News UK is moving its radio and podcast operation into the heart of its publishing empire

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

How the new TalkRadio studios will look inside News UK's HQ

Rupert Murdoch is to create a new radio and podcasting operation at the top of his News UK London headquarters to capitalise on the growing audience for digital audio.

The plans involve spectacular new broadcast suites with views over the City of London for News UK’s radio stations, TalkSport, TalkRadio and Virgin Radio, and an in-house digital audio production unit, Wireless Studios, to create podcasts and content for commercial clients.

The reorganisation of the London Bridge HQ, which is being overseen by News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks and is regarded by News executives as “a game changer”, is aimed at creating closer ties between the company’s radio portfolio and its news brands, The Sun and The Times.

Research for News UK by Mindshare indicates that the digital audio audience will grow from 22.5 million to 31 million by 2020. Publisher HarperCollins, another arm of Murdoch’s News Corp media empire, has found that 43% of spoken word listeners aged 18-24 are receptive to brand advertising on podcasts and that 21% would pay a monthly fee for a favourite speech audio download.

Wireless Studios will open its slate with podcasts from TalkSport (the daily digest ‘Sportsday') and TalkRadio (presenter Martin Kelner’s show with teenage daughter Ruth ‘Ruthie - My Dad and Me’). But News UK is anxious to develop the potential of its newspaper-branded podcasts, including ‘The Dan Wootton Interview’ by The Sun’s showbiz editor and TalkRadio host Dan Wootton, and The Times’s rugby podcast ‘The Ruck’.

TalkRadio and The Sun come under one roof

In an interview with The Drum, Scott Taunton, chief executive of The Wireless Group, explains News UK’s next plans for the radio business that it acquired for £220m in 2016. The move to London Bridge – a 20 minute walk from Wireless’s current Bankside location – will create “more togetherness” with the The Times and The Sun, he says.

“The TalkRadio studios will be on the (14th) floor where the canteen is for News UK staff, so as people are coming to get breakfast or lunch they are seeing Julia (Hartley-Brewer, TalkRadio breakfast presenter) or Eamonn (Holmes, TalkRadio drivetime host) broadcasting live from glass-fronted studios, and the producers know that they can grab relevant people from the (newspaper) titles and get them on air. It’s really going to be a game-changer for us.”

The Sun has used a digitally-hosted reward scheme to identify its print readers and the popularity of signing up for podcasts is seen as a gateway to a better understanding of the radio audience, and matching listeners to readers of News UK news titles. “We can start to build an understanding of the (podcast) listener…when they come to revisit content in The Times or The Sun and start to form a picture for advertisers,” says Taunton. “That studio-podcast piece is a really important optical tool for us in integrating Wireless as part of the (News UK) business.”

The transition begins next week when Wireless sales staff head to London Bridge. The TalkSport team follow after the World Cup, with the Virgin and TalkRadio staffs moving later this year, with new studios on the top (17th) floor of the building.

The changes come as Wireless today posts its best Rajar audience data since News UK bought it from UTV, largely because of the perceived synergies between TalkSport and The Sun and the opportunities for offering multi-media campaigns to commercial clients.

While TalkSport recorded a 14% year-on-year increase in reach with an audience of 3.12 million, TalkRadio was up 33% to 316,000 with listening hours up 156% to 1.8 million. “The change in line-up (early this year) is really delivering for us,” says Taunton. “At a national level, Wireless has never had more listening hours than we’ve got now.”

Wireless’s previous set of Rajars were less impressive, with the TalkSport audience showing a 5% fall in audience year-on-year.

Using radio to fuel print

Brooks has taken a close personal interest in the development of the radio business, including the closer alignment of TalkRadio with the News UK newspaper titles. “One of the key elements that Rebekah is keen to see us do with TalkRadio is developing a news desk that is constantly looking at the development of content which may well work itself into the papers as well,” says Taunton.

