Sunday 27 January 2013

Why is UK commercial talk radio a challenge?

"Sally's on from Croydon. Hello, Sally. "

The history of UK talk/speech radio is an interesting one, certainly for those in radio overseas, puzzling how the format has not been such a huge hit in Blighty as it is in the US, with its large, attentive and often more up-market audiences. 

The first commercial station proper, LBC in London, was an all-talk format.  Launched in the tough industrial climate of the 70s, with an over-eager regulator and government vacillating on commercial radio legislation, it was always to be a tough job. Not least, because for 50 years, the BBC had owned the talk and news territory. (Some fun history here).

Revenues were always challenging for the format too, with its audience falling outside the 25-44 UK commercial heartland, and well above the age of 22 year old skater-Ben, hot-desking at his London media-buying agency. The talk audiences were also, apart from TalkSPORT, only in certain markets (at most, Liverpool, Edinburgh, London), which is an ill-suited framework for a national client-brand seeking to use radio to market powerfully. 

We can maybe justifiably point a finger here at the regulators: had they been bolder in licence rounds in, for example, Manchester and Birmingham, UK commercial talk format scale could have helped itself along.  Whilst I am sure GMG was delighted to win the Rock-Talk licence in Manchester, even those who assembled the application concede it was a bizarre licensing decision.  The regulator felt it could address eminently defensible cases for both formats by combining them on-air. Madness. The BBC of course, benefited from years of heritage generating a hugely loyal audience; reception universality; more money to spend; and guaranteed, consistent income. And no problem with the age of that audience either. 

Do the UK's regulations on partiality impact on audience performance? I'd argue probably not.  The UK is accustomed to a more measured approach rather than 'shock-jockery'; and the existing rules, inversely, do allow 'due prominence' of views. This permits a stance which can be sufficiently antagonistic for British ears.  It certainly means the commercial sector can, at least, avoid the 'you might think this; or you might think that' approach, in favour of livelier conversation.

Many times in recent years, a 'competitor to Radio 4' has been mooted; and seized eagerly in glib press headlines.  Channel 4 had bold plans which they nurtured persistently for some years. Those of us in the sector at the time, not least those of us who were talked to about jobs there, walked away from interviews thinking 'if they offered me a job, I'd be a fool to take it'.  We could have saved them a lot of money.  If a listener wants Radio 4, they can have it. If you seek to do what it does, you will fail.  It is the World's finest radio station; and I would campaign on the streets personally with a fluorescent placard were there any risk to this rare, beautiful, beautiful, animal. 

What commercial radio must do if talk is to succeed is to do it simply and differently. Entertaining, intelligent communicators hosting strip shows, aided by a small number of the very best producers.  TalkSPORT has succeeded because it is a definite focussed offering.   LBC is again now succeeding, after years of neglect because it hires the right guys on-air, choosing its topics with the care of a skilled music programmer. Nick Ferrari is, quite simply, a leader in his field in the UK; as is James Whale. James O'Brien is now honing a distinctive act to perfection; and there are others on the roster who also excel. 

Doing great talk radio is not just a skill, it is an art. BBC Local Radio is at its best when it's not pretending to be a music station or Radio 4; but when it has entertaining communicators who know their patch and know their audience, their concerns and their loves. 

Great talk radio (as opposed to speech radio), recognises the value of the listeners' contributions. If you can get the right callers on-air and speak to them in the right way, you create the most brilliant truly un-substitutable radio.  With guests, it is as much about their personalities as about what they are talking about.  Like comedy, great talk radio sounds easy, but it is tough. The words you choose and the order you put them in are the difference between the next great caller calling; or not bothering.  And the difference between someone continuing to listen - or not.  It is what you say and what you don't.  Seizing the moment.  The instinct for recognising when a caller has something unsaid to say.  Like in real life, you need to be able to hop from laughter to tears in seconds without it sounding like a car crash; and be able to generate either whenever you want to.  It's about great stories; great conversation.  One must understand which of the topics the media identifies as 'news' are  really news; often feeding the heart as much as the mind.  In short, it's about always being aware of the real reason why people have chosen to listen. What is the real motivator?

It's not good enough to put some idiot behind the glass.  Great production is hugely important: to get the reluctant caller on air; to suggest the most powerful question; to help shape the angle of a topic; and never, ever, to get things wrong.  Although it's likely not on their job description, they also need to make the presenter feel a million dollars.  A producer who plays with their phone when the board is quiet whilst the presenter is in mid monologue needs to go find a job somewhere else.  Look up.  Appreciate.  The mood the presenter is in affects a show within seconds. They need to be supported, happy, confident and appreciated. 

Wisely, neither LBC nor TalkSPORT is pretending to be Radio 4 or 5 Live. As others have sadly found, alas too late, doing talk commercially without the revenues to pay the most gifted communicators means you will be asking the regulator if you can play some songs before long. And that's not really the answer either.

Talk radio is the purest form of radio. Microphone. Transmitter.  Listener.   It is one of the reasons why irreplaceable radio will, yet again, outlive its  seeming competitors. 

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  1. "If a listener wants Radio 4, they can have it. If you seek to do what it does, you will fail." Reminds me of the time the Australians were running LBC - we had a big meeting at The Press Centre - they told us that they were going to fool the Radio 4 audience into thinking that LBC was Radio 4 - their secret weapon? To put the pips on the top of the hour on LBC!


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