”

This, he explains, is a mix of personality and opinion rather than a news-led agenda, a sports focus or being driven by phone-ins. The schedule features a mix of famous Liverpudlians, including former Brookside star Dean Sullivan, established local broadcasters such as Pete Price and national TV personalities such as Trisha Goddard.

As a commercial proposition, City Talk, which is owned by Bauer Radio – formerly EMAP – is working with brands on “innovative commercial packages” as opposed to simply seeking spot advertising. Maddock points out, however, this is due to Bauer also owning Liverpool sister station Radio City. “The commercial part of the station is the biggest challenge because of Radio City – everything we do has to be incremental,” he says.

The commercial element of speech stations is the biggest challenge across the board, according to radio buyers. Jonathan Barrowman, head of radio at Initiative, says: “There is a lack of advertiser demand for commercial speech radio considering commercial operators have to spend quite a lot to make it.”

But that said, the radio audience figures for the last quarter of 2007 told a positive story for talk radio formats. TalkSport reported a record 2% share, up from 1.8% year-on-year and quarter-on-quarter, and now has a weekly reach of 2.5 million listeners. Meanwhile, London speech station LBC 97.3 now has a 3.8% share of its market with a weekly reach of 642,000 – again up on quarter and year – and UTV-owned Edinburgh station Talk 107, reporting half-yearly figures, increased its share of its market from 0.7% in the last quarter of 2006 to 1.2% for the latest quarter.

Market share

With the launch of Channel 4 Radio and Talk Radio due later in the year, and this quarter’s strong Rajar results, speech radio is expected to boost its share of the UK market.

Howard Bareham, head of radio at MindShare, says: “Commercially, talk radio is in its infancy but the more different formats you have, the more ways there are for advertisers to get involved.”

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