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Listeners beware, the shockjock's about to mug you

As Talk Radio prepares to come on air, Rhys Williams looks behind the hype Any suggestion that talk is cheap disappeared when Talk Radio UK snatched the third national commercial radio licence 18 months ago with a hefty £3.8m bid. The true price of words, either in success or failure, will become apparent from next Tuesday, Valentine's Day, when the network gets down to the serious business of broadcasting and trying to make some money. Sceptical? A lot are.

Few in the industry, not least those at Talk Radio, pretend it will be easy. But others go further - they say the station lacks focus, that the high bid introduces a financial imperative that the network's essentially downmarket, youthful (well, 25- to 49-year-old) target audience is ill-suited to help it fulfil.

The clearest picture of Talk Radio to emerge so far is a British version of American "shockjock" radio, in which presenters verbally mug their listeners with a mixture of prejudice and bile. Listeners get on the phone and generally respond in kind.

A less hollow regulatory regime in Britain will ensure that Talk Radio is more restrained in its push to be controversial, irreverent and occasionally anarchic. However, Jeremy Scott, Talk Radio's director of programmes, has admitted that in the bid to be "anti-establishment", the network will skirt perilously close to the Radio Authority's rules on taste and objectivity.

Talk Radio's cast list is, on the face of it, unlikely to trouble the ratings watchers at Radio 4. Jeremy Beadle, Terry Christian, Tommy Boyd (formerly of Magpie and LBC), the original radio agony aunt, Anna Raeburn, an ex-Sky News presenter, Scott Chisholm, and Caesar the Geezer ("a big fat Greek with a loud mouth", Scott once said) all suggest a pitch that is not so much middle-brow as below the belt.

The line-up will, the makers say, provide "the sort of radio that makes you feel something - interest, annoyance, amusement - anything as long as it's not boredom, indifference and apathy." In theory, at least.

John Spearman, the chief executive of Classic FM who knows what it takes to launch a successful national commercial radio network, says it is virtually impossible to judge Talk Radio before it goes on air, but believes that on paper the station's programming looks "extremely exciting and innovative".

That appears to be about as far as the kind words go. Mandy Pooler, managing director of O&M Media, believes that whereas Classic FM only faced serious competition from Radio 3 when it was launched three years ago, Talk Radio's output will be fighting tobe heard above Radio 4, the upwardly mobile Radio 5 Live and a host of regional and local speech-led stations. In addition, an apparent lack of programming focus and the high bid is leading Ms Pooler to ask "whether they can make a go of it financially".

She says that in sales pitches to agencies, Talk Radio has not been explicit about the tone of the station. "Is it going to be the American-style shockjock or more of a turbo-charged LBC? You cannot pin them down because I don't think they have decided themselves."

Although the Steve Wright "will he or won't he" be signing up saga may have generated column inches of coverage, Ms Pooler says it has only helped foster the overall climate of uncertainty. "If they did go for the shockjock route, that would give advertisers a lot of concern. It's too nichey, too controversial. That might be fine for the likes of Nike, but the big packaged- goods firms won't like it."

Talk Radio has forecast first year audiences of 3 million. To be viable, Ms Pooler believes it must hit around 10 per cent of all radio's weekly reach, or 4 million listeners. "They are not going to do 10 per cent by being culty, whacky or off the wall."

Gary Johnson, sales director at Melody FM, which has just switched frequencies to increase its catchment area, argues that on numbers alone, Talk Radio will struggle. "They have to pay £3.8m a year for the licence,about £2m a year to the BBC for transmitters and at least another £1m for electricity and associated costs. That's close to £7m in costs before a throwing a light switch." With big-name presenters and a heavy promotional push to fund, he sees total costs nudging £10m a year.

Classic FM is now taking around £12m-£13m after three years in the market. Classic, of course, has an upmarket, affluent audience which advertisers are prepared to pay a premium to reach. Talk Radio has no such luxury. Mr Spearman says: "Knowing how tough the market is, I think they face an uphill struggle to make that sort of money. Running a radio station is treading a delicate line between modest success and catastrophe at the best of times. They may have loaded the dice against themselves."

Talk Radio starts at 6am, Tuesday 14 February on AM 1053 and 1089.