Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone will lead the biggest challenge to Radio 5 Live since the BBC launched its news network 20 years ago.
Global, Britain’s biggest commercial radio company, is to turn its London-based talk station LBC into a national service on 11 February and provide serious competition to the BBC network, which has faced criticism over its news output.
Commercial broadcasters, notably UTV, the owner of its sports rival TalkSport, have previously complained to the BBC Trust that Radio 5 Live, which is required to dedicate 75 per cent of its output to news, was producing too much “fluffy” entertainment-based news.
LBC has built a reputation for political discussion and its managing editor James Rea has filled its schedule with high-profile presenters, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who hosts a show named “Call Clegg”.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has a show called “Ask Boris” and other nationally-known LBC presenters include Nick Ferrari, Kay Burley and Iain Dale.
Moz Dee, a former managing editor of 5 Live and a former programme controller of TalkSport, said the BBC station faced “the most difficult job” in fending off strong competitors in both news and sport.
“A lot is expected of 5 Live, it needs to be a rolling news service that’s inclusive and has the broadest-possible audience,” he said. “The big challenge for LBC will be turning the brand into something palatable outside the Greater London area.”
LBC, which was founded as the London Broadcasting Company, is a pioneer of commercial radio and was launched 40 years ago. Its national service on digital platform DAB is set to be of lower bandwidth and quality than the BBC’s service.
But radio industry sources said LBC’s opinionated programmes would provide an attractive alternative to the BBC network, where political balance is prerequisite.
The national launch of LBC could give Britain a taste of the talk radio wars that are commonplace in America where presenters such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Howard Stern are broadcasting superstars commanding vast salaries.
Ferrari, who has previously worked in American radio, said he was looking forward to national competition.
“It’s a fantastic moment for radio in this country,” he said. “There’s real choice and a chance for listeners to hear stories break on shows such as ‘Call Clegg’ and ‘Ask Boris’, and then savour intelligent comment afterwards.”
Global, which also owns Classic FM, has already successfully taken London-based radio brands Capital and Heart across the country.
To combat the threat, Radio 5 Live may look to strengthen a schedule that includes award-winning broadcasters such as Nicky Campbell, Victoria Derbyshire, Shelagh Fogarty, Peter Allen and Richard Bacon.
Jonathan Wall, controller of Radio 5 Live, indicated he was relaxed about the challenge. “Healthy competition from commercial rivals has only improved BBC Radio 5 live over recent years and I know it will continue to do so,” he said. “I wish everyone at the newest national speech station the very best of luck.”
Global is Britain’s largest commercial radio company with 27.5 per cent of analogue commercial licences. Its biggest brands are Capital, Heart, Classic FM, Smooth, LBC, Capital XTRA, Xfm and Gold. Global also operates related television stations Capital TV and Heart TV.
Its nearest challenger is Bauer Radio which has a portfolio that includes Kiss, Magic and Absolute as well as major city stations Hallam FM (Sheffield), Key 103 (Manchester) and Radio City (Liverpool). In third place in the sector is UKRD, which has a roster of 16 local stations that includes Pirate FM in Redruth and Minster FM in Cornwall. The other two key players in the sector are UTV, owners of national station TalkSport, and Celador Radio, whose station brands are The Breeze and Jack FM.
According to Ofcom figures, commercial radio reaches 63.5 per cent of adults over 15, with a total audience of 33.2 million. Global’s reach in the year to the end of the first quarter of 2013 was 19.28m and Bauer Radio recorded 13.8m. The BBC took 55.9 per cent of total listening with Global taking 15.7 per cent and Bauer Radio 11.5 per cent.