Positioning Times Radio

Times Radio made their first announcements this morning (27th April) outlining some of the key shows which will launch their new radio station (Guido Fawkes rumoured who’s next, last night).

There’s lots of talk about whether Times Radio will be a success, or a draining money pit.

Most of the analysis is about whether it will get ratings and how it will fare ‘up against’ Radio 4. Even in Matthew Moore’s Times article this morning there was reference to “taking on the BBC” and “seen as a direct rival to BBC Radio 4″.

If its core aim is to ‘take on the BBC’ then it will absolutely be an unqualified failure.

The aims for what I guess we’re still terming ‘commercial radio’ are more varied than they used to be. When the sector first started the planned business model was to get some listeners by doing the things that will get the largest audience and then to sell ads around them and try and make some money. This simple model wasn’t very easy to achieve for many of the first ILR stations for quite a while, additionally the incremental, Sallie, licences rarely achieved that objective in their lifetime. The old adage that to make a small fortune in commercial radio you just needed to start with a large fortune has been a truism.

Digital spectrum, and more space for new stations, has meant that commercial radio’s model, objectives and tactics have changed significantly.

Not every radio station needs to strive to be ‘number 1’ to be successful. Niche operators have created models that serve smaller audiences. Limited costs can reap solid (if not super) profits.

The religious broadcasters’ businesses are often fascinating. Some are really mail order firms using broadcast as a way to help position and sell product. Others use it as a loudspeaker to generate significant direct debit donations. Third party ads may be in there, but it’s not a big part of their business plan.

At Fun Kids we have a suite of products – radio, podcasts, web, email, video, social – that reach parents and children and we monetise, generally with ads, this attention. The broadcast station is important, particularly for marketing the brand, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of what we’re doing.

The Times have talked about the main objective of the radio station being to drive Times subscribers. Times digital subs are £15 to £26/month. If you generated 10,000 new subscribers you’d probably easily cover the costs of running the radio station.

The subscription business is also about reducing churn – the people who stop subscribing. With a content subscription like The Times, I imagine churn is all about perceived value. “Am I reading the written content?” is obviously a key thought, but if you’re consuming, albeit free, Times media like the radio station and podcasts, I’m sure that all goes into improving the perceived value too.

So, if you’re reducing churn and adding subs – that’s a great model to have. And a great reason to launch a radio station.

However, the danger, is mission creep and forgetting your objectives.

Dangers

I think I must have had discussions with at least 50 people serious about launching radio stations over the past few years and probably another 100 time wasters. In addition I’ve got friends at all the radio groups and have talked briefly, or in detail, about most big group launches. This ranges from production staff on some to the bosses on others.

Thinking about it, it’s amazing how few of these people have had experience launching any product from scratch, and for many, even less experience running a business.

For people new to the industry, it’s the curse that a lifetime of radio listening makes them think they’re experts in producing. Similarly there’s a difference in running an established, formatted station and creating a new one.

Creating a successful radio station, and cutting through in a market where listeners can get over 60 on their digital radio requires art, science, marketing and luck.

Now Wireless, themselves, have probably had the most experience in launching new radio stations – two speech ones with talkRADIO and talkSPORT2, along with a launched and re-launched Virgin Radio, so you’d hope they’ve got the experience to make a decent fist of this or at least learned something about the process along the way.

With any project, but definitely with radio stations, the biggest problem is drifting away from core objectives to do what you want to do, rather than what you need to.

If ‘competing with the BBC’ or ‘taking on Radio 4’ ends up being the core aim. I would say the strategy is officially, batshit mental.

Radio 4 has an annual budget nearing £100m a year, perfect FM and digital distribution, free cross-promotion on some of the nation’s favourite TV stations and over 50 years of heritage. Its listeners are happy to drift through hard news, a soap opera, and a programme about poetry without causing much channel changing. Its scale is such that 200k leaving a show is basically a rounding error.

Radio 4 currently has 10.9m listeners. Other speech stations in the UK have significantly less, with 5 Live on 5.4m, LBC with 2.7m (even with a London FM licence) and talkRADIO on 433k. After four years.

As another example, the relaunched Virgin Radio with the nation’s most popular DJ, Chris Evans, who swapped from Radio 2 to Virgin Radio with, to all intents and purposes, the same show, could probably be held as the high water mark of what can be done quickly on digital radio – in a year he’s added 1million listeners to take that station to 1.5m.

To hit those numbers would be unexpected – and a triumph, but would still have you at 15% of Radio 4.

Focus

The biggest issue for the Times Radio team is being distracted from the very sensible endeavour of adding new subscribers to the business.

The problem is that it’s not sexy or fun. It’s, of course, much more interesting going on the attack. But being focused on a competitor, like Radio 4 or the BBC, means you end up playing to them, rather than concentrating on your own objectives.

The amazing opportunity of being all about converting 10,000 new Times fans is that you can embrace this fortunate position you’re in of not worrying about the ratings. How liberating that would be? Indeed, why do you even need to publish your RAJAR figures?

Converting people to subscribers means a two pronged strategy. The first phase is listener acquisition. I imagine there’s probably two groups to appeal to:

  1. (easier) Attracting listeners that are occasional or semi-regular readers
  2. (harder) Identifying the types of people who would like The Times brand if they experienced (more of) it, by including programming that appeals to that target’s interests.

The second phase is turning this group of people into proper fans – to make them feel like the Times environment is one that interests them, represents them, entertains them.

