Times to launch talk radio station to challenge BBC Radio 4

Times Radio aims to lure BBC listeners and will feature ‘great names of broadcasting’

The Times has confirmed plans to launch its own speech radio station later this year, with the aim of luring listeners away from BBC Radio 4 and 5 live at a time when the public broadcaster is facing cuts.

The long-rumoured launch will involve the newspaper creating a station with a “daily schedule of news, analysis and commentary with a lineup of high-profile presenters” broadcasting nationally on DAB radio, online and via smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Alexa.

Management told employees that Times Radio would “target those disenfranchised by BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live” and was expected to launch in the spring featuring “great names of broadcasting”, according to those present at a staff meeting.

Stig Abell, the channel’s launch director, told the Guardian he wanted to break free of the standard radio debate format where two individuals with opposing views shout at each other. “We want to have different voices with different opinions but we don’t necessarily want that kind of format.”

Rather than have phone-ins, the station’s programmes would allow listeners to learn “something you didn’t know before”, with a focus on conversations covering all aspects of news and current affairs. “We want people to tune in because they’ll get what’s going on in the world.”

Details of programme line-ups are yet to be confirmed, although the station will use journalists at the Times and the Sunday Times. The likes of the columnist Giles Coren have previously had trial slots on other stations owned by the paper’s parent company, News UK, but Times Radio is also in negotiations with established broadcasters about moving to the new station.

With no adverts but brand sponsorship being made available for individual shows, the station was being seen as a way to promote the Times’s newspaper subscriptions to new audiences and boost its visibility outside the website’s paywall.

The free-to-air station would feature interviews with politicians on its morning programme, potentially benefitting from the government’s ongoing boycott of Radio 4’s Today programme.

“We want to reach people who don’t currently read the Times, people who don’t consider the Times,” said Abell, adding that the station represented a substantial financial investment by News UK. “We want people to think positively about the Times because we’re offering a high-end luxurious product.”

Speech radio has historically been an expensive format for commercial businesses, with Times Radio set to focus exclusively on news and current affairs and not commit to the costly drama and arts coverage made for Radio 4. Certain parts of the programming could later be repurposed as podcasts but the majority of shows would be live discussions of topics in the news.

News UK, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, has hired Chris Evans to front a relaunched Virgin Radio, and it runs talkSport and talkRadio, as part of a substantial push into radio.

Employees at talkRadio had feared Times Radio would replace their station completely. Instead, both stations will operate in parallel, in the belief that they will serve different audiences, with talkRadio going head-to-head with the phone-in heavy LBC. While talkRadio attracts around 400,000 listeners a week, LBC has grown to reach 2.6 million.

Staff at talkRadio have been promised additional resources for presenters such as the breakfast show’s Julia Hartley-Brewer and the new drive-time host Dan Wootton.

The BBC producer Tim Levell, who worked for the presenter Emma Barnett at 5 live, has been hired as Times Radio’s programme director to get the station off the ground.

Polling conducted in December suggested Times Radio was testing potential presenters with audiences, including Barnett and fellow BBC stalwart Nick Robinson, plus Times journalists such as Matt Chorley.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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