Lost For Words?

It’s good to talk, as BT spent several years telling us. Yet when it comes to radio in the UK, the commercial radio sector really seems to struggle to survive. So perhaps it’s time to turn the conversation towards whether there really is a market for speech radio beyond the BBC.

For the past couple of years, UTV Radio, the owners of talkSport, have spent some considerable time telling the BBC what its remit should and should not be. In particular, it’s gripes have been aimed at Five Live; firstly over the way it negotiates sports rights, and secondly over the steady shift towards entertainment and talk along with hard news.
From next month, talkSport's format will reflect its name 24/7
UTV won a couple of partial victories, not least in the BBC Trust’s recent review of Five Live’s Service Licence, where the station was told to shift its focus back towards news. Therefore it was somewhat surprising last week to learn that talkSport was ditching all of its non sports content. Its Programme director, Moz Dee, is quite clear about the station’s future direction :
Turning talkSPORT into a 24 hour sports station is an exciting yet natural next step for us. We want to change expectations of overnight radio, focusing on up to the minute sport news and information from around the globe. It gives us a great opportunity to work with an international network of sports reporters covering everything from American sports to British teams and athletes competing on the other side of the world, and makes us the only UK station focused on sport all of the time
Obviously there’s a bottom line here. The commercial reality appears to be that talk shows just don’t pull in the revenue. With the exception of London’s LBC, no talk heavy commercial station in the UK’s recent history has survived. Edinburgh’s Talk 107 went bust, Liverpool’s City Talk has dropped much of its live off peak programming. Maybe the time has come from a totally different approach.
Can British Public Radio break the speech sound barrier?

Enter British Public Radio, a new venture founded by three big names from commercial radio : Matt Hopper, Tim Nice and Ken Rayner. Unless you live in the south of England, it’s unlikely that any of those names will mean much to the average listener, but in terms of brodcast experience, their CVs are vast. It’s name is deliberately cloned from National Public Radio in the United States. BPR’s website claims that there’s a growing appetite for alternative speech content .

This initiative was born out of a knowledge that there are a lot of good speech radio programmes which are either never made, or never heard in Britain; a belief that there is a vast untapped market for speech radio which is more accessible than that currently available in the UK; and a desire to bring the two together. British Public Radio is now developing the model for a truly up-to-date portal combining the best of social media and mobile with more conventional radio practices, to create a widely available broadcast platform.

And on the face if it, it seems to be an admirable venture. But any parallels between British Public Radio and NPR seem to end at the name. in the States, NPR’s content is funded entirely by financial donors. It also has the advantage of a huge network of FM and AM radio stations willing to broadcast it. Even the smallest town or city has an NPR channel somewhere on the dial.

BPR’s problem is that it has neither the broadcast infrastructure nor the philanthropic generosity to pay for itself long term. BPR’s initial hope is to tap into the youth market via podcasts. But who will make these and how they will be funded is less than clear.

The Eagle hatches a new service in Surrey.

So maybe the answer will ultimately lie within the community radio sector. Or, in the case of Surrey, a partnership between commercial radio and community organisations. That’s the aim of Eagle Extra – being launched by the UKRD Group. The AM and Online station will be an extension to its existing Eagle FM brand. And its submission to OFCOM promises something different

A local music and information station for adults. Daytime music will feature melodic hits from the last five decades. Community programming will feature in the evenings and weekends. Evenings and weekends may also include specialist music shows.

Perhaps not entirely speech. But with pledges of support from local councils, schools and colleges, the scope is there for non-music content.

Both BPR and Eagle Extra will need a lot of luck if they are to survive. And sufficient awareness of their existence. The danger is that two extremely worthy ventures will simply get lost in the multi media world. Eagle will have something of a headstart with cross promotion on its FM service. But whether we’ll still be talking seriously about talk radio a decade from now is far from clear.

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