Working out subscription conversion is difficult, but 2% of a station with 500,000 listeners would hit that 10k.

Content

For me the interesting thing to learn from NewsCorps’ existing research with Times subscribers is the interplay between news and non-news content. What’s the combination of content that makes people part with their money?

If I was mapping out the radio market, there’s a lot of delivery of news within speech content – big parts of Radio 4, most of 5 Live, LBC and talkRADIO. Of course I’d expect Times Radio to cover news, but it’s a brand with a strong features background, how do you weave that into the schedule? Podcasting has shown there’s a huge appetite for non-news speech, with the latest RAJAR MIDAS survey saying podcasting has now reached 10m people in the UK.

To create a tribe of listeners where you’re trying to build connection, Coronavirus or Brexit all of the time isn’t going to cut it. It also doesn’t differentiate in the market. Why fight for LBC or talkRADIO listeners by doing the same thing?

In a Buzzfeed News article last weekend, the reporting talked about the bringing together of The Times and Sunday Times (they’re currently run separately) and to “transform it into a premium, politically liberal brand like the New York Times”. Radio could definitely help with that.

Maybe it’ll be there when there’s more detail released, but if I was looking to create Times Radio I’d be drawing on far more built content – short and long form. I’d be drawing on the kinds of content in Red Box, Stories of our Times, The Game and The Ruck, Giles Coren and even Postcards from Midlife, Walking the Dog and Tales of Silicon Valley. These well made podcasts would reach newer audiences on a linear radio station and would provide texture that isn’t available on other speech competitors.

Indeed, if you are trying to re-think Radio 4, don’t get obsessed with the Today programme, remember that much of their schedule is actually built, well-thought out shows.

The word that keeps appearing in Times promo is ‘warm’. I think that’s a good word – and something that’s much more connected to the idea of building a group of listeners who you can activate to do something – subscribe.

Update: From the Launch Director, Stig Abell:

3 thoughts on “Positioning Times Radio”

  1. I think they’ve got a lot of good things going for them:

    1. The granddaddy of all news brands. Given that it didn’t happen 15 years ago, I’m pleasantly surprised to see a newspaper brand going waist-deep in radio alongside a well-established digital portfolio. Huge vote of confidence in the medium from people with deep enough pockets to punch hard. Given the Times brand extension, I guess they’re also limiting spot ads in favour of Times branding as Virgin has with Sky on Evans.

    2. Great synergies. We ran five minute (often all local) bulletins and two news programmes a day at The Wolf, entirely off the munificence of the shareholding local paper who wired us in to their publishing system and gave us their stuff sometimes a day before it hit the stands, plus a piece or two a day on ISDN. The Wolf had ten staff, half of whom were sales. If News UK do this properly (and putting on big name “newspaper” guys like Matt Chorley suggests they are), they’ll fill their news with genuine brand-tied editorial from some top journos. LBC and Talk are great at what they do (and have their own tie-ins), but that newsroom is massive extra firepower – the only one in UK radio which will be able to come close to the breadth of BBC specialisms. Newspapers are more or less dead on thinly-sliced trees. Great journalism needn’t be.

    3. A bigger niche than you might think. I can imagine quite a few people think Five Live got too sporty, Radio Four is a bit up itself and spends hours at a time not being all that topical, LBC lacks a bit of depth and Talk is a bit shouty. There’s a sweet spot there which done right may mop up disillusioned former Five Livers who think Jane Garvey should still be on daily news radio.

    By the way.. I’d keep the longer-form podcast stuff to evenings. One of the big attractions of a rival to Radio 4 will be fairly newsy topicality while Aunty is enjoying a new interpretation of a play last performed in 1982. Even if you dip into broader topics based on the podcasts etc.. keep it to a ten minute segment with the live presenter still involved.

    I suspect they had their hopes and wallet on another big former BBC name or two alongside Pienaar and Mir (maybe that comes later), but all in all.. it’s a really interesting entrant.

  2. Times Radio would clean up, almost completely transfer the 5Live audience, if they could persuade Rhod Sharp to resurrect his Up All Night show on their air waves. Since Rhod left the show has degenerated into dross radio moan-ins.

  3. I am fascinated by what’s happening at the Times, particularly if that Buzzfeed story is true. I’ve always been rather a fan of the Sunday Times, but more recently on an adhoc if I happen to be a shop and remember to buy a copy type way. Unable to do that I’ve signed up for the £8 for 8 weeks digital subscription, and enjoying having it available to read every day; but that’s possibly a result of having a different work-life pattern due to COVID19. Not sure I would continue when life returns to “normal”. (Also, I really like the mobile app but I really don’t like the way the content is presented in columns on the tablet app).

    I guess this might make me a prime target for getting me to subscribe; but I’m not sure I would make that connection that the station adds value to the subscription. I’m already time poor, and when I rarely get to listen to the radio on my own it’s normally 5 Live. As Tim says, much that I’m sure John Pinaar is a competent presenter, he’s not really a star-name, and unless they were able to poach someone like Emma Barnett or James O’Brien I’d be unlikely to actively seek it out.

    I wondered whether another thought, which you don’t really touch on, is to increase the visual presence of the Times brand. It must be pretty guting to see the BBC & LBC studio/branding regularly on clips on TV news bulletins and not be able to offer something similar despite having a quality journalism product. Having a radio presence means you can turn some of those interviews into audio and then visually branded content.

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