Update 28 January: This is now confirmed as happening, so I’ve added an addendum below.
According to the Telegraph the new station is going to be advertising-free, and paid for out of the marketing budget of The Times.
Stig Abell, the TLS editor had been widely reported to be conducting a major review of Wireless Group’s radio and Talkradio in particular, and Radio Today reported in December that Times Radio was a possibility. Whether or not it would replace Talkradio was a separate question. Interestingly, Abell himself is a Radio 4 contributor, presenting regular episodes of Front Row!
News Corp has become very invested in radio in recent years, since it bought the Wireless Group, and then funded the (re)launch of Virgin Radio with Chris Evans. On top of that, there have been launches (and relaunches) of Virgin Radio sister stations – most recently Virgin Radio Groove – and a sister station to Talksport.
Lots of question come to mind when reading about these kinds of reports.
Calling a station a “rival” to Radio 4 is a good media hook, but its ambitions will surely be more limited.
Of course, any station can be a “rival” of another. A small podcast that overlaps in coverage with a mighty radio station, could conceivably be a “rival” for that audience.
Radio 4 costs a lot of money – it’s ‘content’ budget in 2018/19 was £96m. The reason for that is that it does a lot, making news, drama, comedy, arts, science and other programming. No commercial competitor could hope to make that range.
The Times does have an excellent reporter network and stable of columnists, and they can make use of those, but even if every correspondent and reporter was used, they’d still never cover the range of Radio 4.
The only group that ever had a hope of competing was the putative Channel 4 DAB radio bid. They eventually pulled out due to needing to make cost savings.
I’ve no idea how big The Times’ marketing budget is, but if they’re willing to even spend 10% of Radio 4’s budget on this (on programming at least), I’d be astonished.
There’s an interesting intersection between radio and podcasts at the moment, and you would think that any new offering would combine the two somehow. Only today we’ve learned that Times Newspapers has signed up Manveen Rana from the BBC to make their forthcoming daily news podcast – The Stories of Our Times. The podcast will be released at 6am each day, so putting it on the radio at the same time seems a reasonable thing to do. The question is how you fill the other 23.5 hours of output a day.
Times Newspapers (and News UK) has a growing portfolio of podcasts of course, so with a suitable number of opportunities to hear them (or “repeats” depending on how you look at that), you can fill a good proportion of the output. Throw in some podcasts from Talksport and Harper Collins, and you have a lot to work with. With the publishing arm of News Corp, they could perhaps even include audiobooks on the station. Or perhaps you simply follow the LBC News model, and essentially run podcasts on a loop, expecting listeners to only spend a short amount of time with the station before tuning out?
Is this a replacement for Talkradio?
Talkradio has struggled a bit in the ratings, and I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t performed as well as the Wireless Group might have hoped it would. It reaches 409,000 people, who listen for 2.2m hours a week. By way of an unfair comparison, Radio 4 reaches more than 10m listeners and has more than 100m hours. Yet Talkradio must be a reasonably expensive operation to run. You need at least one presenter and one phone operator at any given time (that’s 50% more people than most commercial music stations are using outside of key breakfast shows), and you’re reliant on good callers. You also need good producers to book a lot of guests. You make some savings on music rights, but speech radio is by no means cheap.
Obviously LBC fills this space admirably, with 2.6m listening across its network for 25m hours. And you might think that there’s room for more than one station offering this kind of listening. It’s not completely obvious why Talkradio hasn’t resonated more with an audience.
So is Wireless Group getting ready to rebrand? Perhaps.
Then there are other oddities, like the recent news that Eamonn Holmes was leaving the station (fair enough) but that Sun executive editor Dan Wootton would be replacing him on Drive. Is a Sun staffer the right person for a Times branded station? (We’ll leave aside the question about how an editor of a newspaper can be tied up in a radio studio just around the time that the paper is preparing to go to press. And yes, I realise editorial meetings tend to be in the morning.)
Or is Wootton essentially “filling in” until they get the rebrand done? Perhaps they didn’t want to renew Holmes’ contract for another year, not feeling that he would be the right fit on a new Times branded station?
While it may not look like it, there’s potentially room for another DAB+ service on the SDL multiplex – so it wouldn’t necessarily need to be a direct replacement for Talkradio. But then, there’s the question of studio space, and what requirements a Times Radio service might need.
We’ll no doubt find out in due course more about Times Radio. The ad-free model is an interesting one, and considering the running costs of the station as simply marketing spend is quite smart. If they get the right guests and manage to make half as much buzz about those guests as LBC manages, then that makes that marketing budget work even better.
Just doing a speech radio station does not really mean it’s a Radio 4 “rival” and we’ll need to see what kind of programming commitments they make before we can qualify those statements – nothing has been officially announced after all! Speech radio is not cheap, and good speech radio isn’t either.
With newspaper groups – and publishers – producing more podcasts, the ability to use that audio in more than one place is an interesting idea. Radio audiences are skewing older, while podcast audiences skew younger. Making your audio work in both areas gives you good bang for your buck.
The Wireless Group must be under some pressure to recoup costs incurred in some of their radio properties. New RAJAR figures are due in just over a week’s time, and it will become more obvious whether or not Virgin Radio‘s audience has stalled and whether or not there’s more growth showing for Talkradio. A rebrand of the latter answers some of those problems.
What will be interesting to find out is what a Times Radio would expect to sound like to an audience. Who would appear on it? Do they convey the values of The Times? It will definitely be interesting to find out!
Update – 28 January
Well that didn’t take long. The new station Times Radio (NB. the above image was mocked up by me) is now official, and it’s not replacing Talkradio.
Editor of The Times, John Witherow, said: “Times Radio will provide provocative, well-informed, entertaining and useful discussion covering the key stories of the day, and informing the national conversation. Times Radio, infused with our world-class journalism, will be the perfect complement to our print and online offer.”
It’ll be interesting to see what the schedule looks like, and how it conveys the brand values of The Times and The Sunday Times. I wouldn’t bet against it re-purposing many of the podcasts that the newspaper group is already making and planning to launch. And they will need to differentiate themselves from Talkradio. If we assume that’s the more tabloid end of the spectrum, then Times Radio will need to be more broadsheet.
The other thing to note is the funding model. This doesn’t sound as though it’s going to be purely designed as a marketing opportunity – spending money here rather than on outdoor posters or giving away newspapers in hotels and airports. It’ll partly be that of course, but it also sounds like they looking to sign up third party sponsors for some of their strands.
The Wireless Group have done this with Chris Evans which doesn’t have advertising, but it has never been clear how sustainable the model is.
Finally while SDL looks a little full, I assume there’s room for a mono speech DAB+ service here.
I look forward to hearing more, and will definitely be tuning in to listen!