Times Radio launched with a large budget, high-profile presenters and an exclusive interview with Boris Johnson.
Unfortunately, the new national speech radio station from Rupert Murdoch’s News UK had not banked on its big unveiling being disrupted by an outlet with a similar name in Malawi.
Many of those trying to tune in to the station via Amazon’s smart speakers, Alexa, were baffled to be directed instead to Times Radio Malawi, a music and talk station based in the east African country.
Rather than hearing the Times Radio breakfast show hosts, Aasmah Mir and Stig Abell, hold in-depth discussions on the prime minister’s education policies, listeners were treated to a Chichewa-language discussion of Malawi’s politics and some upbeat music.
Smart speakers are a crucial way of reaching new radio audiences as a fifth of British homes have one, with them often replacing radios in kitchens. However, the issue highlights the lack of control local broadcasters have over interfaces designed by international tech companies that struggle to adapt to local needs.
Users of Google’s smart speakers also reported problems hearing Times Radio, with the voice assistant redirecting listeners to Chris Moyles on Radio X – after mistaking the word “Times” for the multiplication sign. Times Radio is also broadcast on DAB radio, online and via an app.
The new station, which is heavily staffed by former BBC presenters and producers, is being run without adverts as a promotion for the Times’s digital subscriptions, in the knowledge it will make a hefty loss for the first few years.
There are signs the government is supportive of the challenge to the BBC’s dominance of speech radio. Johnson granted the station his first live broadcast interview in months, having not appeared on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme since last October.
Ironically, the new British listeners to Times Radio Malawi – which describes itself as “the radio experience that engages all Malawians at different social economic levels” – will have tuned in at a crucial time in the African nation’s politics.
On Sunday, Lazarus Chakwera was sworn in as Malawi’s president following a bitter election, held after a previous election result was declared void by the country’s courts.