An ambitious newcomer

‘Does Mr Murdoch’s Times Radio have a chance? Commercial radio has not posed a significant threat to the BBC’s dominance in this sector since the corporation’s monopoly control of the airwaves ended in 1973’

Tim Luckhurst

Times Radio, which launched on 29 June, is a unique addition to British broadcast journalism. Quality speech radio matters in the UK. Unlike our friends in the United States, thinking Britons have never been persuaded by breakfast television. We tend to regard it, in Edward R. Murrow’s words, as “just wires and lights in a box”. Sophisticated conversation about national affairs takes place on radio and, since it emerged from the BBC Home Service in 1967, that has invariably meant BBC Radio 4. So, the challenge facing this new national digital station is to steal listeners from Auntie Beeb and, crucially, from Radio 4’s flagship breakfast show, Today, which attracts a sector-leading weekly audience of 7.1 million listeners.

Does Mr Murdoch’s ambitious newcomer have a chance? Commercial radio has not posed a significant threat to the BBC’s dominance in this sector since the corporation’s monopoly control of the airwaves ended in 1973. Recently, however, less precisely targeted competition from Global Radio’s LBC has shown that sharp presenters, such as Nick Ferrari in the breakfast slot, have the ability to chip away at Today’s dominance. Later in the day, LBC’s Eddie Mair, a former presenter of Radio 4’s PM, hosts an equally ambitious drivetime show. Can Times Radio, which is aimed straight at Radio 4’s jugular, perform better? On launch day, the omens sounded good.

On first listening, it is immediately apparent that the new 24-hour station is firmly rooted in the editorial tradition and resources of Britain’s most prestigious national newspaper. It has access to Times reporters, columnists and correspondents, several of whom present shows. Times Radio also has its parent’s newsgathering network of journalists in Britain and around the world. This is not on the same scale as the BBC’s global resources. But a BBC correspondent must serve five network radio channels, BBC Television News and BBC News Online. Times journalists are dedicated to their newspaper and its bespoke radio station and provide a rich supply of original material.

And Times Radio has an advantage that no previous commercial station has dared attempt: it runs no advertisements to interrupt its programmes. Revenue comes from sponsorship and sale of subscriptions to The Times and Sunday Times. So, this is not quite David versus Goliath. And there is a crucial ideological dimension that further enriches Times Radio’s appeal.

Bound though it is by obligations to impartiality, BBC Radio 4 struggles to escape the impression that it errs on the “woke” side of the culture war. As a young journalist on the Today Programme, I learned that though I enjoyed the passionately progressive Guardian, our listeners preferred a range of newspapers including the conservative Daily Mail. If this lesson is still taught, too few at Radio 4 are paying attention. BBC radio’s flagship news and current affairs programmes frequently sound fixated by identity politics.

Times Radio offers a less tribal tone. John Pienaar, one of several impressive recruits from the BBC, explains. “We want to hear ideas. We want to give people time and space to explain the thinking behind what they believe.” Pienaar, until February the BBC’s Deputy Political Editor, presents the new station’s drivetime show.

Aasmah Mir, another high-profile recruit from the BBC who, alongside Times Radio’s launch director Stig Abell, presents the crucial breakfast show, explains: “Listeners want to be informed. They want to hear different perspectives. They do not want to hear people just kick ten bells out of each other.” The accomplished veteran of Radio 4’s Saturday Live adds that Times Radio exudes “warmth, authority and flexibility”. Mir and Abell, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and now executive editor at Wireless Group, take the battle straight to Today’s doorstep on weekday mornings between 6am and 10am.

Gloria de Piero, a former Labour MP, co-presents the Sunday morning political show, G&T, with Tom Newton Dunn, former political editor of the Sun. De Piero explains that Times Radio should appeal to voters in “Red Wall” parliamentary constituencies of the type she once represented in Parliament. These are previously Labour held seats in which: “Those voters who changed their votes for the first time will decide the future of this country.” Such voters abandoned Labour in part because they concluded that it represented the opinions of middle class, metropolitan progressives rather better than it represented them.

So, like its parent newspapers, Times Radio will give airtime to the broadest available range of incisive intellects. Subscribers already admire the ideological spectrum spanned by a stable of columnists that includes: David Aaronovitch; Gerard Baker; Philip Collins; John Kampfner; Rod Liddle; Libby Purves; Janice Turner; and Jenni Russell. Newcomers from the BBC should find it refreshing.

For Stig Abell, including articulate progressives, acerbic critics of progressive orthodoxy and perspectives in between, is a defining purpose. Times Radio is designed to attract listeners who find BBC Radio 4 culturally monotheistic. Tom Newton Dunn says: “There is a gap in the listening market for something that isn’t polarised.” On launch day, that gap persuaded the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to submit to interview by Abell and Mir, live in the peak breakfast time listening slot at 8:10am. Mr Johnson has made no secret of his enmity for the Today programme. If Times Radio can attract a substantial audience, the Prime Minister will have a new way to address thinking Britain.

Abell is clear about the ambition. “Our aim is to embody the best principles of the newspaper, to host opinions from a broad range of sources. Times Radio will avoid the polarised discourse that dominates online. It will not be boringly contrarian.” He is determined to demonstrate that diversity has more than one meaning. Times Radio, he says, will always strive to challenge orthodoxy of Left or Right with “an intelligent, different opinion”.

Eschewing cultural polarisation will not be sufficient to make Times Radio a success. For that, it must rely on great presenters and a range of programming that takes advantage of the Times’s first-class coverage of foreign affairs, business and sport as well as politics. My first impression is that it is welcome and necessary, but it will have to be consistently excellent to hold my attention. Today is in the process of appointing a new editor and the BBC knows serious competition when it sees it. Times Radio is the first really serious competition Radio 4 has faced since it easily overcame the launch in 1983 of BBC Television’s Breakfast Time and ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

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