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LBC shouts louder in the battle for talk radio

The London station is taking advantage of the BBC's move to Salford
  • @iburrell

On Wednesday evening in a hotel near Trafalgar Square, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, will make radio history by taking on the leader of Ukip, Nigel Farage, in a live debate on Britain's future relationship with Europe.

For LBC, the radio station hosting this unprecedented political joust, the event is a statement of intent as it challenges the BBC, the broadcaster that listeners might previously have expected to stage such an occasion.

For James Rea, the young managing director of LBC, which became a national network this month, the BBC has left "a gap in the market" for his station to fill. It is doing so with a relentless diet of news and politics. In his first interview, Mr Rea, 33, told The Independent on Sunday that the BBC's decision to move Radio 5 Live to Salford offered an opportunity to LBC, which has forged strong links with Westminster and broadcasts weekly shows by Mr Clegg and Boris Johnson.

"Most people involved in the cut and thrust of politics are in London," he said. "It is this city, and not Salford, that in the main sets the news agenda."

He aims to be quicker to the story than BBC Radio 4 with its schedule commitments to cultural matters and reliance on a schedule packed with "built" programme packages. "We don't have poetry slots or someone reading a book or a review of a film. The fluffy stuff is absolutely not what LBC is about."

Radio 4 is often "locked into expensive documentaries", while Radio 5 Live is "increasingly sports driven", he says. "LBC is not a place where we would interrupt the Prime Minister because of a wicket in the cricket."

Mr Rea, who left Radio 1's Newsbeat programme seven years ago and is someone the BBC would love to lure back, concedes that he has no evidence that such an interruption of a prime minister has ever occurred on the BBC. But his point about the market opportunity is a fair one, as Radio 5 Live prepares to clear space in its schedules for the World Cup.

Gill Hind, a broadcasting expert at Enders Analysis, said: "LBC should be a credible alternative to the more sports-focused 5 Live. However, it will need to find the correct national/London balance to ensure it doesn't alienate some of its existing listeners while attracting those from outside the capital."

LBC was founded 40 years ago as Britain's first commercial radio station. It is now owned by Britain's largest radio company, Global, and is part of a stable of broadcasting brands that includes Classic, Heart, Capital and Xfm.

There is a cliché that LBC is the favoured station of the London cabbie but Mr Rea – who is from Middlesbrough but did work experience at LBC 20 years ago when he was 13 – argues the politics-driven output has never been parochial. "We have never been Radio Local."

Even with its current financial restraints, 5 Live can draw on the BBC's army of journalists and Mr Rea recognises that he will need added resources to cover the whole country. Global (for which Mr Rea is also head of news) has built up a team of 100 journalists across 20 newsrooms ("from Cornwall to Glasgow"). It will prepare for its Europe debate with reports from Paris and Brussels.

This weekend Mr Rea introduced a series of new LBC presenters in the form of Daily Mail journalist Andrew Pierce (Saturday mornings) and the Sunday pairing of the obstreperous Sky News stalwart Kay Burley and Stig Abell, managing editor of The Sun. Mr Rea will be hoping to take advantage of 5 Live's weekend commitments to sport.

But with two recruits from the Murdoch media empire and the other from the Mail, Mr Rea is open to criticism that the station – unconstrained by the restrictions followed by the obsessively neutral BBC – favours voices from the right of the political spectrum. He rejects the accusation. "If you spend an hour listening to the station, it certainly doesn't sound like an endorsement of the coalition." An offer to broadcast on LBC has been made to the Labour leader but so far not accepted. "If Ed Miliband wanted a share of that microphone, then the invite is there."

The studio audience for the live Europe debate, which will be "refereed" by veteran LBC presenter Nick Ferrari, will be selected by the market researchers ICM. But Mr Rea argues that it is LBC's listeners – and the risk they pose of "skewering" politicians – who ensure the station's balance and mark it out from its rivals. "We don't give politicians a free ride," he says.