Talk 107’s managing director Peter Gillespie’s face will be recognisable to many who have had dealings with radio people over the years. As a former sales manager at Scot FM, Classic and Clyde, the Aberdonian has worked with Billy Anderson (Real Radio’s managing director), Tracy McNellen (Radio Clyde’s sales director) and Pam Richardson (Saga 105.2fm’s sales director) although he’s not frightened that he’s taught Anderson – who will be one of his rivals in Edinburgh – too much. “I talked to Billy the other day, and he was interested to hear my news,” he says. “Obviously I taught him everything he knows, but I always kept 10 per cent back. The fundamental thing about this station is it’s not going to compete with any other commercial radio format.”
Gillespie is in the process of pulling together the logistical nightmare that comes with launching a radio station. Last year, Talk controversially won the franchise to launch a speech-based format station on the East Coast and – although the station isn’t due to broadcast until next February – has already been through two name changes, starting as Dunedin before becoming AllTalk and now Talk. Gillespie – who has a credible online background – is sheepish about the website for the station still calling itself ALLTalk, but he believes the name-changes are less important. “People don’t need to know what we’re called yet, we’re still four or five months from launch,” he says. “The only people who need to know about the station at the moment are the people we want to hire.”
The station is in the process of hiring a sales director, a programme controller and a news editor as well as journalists and sales staff. Although there are sceptics who doubt the potential for a speech-based station, Gillespie is confident to the point of effusive that the station will work, and he gives a compelling argument for it.
“Talk radio is actually a dominant format, five million people in the UK only listen to talk-based stations,” he says. “More people listen to speech radio than any other format. The BBC has got the speech set-up all to themselves, because no one else is competing with them. The only two stations that exist in their market are TalkSport and LBC, who can only do so much. Talksport’s got a niche appeal; it’s been very successful in making itself cater to a 35-plus, hugely bias male audience. LBC hasn’t done quite as good a job, but that’s their problem. They should have not hired presenters because of their name rather than their ability. People don’t listen to big names on radio, people become big names on radio because they’re good to listen to and that’s the big difference. If you look at the audience that’s currently defined as a speech radio audience, it’s predominantly 35-40 plus, predominantly upmarket and predominantly male but that audience is defined by the stations that broadcast speech radio – Radio 4, Radio 5, TalkSport, large chunks of Radio 2 and Radio Scotland. So of course it’s going to be male bias because the majority of speech output is business and political news or sports.
“Our challenge is to target an audience that’s much broader based than the BBC’s and challenge people’s pre-conceived ideas about what speech radio is all about.”
Talk 107 has already embarked on a novel idea to find presenters with a ‘Chat Idol’ initiative. However, results weren’t as fantastic as the station maybe hoped. “It was good fun,” says Gillespie. “We found some people with lots of ambition, and, erm, not so much talent. But you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, and we found one or two good people. We learned quite a lot of things about what people want to hear, and when you’re launching a station like this you have to take as wide a counsel as possible, because this station is for those very same people. They will make up a large proportion of the output of the station.”
After six years running the sales and marketing team at Search Consultancy, Gillespie’s move back in to radio could be seen as a risk. When Talk 107 launches, it will be the only speech-based station outside London. With a potential audience of around one million, you would have to be fairly confident about the format. Luckily Gillespie is.
His route into radio was unusual. Born in Aberdeen, he moved to Helensburgh when he was 14, and then – after leaving school – went back to Aberdeen and got a job in an engineering company and became a tracer. The job led to him deciding to choose a career as an engineer. “It seemed like a really noble thing to do,” he says. “I thought it would be really interesting but it bored the shit out of me. Thankfully my boss took mercy on me and made me redundant at the age of 19, just as I qualified. I was determined to qualify in this bloody job even if it killed me. Even though I couldn’t fundamentally understand the principle of electricity, which when you’re designing control panel switch gear for pharmaceutical plants is pretty scary. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it.”
A teenage desire for a car led him to the world of bingo and he applied for a graduate management traineeship with Mecca Social Clubs, “The most interesting job I’ve done, apart from radio,” he says.
He knew little about social clubs, so luckily for him the training plunged him in at the deep end but he wasn’t prepared for some of the tasks such as bingo-calling. “They wanted this new breed of highly-qualified managers to come in and re-energise their business, up until then it was all guys in dinner suits winking at the customers,” he says. “You worked on the buffet, you sold tickets on the door and you called the numbers. You did every job so you knew every facet of the business, it was tremendous training, particularly for a wet behind the ears, overprotected youth who had never been in a bingo hall. You would have to deal with people, stand up on stage and speak to 300 people and tell a joke with these old wifeys looking at you like ‘just get on with it’.”
