Times Radio - Day One
'Prime Minister, we’re just gonna move your microphone - you’ve just moved away from it.’
Boris was the 8.00 guest on the launch day of Times Radio. A good booking.
Starting a new talk station in the midst of a pandemic - when you’ll be judged by commentators against a BBC station that’s had fifty years to get warmed up - is a job you’d wish on no-one.
‘Times Radio has been 235 years in the making and this is the first time a radio station has been born from a national newspaper’, they say in their PR. Many expected Sun Radio to come first, emerging from Talk Radio, but it’s easier to monetise a Times audience than a Sun audience.
You should never judge a station on the first day, but it’s probably fine to congratulate Times Radio on a thoroughly decent debut. Were I in charge, I would be smiling broadly and shaking hands or kicking toes or whatever we’re supposed to do these days. It’s a thoroughly listenable offering, with a friendly, authentic, human approach - one of the toughest things to get right. Well done.
Aasmah and Stig worked reasonably well together. It was good to hear Stig talk of his daughter – evidence maybe that the station appreciates that it’s good for listeners to know something of the people with whom they are expected to spend their mornings. You wouldn’t have heard Jim Naughtie adlib quite like that.
It’s interesting that the two presenters both chipped in on breakfast interviews, in a way which sounds like it’s policy. Does that risk sounding like the 'bloke' is muscling in on Aasmah’s’ bits? In my book Radio Secrets, there’s a section on double acts – in which one woman told me she would be fuming if her male co-presenter chipped-in, as it implies that they think they've thought of a better question.
Times Radio has a default cheeriness – and these are certainly times when that is necessary. Even when Boris was challenged, and he was, it didn’t feel like eavesdropping on your parents falling out. There was something of the relaxed ambience of a podcast. I always said Brexitcast was a good model for radio – and Matt’s work with Red Box can be heard too. With the Times Radio programme architecture being simple, with the absence of ad breaks, there is scope for the station running with things as long as they are worth it, rather than having to be curtailed by lengthy commercials or irrelevant traffic news. Mind you, I'm unsure when the presenters actually get to the loo.
You could hear evidence of good dry runs.
There was a feeling of good stationality, with Matt and Stig handing over like mates, as did Matt and Mariella. This is where commercial radio wins. BBC Radio 4 programmes struggle to refer to each other in any meaningful way and were I running 5 Live, I’d be furious on those news-heavy days where Today ends abruptly and there is no mention of the fact that coverage on the developing topic of the day continues across on 5 Live. Why is that so difficult to fix?
There was a bit of a change in mood on Times Radio at 1.00 as Mariella came on. That's no reflection on her, whom I enjoyed. But this may be a challenge for Times Radio. If the Times Radio brand is to extend to its features and supplements, obituaries, Home or Culture etc, how can that best be achieved without the handbrake turns of Today into In Our Time on Radio 4?
What might I focus on in the weeks to come – once I’d been thoroughly congratulatory to all involved in the early days?
I think there’s scope for growth in the mechanics of radio, not least from those who are newer to live work. A key one is the way topics are sold in and teased. Today, as they previewed the items to come, it risked sounding like a shopping list. ‘Up next we’re talking to Y’. Why should I care? Remind me why a conversation with an actor/director tomorrow is 'not to be missed' Those from the press DNA of the Times must realise the importance of headlines.
The menus were also often about ‘we’ve got this' and 'we’ve got that’. I care not what WE have got – tell me what I can hear and why I should listen.
Similarly: ‘Are people back at school now?’ This is my usual bugbear. I am the listener. You are talking to me. Don’t refer to me as 'people'. 'You' is a powerful word.
There is something too maybe on holding the listener’s attention. With podcasting, if you’ve got your audience past the opening minutes, they will pay attention to the content they have specifically selected. With radio, listeners drift in and out. LBC realises that - and their presenters look straight down the barrel at the listener and hook them in. They also set and reset every topic, every guest, every angle, every thought. When I drifted in and out of Times Radio today, I couldn’t quite sometimes work out who they were talking to – about what. Great radio should be easy to join, difficult to leave. It should also be simple - too many voices at once from too many contributors confuses.
