If there’s one rule I try to adhere to, it’s don’t press any buttons when you’re in a radio station as you never know what the sneaky little things control. I like to think it’s a fairly good rule to have so I’m surprised that a fellow journalist from The Edinburgh Evening News is so handy with the button-pressing at the launch of Talk 107, the new Edinburgh speech-based radio station.
We’re jostling for space in the studio of Talk 107’s new offices in the distinctly unglamorous South Gyle for its first day of broadcasting. Although the station has been running off-air for a fortnight already, the USP of speech radio is its interaction. That said, it’s interesting to see how many phone calls have come through by the time Mike Graham’s show kicks off in the morning. Unfortunately, I have to admit it’s a bit of an anti-climax when only one trickles through in the ten minutes I’ve been in the studio.
The first is MSP Margo MacDonald, who wants to chastise Graham for slagging off the police. I’m impressed. But then programme director Colin Patterson reveals Patrick Kielty called in first thing, which puts Margo in the shade.
Graham’s show is impressive stuff. Titled The Independent Republic of Mike Graham, he sounds like Chris Tarrant on speed, ranting about everything from the Edinburgh & Lothian Police force inadequacies to cyclists.
Graham was already in talks with the station to present a show at the weekend, when he was relieved of his duties when the Scottish Daily Mirror downsized its Scottish manpower. Aside from his pacy, animated style, he also stands, which Talk 107 managing director Peter Gillespie says is a precursor to a new free-standing presentation technique, which will commence when he gets his headset.
The station has hired a plethora of ex-journalists as presenters, something Gillespie was keen on. Former BBC Radio Scotland journalist Alex Bell presents a morning show with stand-up Susan Morrison; former Scotsman journalist Simon Pia presents what’s billed as a ‘Hitman and Her’ style show with Heather Dee and, possibly the best-known of the line-up, Stephen Jardine has also been brought on board. “We wanted people with ability,” says Gillespie. “I’ll take very little credit for identifying most of those people. Colin [Patterson, the station’s programme director] did an awful lot of the work identifying, screening and singling out the available talent. Calum [Macaulay, the station’s launch director] first went out and spoke to everyone and his uncle when he was hiring me, so once Colin was on board there was a list of people that Calum had spoken to, a lot of which weren’t right. It then became obvious to us that people with a strong journalistic background were a good fit for what we were going to be about.”
The style of the station is obviously news and current affairs affecting Edinburgh, Fife and The Lothians. The launch advertising campaign – through Citigate Smarts – kicked off at the beginning of February, and although a few commentators have expressed surprise that the launch activity wasn’t heavier, Gillespie is adamant that their penetration has been successful. When I confess that of three taxis I’ve taken around Edinburgh on the day of the launch – cab-drivers being the perfect target market you would have thought – not one has listened to the show, although two of them admitted they’d seen at least one ad. “This is one of these things that will build,” says Gillespie. “First you have to tell people you exist, and you want them to be part of the station’s output, instead of passively listening. They’ve never had a station that’s been that accessible to them.
“You then have to talk to them about something that resonates. Mike Graham talked about airguns, and, whoosh, the screen filled up. On Micky Gavin’s show there was a call from a busdriver whose bus had been shot at and the next person he called after the police was us. We’d been on air for 16 hours and a guy who’d never heard us before, his first reaction was to call us rather than the papers.”
Like any launch, the cynics have speculated that only cranks and weirdos call in to speech radio stations and, while all the callers while I’m there sound intelligent and articulate, following the launch I hear that a few drunk people call into the evening show hosted by Micky Gavin. Sounds like a laugh if you ask me, but will The Herald commentator Melanie Reid be right in her diagnosis that it [speech radio] wouldn’t work?
Gillespie bristles. “Melanie Reid gave what she saw as the culture of speech radio,” he says. “If she doesn’t like it, then that’s fine. But don’t patronise anyone else who does, and insinuate that anyone who phones in is a crackpot or a lunatic. Lots of sensible people phone in about lots of sensible issues who just want their voice heard. We’ll get our share of crackpots and pub bores and a lot of other people who want to talk about things that are relevant and important to them. It’s all about personal choice.”
Advertisers are clearly flocking to the station, with Gillespie proudly admitting that the station is “115/120 per cent over our budget”. “We set a modest budget, but it wasn’t unrealistically low, it was still relatively challenging,” he says. “We’re ahead of our target because we’ve had more people respond positively to the whole idea of advertising on speech.” He believes the attraction to be a mixture of the unique format and their attitude to frequency of commercials and length. “There’s a certain category of client that we’d be a natural fit for, an audience that’s going to be predominantly over 30/35, slightly more upmarket than your average profile, now they’re quite hard to find in commercial radio, even in Edinburgh,” he says. “We only carry four ads in three commercial breaks in an hour. If you look at other commercial stations not just in Scotland, they’ll sometimes play up to eight to ten ads in a break with six breaks an hour. Longer ads work better, fewer ads work better and speech ads work better, we do all three. Now that to me is something that differentiates us before you even say ‘how many listeners have you got?’. We’re selling the promise of what we think we can achieve.”
One of Gillespie’s early hirings was former Business AM sales director Hilary Douglas, who joined in November. She built up the team of six to work on the launch, only two of which have worked in radio before. “That’s part of the excitement,” she says. “Apart from two, they’ve not worked in radio. They’ve all sold advertising space, but just in different mediums. That’s quite exciting because they give a much fresher look to everything. Because nobody’s worked in a speech-based radio station, they come without any thoughts of how it should be. They’ve had open minds to listen and go out into the marketplace. And because they’ve not had the feeling ‘I’ve sold radio before so I need to go to these type of people’, they’ve actually managed to get a wider scope of advertiser in.”
As I glance around Gillespie’s office, I notice a magnum of Champagne. Nosily I ask who it’s from and Gillespie holds open the card. It’s from Real Radio. He admits the support from the industry has been great. “One or two other programme directors and Ofcom have emailed and said it sounds like we’ve been on air for a while, which is what we wanted. We were remarkably calm, we’d done such a lot of press, and such a lot of preparation there was very little drama. Last time I launched a station we were in until one in the morning. It wasn’t as prepared as we were this time.
“Commercially we should be growing the cake for radio stations. More advertisers will see us as a relevant choice. In some cases advertisers who use radio will use more of it. We are projecting 11 per cent weekly reach and eight hours. The reality of the matter is that if you launch a station like ours, you need to be humble. We think we can achieve the numbers we’re projecting and we obviously hope we do.”
I leave the Gyle and go with sponsorship manager Robbie Parish to the launch party at Harvey Nichols. As we sit in the taxi, Parish enthusiastically tries to convert the taxi driver – who I would hazard a guess falls into the ‘crank and weirdo’ category – to Talk 107. Just as he tunes the radio in, said taxi driver decides speech isn’t for him and tries to convert Parish to John Lee Hooker by sliding a CD into the player. Hmm. Maybe a bit of work needs to be done yet.