After a romance with a fellow Mecca employee was discovered, management tried to put the kibosh on it by moving him to North Shields. “Which is when I thought, ‘this is a laugh, but it’s not that much of a bloody laugh’,” he says.
A job selling office supplies bored him so much that when he heard Radio Clyde was looking for staff, he jumped at it and his passion for radio was born.
“The fundamental difference between radio and any other media, as far as I’m concerned, is the emotional attachment that people have, they identify with,” he says. “People don’t define themselves by what they watch on TV, they don’t say I’m a BBC2 viewer; they watch programmes not channels. Press has a slightly greater attachment than TV, but readers still don’t necessarily identify with a particular newspaper. People find they identify their stations up until a certain age, when they lose their way a little bit, and then they re-establish themselves with another station.”
Ferociously ambitious, Gillespie’s time with Clyde came to an end in 1991 when he decided to move to London with the girl from his bingo days. “I wanted to move on and take on everyone else’s job, and then I was reminded that at that time the average life span of a sales exec there was about seven or eight years,” he says. “Richard Glen was there at the time and he’s still there, so I was right in my summation when I thought no-one’s going to leave quick enough for me to move on.”
He joined Independent Radio Sales (IRS) as one of the first two client sales execs in the national radio marketplace. “This was before the Radio Advertising Bureau or Classic FM, there was no national sell for radio, it was all London-based,” he says. “I’d been there for a year and Classic FM got the first national, commercial FM radio franchise ever awarded. And everybody back then said ‘what a travesty!’ The market was in uproar saying it will never work. Radio 3 at the time had 2 million listeners. They [industry analysts] said ‘you’ll cannibalise their audience; there isn’t an audience for classical music. The more people started talking like that, the more interested I got in what Classic FM was all about.”
A phone call from Nigel Reeve, a former sales manager from IRS, bolstered Gillespie’s apprehension that his lack of agency experience would hold him back and he joined the fledgling station in October 1992 as deputy sales manager.
“There were two factors that came into play with that station,” he says. “You were selling something that was so completely different and it was the first national station, so people had to speak to me. The second thing that came into play was the ‘chairman’s wife’ syndrome. For the first time ever senior decision makers started listening to commercial radio and they started hearing commercials, and they’d start saying ‘why are we not on that station?’. The longer it was on-air, the longer that came into play.
“It was still incredibly difficult because we had no audience, still people were saying ‘a million, if you’re lucky’, and we were projecting 2.77 million weekly listeners. It was hard going. In February 1993, the Rajar figures came out placing Classic FM at a 3.3 million weekly audience. Life got a bit easier after that.”
Gillespie left London to come back to Scotland in 1994 to launch Scot FM. “I always saw London as a necessary evil, but I’d been down there for three years and I wanted to be sales director, I wanted to be the main guy, I was 27,” he says.
He joined Scot at launch as sales director and stayed until 1996. “It had about 67 per cent reach and was doing very well,” he says. “At the time I left it was doing very well and should have gone from strength to strength to become what it is today in the form of Real Radio. They’ve done exactly what Scot was doing; they just haven’t renegotiated the speech quotient to have less speech and more music.”
A stint at Scottish Media Group – working on an early incarnation of s1 – led to Gillespie setting up his own company to ride the wave of online recruitment, which led to him being hired by Search in 1999. He was originally only supposed to work on the main business for six months before being allowed to do his own thing, but the owners sold the company for £25m before that could happen.
“I thought I’d stick around for six months and see if anything else came up that I’d want to do,” he says. “I’ve been doing that for the last six years. I’ve always kept my eye on the radio market because once you’re in it, it never gets out your system. I spoke to a few people over the last few years, but they were all music stations, which didn’t float my boat. I didn’t want to detach myself from the front-end of the business. Getting involved with a big group, running a formulaic music station really isn’t what I want to do.”
Gillespie’s two main aims are increasing radio’s advertising share and improving creativity. “People can only advertise in the context of the environment of stations and propositions that they’ve got on offer right now and almost every commercial radio station/proposition they’ve got in this market right now is catering to broadly speaking the same audience,” he says. “The one strength of speech is the level of impact you can deliver from a commercial revenues point of view is much higher because the attention level of the audience is much higher. They are more actively listening. Standards have improved, but there’s still some way to go. But that’s the collective responsibility of every station, every creative producer, every sales director and every sales executive in the commercial radio sector as far as I’m concerned.”
Does he see the speech format being rolled out across the UK? “I think it’s interesting that Edinburgh got it first,” he says. “Obviously we want to get this one off the ground, make it successful and then Ofcom will think ‘they can do it’. The bottom line is there are other metropolitan markets in the UK that could sustain this; Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool. Why not?”