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Emap - City Talk Radio launch

Building audiences

While Emap boasts of City Talk being worth a potential £20m in revenue, commercial radio and speech-based stations have been difficult bedfellows because of one big problem, the BBC and its domination of the talk radio market. It’s an old enemy Peter Gillespie, station director at Edinburgh’s Talk107, knows all too well.

Talk107 launched in February 2006 with the same fanfare and high spirits as City Talk, aiming to plug the gap in the commercial market for a regionalised talk approach. In its formative months, the station struggled to gain awareness, with uncompromising RAJAR figures suggesting it was attracting less than one per cent of its potential audience. Gillespie, who recently announced his intentions to leave the station at the end of the year, says it has had to learn lessons from its slow start, but believes City Talk can too.

“It’s such a unique challenge,” Gillespie says, noting the huge gap in time between the nearest talk radio equivalent, London’s LBC which launched in 1973, and Talk107’s launch last year. In that time, Talk Radio attempted to break the BBC’s stranglehold on the market on a national scale in 1995, but it succumbed, re-branding, and re-positioning its agenda, as TalkSport in 2000. “There’s just no rulebook, so you learn lessons all the time,” Gillespie adds.

City Talk’s Sarath says the talk radio model for the new station bases itself on the success of its contemporaries in America and Australia, where talk radio is dominant. “The fundamental difference with other English-speaking countries in the talk radio market, though” says Gillespie, “is the BBC.”

In Scotland, it’s been Talk107’s Achilles heel, where Radio Scotland and Five Live boss the audience shares.

“The BBC snaffles up all the best talent,” says Alison Black, of media buyers Feather Brooksbank, which formed part of Talk107’s launch arsenal. “City Talk seems to have a good line-up though, which is crucial in raising awareness and profile. The schedule is something Talk107 has had to adapt and develop in tune with its listeners.”

Strong Football Feel

City Talk’s line-up includes a mix of celebrities and serious journalists, including Margi Clarke and Dean Sullivan (Brookside’s Jimmy Corkhill) from the acting world, and the Liverpool Daily Post’s Larry Neild. The line-up also reflects an emphasis on sport, with former Liverpool striker John Aldridge, and Ian St John reprising his role in punditry, giving it a strong football-feel.

City Talk will simulcast live Liverpool and Everton football matches with sister-station Radio City for its first year, before the coverage moves exclusively to the new station. “It makes sense,” says Gillespie, “it’s a huge issue in that geographical market and football debate is something that has worked for us.”

In terms of the line-up as a whole, Gillespie believes City Talk is on the right track with its mix of local names, but urges caution. “You’ve got to pick the personalities very carefully. Often celebrity personalities just don’t translate to radio, so you’ve got to constantly be looking to evolve and develop your line-up to engage your audience.”

While making the right personalities work and getting listeners on board is a challenge, advertisers, according to Gillespie, are easier to charm. “They love it because it’s an entirely unique proposition for them,” he says. It’s a sentiment echoed by Mike Sarath, who says that while he hopes the station will attract some of the same advertisers from Liverpool sister stations Radio City and Magic, he wants new clients too.

“There are a number of blue chip companies within our airwave reach who we want to get on board to sponsor our set debates,” says Sarath.

Sponsored podcasts and listen-again debate shows online also present advertisers with ways of getting their pound of flesh out of investment in the station, according to Sarath. A route which takes advantage of not having the rights imposed on global broadcasting online as music stations. Sarath also hopes this online presence will help the station transcend beyond its licence cover of 1.5million adults in Merseyside and its nearby surrounds, identifying “a huge pool of ex-pat Liverpudlians” to target.

A Better Setting

An exact start date is yet to be confirmed for the station, but a late January, early February launch has been pencilled in. “The countdown is well and truly on,” asserts Sarath, as The Drum is either imagining the sound of manual work in the background or can actually hear the final nuts and bolts of City Talk’s brand new studio being fitted into place.

It’s not all metaphorical though, the station’s Radio City Tower studios really are just coming together. Being part of that Emap stable will give the station an instant boost, according to Peter Gillespie. “We started from scratch, with nobody knowing who we were. Emap’s other two Liverpool stations will give it a push, and they don’t have the overheads of needing to purpose build a base, like we did.”

Sarath talks excitedly about tapping into the conscious of the Liverpool public, and the station’s location might give it another advantage that Talk107 lacked, says Alison Black. “Edinburgh is not so chatty, not so indigenous, so people aren’t as quick to speak up about the place because it isn’t their city. Liverpool might be a better setting because you’ve potentially got a bigger local population who really care. If Talk107 had launched in Glasgow say, it might have fared better.”

When the station does launch in the New Year, it will coincide with Liverpool’s much lauded Capital of Culture ’08 status coming into effect. With all eyes on the city, Gillespie says he’ll be listening in to see how it fares.

Still very much in its infancy, if regional talk radio does establish itself commercially, don’t be surprised if the chattering classes and local celebs have their own version of City Talk to vent spleen on soon.

Featured by The Drum

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