So TalkRadio will shortly appoint its first bespoke political editor. Taunton foresees further specialist journalist appointments, such as a business editor. “We want to develop our own news stories or our own angles to stories,” he says. “We are not going to necessarily be about breaking news as our primary focus but I would be very disappointed if in time we aren’t breaking news on a reasonably regular basis.”

Already TalkRadio provides a platform for News UK sub-brands such as The Times’s ‘Red Box’ political podcast and newsletter. Red Box editor Matt Chorley is a regular guest of Hartley-Brewer’s, as is Times business editor Richard Fletcher.

But Taunton says he doesn’t want to go too far. “What I don’t want to do is just turn us into newspaper radio, we are radio first and foremost,” he says. “But where it makes sense to have individuals across both you can do things in a slightly different way and open up to a new audience.” He hopes that TalkRadio and TalkSport presenters will in time earn columns in the papers (TalkRadio's Jamie East, founder of gossip website Holy Moly, already writes on films for The Sun).

While an increased focus on news and politics might appear to put TalkRadio in greater competition with Global Radio’s LBC (TalkRadio also has Theresa May’s former adviser Kate Perrior in its line-up), Taunton plays down this rivalry. His station has more of a “fun nature”, with Gogglebox’s Steph and Dom as part of the schedule. “I guess we are positioning ourselves to a wider catchment, this isn’t necessarily just for those who are wanting to follow issues at Westminster.”

The real enemy, he says, is the BBC’s Radio 5 live. “The BBC takes over an 80% share of the speech radio market in the UK and we don’t think that’s a healthy thing.”

The BBC battle

Wireless is attempting to take on 5 Live’s mix of news and sport with its two-station offering of TalkSport and TalkRadio. Taunton claims to have made up ground on the BBC network over the past four years, although he concedes that the gap remains large. In the latest Rajars, 5 Live’s listening hours were down 12% year-on-year to 33.6 million (compared to TalkSport's 20.9 million).

Although 5 Live is required to dedicate 75% of its output to news, it’s clear that sports rights are the key battleground for audience share in this sector.

Taunton recently won for TalkSport the rights to coverage of England’s cricket tours of Sri Lanka and the West Indies, prompting online fears of a dumbed down service from fans of the BBC’s Test Match Special. “These are exactly the same statements that were made when the BBC lost the televison rights to the cricket and, lo and behold, there was nothing but praise for Channel 4 after they commenced their broadcasts in a much more accessible fashion.”

He claims that TalkSport will offer a stellar presenting line-up that will silence critics who doubt the station’s commitment to leather on willow. “Cricket fits very well with our integration with the Times,” he says. “I think there is a perception that TalkSport is quite downmarket which isn’t true at all – 58% of TalkSport's listeners are ABC1s.”

Despite this cricket deal, 5 Live still has “the lion’s share” of rights, including Wimbledon, the Six Nations and a larger chunk of the Premier League. “At times we have picked up some elements of rights but nearly always where the BBC is prepared to allow us to win,” says Taunton, who claims he was shocked to have been outbid by the BBC for the last Ashes series after he had made an “eye-watering” offer for coverage that would have been free to listeners.

“I thought my problem was going to be explaining to Rebekah and Rupert why we were prepared to lose so much money on that tournament,” he says. “(The BBC) should be able to justify what they are spending in a way that would demonstrate their understanding of the commercial value of those sports rights.”

Even so, he is expecting the football World Cup to deliver a major lift to sports broadcasting and TalkSport is positioning itself to listeners as “the only place that will be wall-to-wall World Cup” (whereas 5 Live must cover news and Wimbledon), and to advertisers as “the only place in broadcasting where you can have your name associated with every game”.

Taunton ran Wireless when it was owned by UTV. The News UK takeover, he says, took the business from a distant third in the radio sector (behind Global and Bauer) to being part of the UK’s biggest media group.

“We work very closely as an executive team under Rebekah and are constantly talking about how Wireless can be further developed, but equally I will be contributing to conversations about what we are doing with The Times and The Sun,” he says. “It’s off the scale in terms of the step change in the size of the business but the focus on the content is what I find really refreshing.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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