I think Times Radio should be proudly London-centred owing to the values of its brand, rather than impose a faux regionality, and there is a way to make sure that the tone is just right. That's a feat LBC has truly mastered, but I wondered whether Times Radio made 'Leicester' sound like a foreign land. In fairness, Matt nailed this issue later on. One of my trusted colleagues wondered how well the station will fare with coping with major news events outside London. Indeed, will it roll with a breaking story - or will it focus on more considered analysis in due course?
Great radio does not sound scripted. There were occasions where cues or intros in breakfast and throughout the day had been carefully crafted on paper – and that’s how they sounded. If your talk station is to win, the words must always sound owned by the person from whose mouth they come.
The line-up features decent names and usefully already familiar voices. Casting is key on this format. Reporters were natural and great with colour - witness Luke Jones in the maternity ward celebrating other new arrivals. Topic range and selection was generally good, with some engaging treatments too - for example the kids' audio diaries of lockdown education. And John Pienaar's approach seemed more business-savvy than some alternatives - talking to listeners who are in - and understand - business rather than about them, yet still accessible. Making money is not the crime that some radio outlets imply in their questioning. (This par updated at 1630)
Technically, it was damn good. The occasional Zoom frustration, but not even as many issues as the BBC seem to have. Again, launching at this time generates unprecedented challenge. The mic sound did not quite equal the boom of LBC's, with Stig and Matt sounding just a little pale - and we had the message notifications beaming in across the 1.00 pm bulletin. But they coped.
And the smart speaker issues, with people stumbling across a Chichewa language discussion on Malawi's politics or Radio X rather than Times Radio ? It's a 21st century complication, with challenges tough to solve when you don't own the 'transmitters'. At least it gave the Guardian something to write about.
It sounds effortlessly younger than some of Radio 4, yet there is a grownupness about the whole product. When the BBC gets kicked to be younger, it seems to respond by going too far. I scream when I hear badly acted 2-ways on Radio 4 on More or Less or You and Yours, with some enthusiastic newcomers to radio doing little to make me feel they have the slightest understanding of life or what they are talking about. By contrast, the Times range of correspondents adds real depth.
Alex Dibble had just the right tone as newsreader on Times Radio. Spot on. Good presentation and decent writing. Some of the news handovers were a little wobbly – possibly owing to the various 'studio' locations - but it would probably be cleaner without both the ID and the presenter announcing the station name and then the ‘thank you’ business. But - hey, this is minor.
The station makes you realise again how utterly brilliant LBC is in all it does. Times Radio is more up-market than that - or Talk Radio - and it's a great complement.
Having used several BBC reference points, it’s not really appropriate to compare Times Radio with any of the BBC offerings, They are doing different things for different reasons and, as Matt Deegan clearly explained in his famous blog, the success of Times will be judged by things other than Rajar.
Yes, the BBC will not lose swathes of audience to Times Radio, but I expect the BBC to be tuning in in a paranoid frenzy, asking themselves whether their offerings remain fit for purpose.
There is something of the spirit of 5 Live on Times, which is to be expected thanks to the provenance of many of those involved. Times Radio, however, does not have to wrestle the complexity of live sports coverage.
BBC 5 Live must focus itself if it is to regain its momentum. Tim Davie will have to take tough calls on what it is. Such decisions are made more challenging, however, by the hoops the BBC must understandably leap through to change the structure of its networks, and one imagines that it will feel now is not the time, on cost grounds, to launch an extra channel. I’d replace BBC Radio London with 5 Live so it can be heard on FM – and bank the cost savings. As for Radio 4, just give Jane Garvey Today for at least three days a week and ask her to do it her way - on her own or with whomsoever she chooses. That’d keep enough of the heritage audience – and make the programme fitting for this century.
But. Most importantly, well done to Times Radio. Most of the above is minor. Talk stations are no easy feat. LBC's launch months in 1973 were infamous. You have achieved something admirable on Day One in the teeth of the most challenging circumstances ever. And it was on-brand. UK radio is hugely richer by having The Times invest in a major way in its national audio/radio. Good luck.
And well done to the broadcast engineers at Times Radio. I do hope your efforts have been duly commended.
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