Rupert's radio: can Murdoch's Times Radio compete with the BBC?

Hatched to rival Radio 4, the new station is closer in tone to 5 live or LBC – and a slow start means it still has much to prove

Times Radio – which launched today at 6am as a daily audio version of Rupert Murdoch’s highest-brow newspaper – had the coup of securing Boris Johnson’s first broadcast interview since his recovery from coronavirus. The conversation started with the prime minister, making space for his notes on the studio table, displacing the most crucial tool of radio broadcasting, making it sound as if he were whispering.

“Sorry, we’re going to have to get your microphone closer,” said the co-host (and station launch director) Stig Abell. “You’ve moved it away.”

There was a clatter as the presenter intervened. It is probably a good thing Johnson has already had Covid-19, as Abell had broken physical distancing rules.

“Howzat?” boomed Johnson, sounding like one of the bowlers still banned from village greens.

So, how was Times Radio? Since selling Sky TV, Murdoch has compensated by expanding his presence in UK audio broadcasting. This is his fourth wireless enterprise, after Virgin Radio, talkRadio and talkSport. The newcomer shares some on-air personnel with the other Murdoch speech networks (“That interview from our sister station, TalkSport 2”) and follows Virgin by eschewing adverts in favour of corporate sponsorship, which, in practice, means frequent commercials for the station itself and other Murdochian products.

On the early evidence, Times Radio most resembled a good-quality karaoke BBC Radio 5 live. Abell’s breakfast co-host, Aasmah Mir, has Radio 4 on her BBC CV (as does the afternoon host Mariella Frostrup), but Mir learned her craft at Radio 5 live; in her new role, she echoed the youngest BBC speech station’s chatty informality. Abell was also notably informal, pronouncing news as “nooze” and speaking so casually that the ends of sentences were sometimes incomprehensible. Laid-back is one thing; leaning back too far from the microphone is another.

Times Radio was talked-up in advance as a rival to Radio 4 – an antidote to the imperial self-importance of which detractors have accused that channel – but it seemed in competition only immediately after the 8am news, and less through its own efforts than a decision of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser. He had not only given Johnson’s first on-air one-on-one for three months to a BBC rival, but offered him in the time slot that Radio 4’s Today prides as Britain’s premier platform for politicians.

The launch felt like one of Murdoch’s more subtle moves in his long, hostile campaign against the BBC. The Cummings-Johnson administration seemed happy to cooperate, forcing Today and the BBC to credit a Murdoch outfit if they wanted to report what Johnson had said.

That dilemma was reduced by the failure of the interview to produce much news of significance, partly because, despite being asked good questions on Cummings and Covid-19, Johnson ignores any topic he does not want to discuss. The only solution is to become furious, as Andrew Neil once did in a TV encounter, but that would not fit the general gentleness for which this station seems to be aiming.

Aasmah Mir and Stig Abell
Promising double act ... the breakfast show hosts Aasmah Mir and Stig Abell. Photograph: Richard Pohle/Times Radio

The prime minister oozed his usual bluff about doubling down on levelling up, whacking moles and putting his arms around workers. A fresher Johnson buzzword, “Rooseveltian”, was allowed by the presenters to pass without explanation, although, in after-chat analysis, the network’s “chief political commentator”, Tom Newton Dunn, eventually glossed the economic interventionism of the 32nd US president.

The biggest and most expensive obstacle to setting up a speech station is the construction of a global news operation, but Times Radio can cannily recycle correspondents from Murdoch print titles. The excellent Newton Dunn has transferred full-time from the Sun, but Times and Sunday Times reporters were called on to animate other news stories, although the word is that they will not be paid extra for this moonlighting.

In a welcome departure from Radio 4 and Radio 5 live – where, in male-female pairings, the man always seems to be top dog – Mir feels positioned as lead morning presenter, as befits experience and technique superior to Abell’s. If the network can establish an audience – and the airing of tweets from listeners in Australia and Bangladesh suggested widespread initial curiosity – then Mir could become the star that the BBC never quite allowed her to be.

Her double act with Abell needs more work, though. He told the same story about his attitude to cashpoints in the first and second hours, although his co-host, either from politeness or tiredness, managed to express surprise at the reprise.

Luke Jones, a talented young reporter bought in from Radio 4’s lunchtime news shows, made a bright start, reporting throughout the day from a maternity unit at a hospital in Newcastle – another very Radio 5 live type of feature. Jones suddenly lost an interviewee because she was “in the birthing pool and starting to push”, a line I have only heard previously on radio in The Archers. Trumping that, the reporter later introduced the debut day’s most startling sound-effect – a baby vomiting. Jones, who will also co-host Friday-Sunday breakfasts, feels like another loss to the BBC.

Having started as a Radio 5 live tribute act, Times Radio, channelled a newer audio phenomenon in the second show on its schedule. Matt Chorley’s 10am-1pm programme is an expansion of his impressive Times podcast Red Box, which provides Westminster insight and rumour. Asked what he thought of Mir and Abell’s prime ministerial interview, Chorley tactfully, and accurately, replied that Johnson is “a hard one to pin down”.

Between frontline political guests – Gus O’Donnell, Alistair Darling, George Osborne – Chorley’s opinionated soliloquies sound more LBC than Radio 5 live, suggesting that Times Radio is aiming to take listeners from a variety of rival stations. It was a wonder they didn’t put on Pachelbel’s Canon in D and go after Classic FM and Scala.

While the pandemic made launching a broadcaster much harder logistically, the prevalence of video conferencing and phone interviews during lockdown has set technical expectations lower – listeners are more tolerant of blips and slips, such as the studio not being able to raise a line to Chorley’s third guest. But, in technical terms, it was generally a slick and confident launch.

Judgment on content must wait longer. The new station’s parent paper was historically nicknamed the Thunderer. Some of the first day content suggested the risk of Times Radio becoming known as The Chunterer – especially when Mir and Abell swapped stories about their preferred nutritional smoothies and their children’s births. Or perhaps The Repeater: Newton-Dunn discussed the Johnson interview with Frostrup and then drivetime host John Pienaar in much the terms he had at breakfast.

Pienaar, familiar with rolling news, was typically sharp and engaging, but Frostrup, new to the long magazine format, seemed to run out of material in the third hour. She filled a chunk with extracts from earlier programmes, including a replay of her own interview with actress and activist Rose McGowan that we had heard around 90 minutes before.

The BBC’s squadrons of on-air correspondents and the alleged over-staffing in production have long been targets of editorials in The Times; Times Radio, conversely, sometimes sounded under-staffed on and off air. If so, it was perhaps lucky to launch on a slow news day, with the reorganisation of the civil service the biggest tale in town. The big test will come when, in a year of events that have felt like an adaptation of the Book of Revelation, the next apocalypse invades its airwaves.

• This article was amended on 30 June 2020. An earlier version referred to the Book of Revelations instead of the Book of Revelation.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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