Ian Burrell: The News Business

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

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Nick Ferrari on how the ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit is taking his LBC show to the masses

Having added a quarter of a million listeners to his show in the past year, breakfast presenter Nick Ferrari says Brexit has delivered a “perfect storm” for his brand of speech radio.

Disparagingly referred to as a “shock jock” earlier in his career, Ferrari is a growing challenge to the talk-based stations at the BBC, which is obliged by its charter to take a more dispassionate approach to the seismic upheaval of the UK’s separation from the European Union.

“Brexit has unleashed something in this country that will never, ever go back,” he says. “There’s an extraordinary anger.”

Ferrari has been presenting on commercial station LBC since 2001, when it was a London-only service. LBC went national in 2014 and in the past year, as the government has tried and so far failed to deliver Brexit, he has increased his audience by 240,000 to 1.4 million, with 220,000 of those new listeners coming from outside London.

“It’s a unique offering, people outside of London have never had this before and that’s why they are catching onto it,” he says. “If we continue to get it right – and we are still in the foothills – this will continue to grow."

Ferrari has forced himself onto Westminster’s schedule for big political interviews. Boris Johnson, an old associate, chose the show over higher-profile platforms as part of his media strategy in winning support from Conservative Party members this summer. A previous excruciating interview with Diane Abbott, in which Ferrari exposed the then shadow home secretary for claiming she could employ 10,000 police officers for £80m, won him a Journalist of the Year accolade and was named Interview of the Year in radio industry awards.

No doubt partly as a consequence, he now struggles to speak to the Labour Party. “I think the most senior I go at the moment is Tom Watson. I have had John McDonnell on a couple of times but Jeremy Corbyn declines to speak to me, as does the London mayor, Sadiq Khan,” he says. “My listeners can’t ask questions of the man who would be prime minister of this country, and the man who is mayor of London seems unable to talk to me and my listeners. I find it questionable.”

Labour’s communications chiefs might be wary of a presenter who is quick to attack political correctness and writes for the Sunday Express and the Daily Star. Ferrari enjoyed a long career under Rupert Murdoch; as a journalist at The Sun, as launch editor of Sky News in 1989 and as a New York-based executive of Fox TV (he is also a former deputy editor of The Daily Mirror).

But ignoring a broadcaster with such a popular touch is a risky policy. Not least because he hosts a flagship show on a speech station that is part of the UK’s biggest commercial radio group, Global. When the Nick Ferrari Show pitches for political interviews, it quotes Global’s 25.5 million reach. “You won’t just be on LBC – the powerful message you want to send about the environment, the budget, or how you would run the country will get clipped on Heart and Classic and Capital, and you will have access to 25.5 million people. That’s a pretty powerful argument.”

Brexit has given Ferrari an unprecedented opportunity. “There has never been a better time to be doing speech radio because it’s effectively a perfect storm,” he says. Every single thing that touches the lives of our listeners – their financial security, general security, health and well-being – is in play, for better or for worse, as a result of Brexit. That’s why they are engaging.”

He has a responsibility, he accepts, to temper some of the language of his callers. “You do have to reflect the passion because that’s the way people feel but I try and rein in really damaging or rather insulting language on either side, such as someone is a traitor or someone should be hanged. I don’t permit language like that.”

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In his coverage of Brexit, he sits in an LBC schedule alongside such diverse colleagues as Brexit critic James O’Brien, Labour MP David Lammy and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. Ferrari has described himself as “a reluctant Brexiteer”, citing cultural prejudices in eastern EU member states and weak local economies.

But he sees his role as a moderator, presenting a counter-argument to callers who take entrenched positions. “No longer is there a place I would suggest for just continual ranting for one side or the other.”

That said, LBC’s caller-based format allows listeners to vent their spleens and sets it aside from less-interactive media platforms. "Without that it would be like McDonald’s without the beef burgers,” says Ferrari. “It’s totally our business - what people are saying and thinking is what we are about.”

He acknowledges that popular call-in formats exist on UK regional radio but says they lack “the sort of clout” that listeners can experience with his show. “They certainly don’t deliver the national perspective, so that it doesn’t matter whether you are sitting in your front room in Sutton or Sunderland, you are suddenly tuned in to the whole of the country. That’s what’s working.”

Ferrari’s total listening hours have increased by 18% in the past year to 4.8m hours.

He is tapping into audiences that want something different from the more sotto voce offering of BBC Radio 4’s Today (which has an audience of 7 million). LBC’s most direct competitor, Radio 5 Live, enjoyed a revival in its last quarterly audience figures but has lost 2 million listeners since 2010. All BBC platforms are having to walk a Brexit tightrope under intense scrutiny from both sides.

The LBC host says that he does not target other stations for listeners, having realised the futility of such a strategy during his time as a newspaper executive. “I don’t care if it’s Today or Radio Towcester,” he says of the source of his new audience. “I really couldn’t give a flying fig – all I need to do is make sure that the product that we do is right, that it’s relevant and people tune in.”

For several years, when Johnson was mayor of London, he would appear on Ferrari’s show for a segment called ‘Ask Boris’. The pair have a long relationship. “I have had a cycle race around Leicester Square with him, he’s pushed me off the back deck of a bus, he’s thrown a bucket of ice water over me, we have flown over London in a helicopter and done broadcasts from New York at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Ferrari – who was once mooted as a Tory candidate for London mayor himself – admires Johnson’s leadership qualities and has expressed those sympathies in print. “I think at the current time he might just be the bloke who has got the sort of élan who could carry off the most difficult of difficult briefs, so I hope he does it and I find him hugely entertaining, yes.”

Can he be trusted to give the prime minister as hard a time as he gives others? “I would point the courts to the 26 times I asked him about the provenance of the picture of him with his partner,” he says, referring to his persistent questioning of Johnson in June over the apparently staged photos of the politician in rural bliss with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, following news of a reported bust-up at her London flat.

The Ferrari media brand stretches across platforms to his newspaper columns and to Sky News show The Pledge, where he is a regular panelist. Even at LBC he works in video as well as audio, with filmed clips of key soundbites being crucial to the show’s impact.

If the Nick Ferrari Show only relied on stories from the day’s newspapers it would “probably have only 50-60% of its current content”. He has to reflect social media and to be present on it. “It’s of growing importance because otherwise I would be The Daily Sketch and that’s a newspaper that sadly is no longer with us,” he says. “If you don’t continue to invent, if you don’t look at how people get their news and join in the news, you will wither on the vine.”

And, of course, he chooses his video clips himself. “I have say on absolutely everything – what goes in the show, what doesn’t go in the show and what comes out of the show,” he says. “This is at best a benevolent dictatorship and sometimes not that benevolent.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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