He talks a good game. But is MacKenzie's plan for a radio empire on the ropes?

Kelvin MacKenzie's ambition to turn his radio station TalkSport into the nation's main media sports outlet is beginning to look like a pipe dream.

The former editor of The Sun is rapidly losing the confidence of media analysts following two setbacks this month - losing Test match coverage to the BBC, despite putting in a higher bid, and being reprimanded for passing off football league match reports as live when they were not.

Mike Hope-Milne, head of radio at MediaCom TMB, said: "TalkSport are quoting the rise in the latest Rajar [industry accepted] figures, but you have to remember they bombed in the previous quarter. The next quarter will be the key for the station.

"If the audience goes down, they are in real trouble. They lost large numbers of their audience in the change to sport. They have lost most of the female listeners, and a lot of the ones that remain are complaining.

"The output is a little bland. Basically, it is like football fans going down the pub after a match and chatting for five hours. When there's not live coverage of sport what you get is blokes talking about football. Kelvin MacKenzie has employed some very good people; but I don't think he himself has the acumen to make it work. He is a tabloid journalist, not a radio man."

Eugen Beer, of the media consultants Beer Davies, who has worked with the radio industry for 25 years, said yesterday: "I was shocked this week to listen to the Manchester United match on TalkSport and find that they were going to On Digital to take what is basically a television feed for player interviews. It's pretty ironic because On Digital and Sky Digital are deadly rivals and Talk is partly financed by Rupert Murdoch.

"Losing the Test match bidding also betrays how one-dimensional the offering that is TalkSport is. It only has money to offer. It certainly hasn't got diversity of audience. And the BBC can say they will plug the Test match on all their channels. Talk can't do that."

Insiders at the station say Mr MacKenzie's tabloid instincts are causing increasing concern among senior staff. Most recently, eyebrows were raised over a formal warning to the station by the football league.

The league is unhappy that the station passed off match reports as live commentary, when those rights belong exclusively to the BBC. The station's sports editor, Mike Parry, said the infringement was the result of a producer becoming "distracted".

The BBC has also criticised its would-be rival when TalkSport announced a sponsorship agreement with the Nationwide Building Society for its "live coverage of Euro 2000 games". The BBC issued an immediate statement pointing out that it owns all live United Kingdom rights.

Audience figures are also belying Mr MacKenzie's boasts about his station. After Rajar figures last November showed a 17 per cent drop to 1.8 million listeners, losing more than 400,000 listeners from slots throughout the day, Mr MacKenzie said this was why he turned Talk Radio (after his usual scattergun round of sackings and stunts) into the UK's first sport radio station.

"The British public loves sport," he said. "We are already winning a new, younger, up-market, more attractive audience." But while the latest Rajar figures - the first since he changed Talk Radio to TalkSport - might have added a million listening hours to its audience during the final quarter of last year, its audience share was static at 1.5 per cent, a disappointing level for a national station.

Mr MacKenzie certainly seems to be feeling bitter at the station's recent disappointments. After losing the Test match rights battle to the BBC, he accused Lord MacLaurin, the head of the England and Wales Cricket Board, of operating "an old school tie" policy.

A TalkSport spokesman said: "In the fourth quarter Rajars we were gratified to see we gained more than one million hours, and the weekly reach was up by almost 20 percent over the previous quarter."

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