Media: Look who's talking on the next radio network: Michael Leapman hears why the third national commercial station will concentrate on words

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The Independent Online
John Aumonier remembers the time exactly. 'It was two minutes to 11 last Thursday when the call from the Radio Authority came through,' he says. 'They were kind enough to phone, not just send a fax like they did with Richard Branson. It was a tremendous feeling.'

The message was that Talk Radio, an international consortium with Aumonier, 42, as its managing director, had won the franchise for the third national commercial radio network. It is to be a speech-based station, specialising in phone-ins and broadcasting, on the medium wave frequencies now occupied by BBC Radio 1. It will go on the air in the first few months of next year.

The decision was not a complete surprise because the Radio Authority announced three months ago that Talk Radio had made the highest bid for the franchise, with pounds 3,820,000. This was more than pounds 1m higher than the second bid, from a consortium involving the Daily Mail. The authority is obliged by law to accept the highest bid if it fulfils the technical and financial criteria.

But Aumonier knew all too well - and, if he was inclined to forget, the trade press never failed to remind him - that both national franchises previously awarded had gone to the second highest bidders: Classic FM and Richard Branson's Virgin 1215. In both cases the top bidders had failed to attract enough financial backing.

Talk Radio already has its financing in place from corporate investors, including one in Canada and another in the United States; so last week the Radio Authority waved the bid through. Now all Aumonier has to do is to hit on a successful formula.

'Our research tells us there is a gap in the market,' he says. Many new media launches have been based on that belief, but too often the entrepreneurs, far from breaching the gap, have fallen headlong into it. Aumonier, though, is confident he is on to something.

'It isn't just a gut feeling,' he insists. 'That wouldn't be good enough. We did audience research in depth and found that 75 per cent of listeners are dissatisfied with their listening options for speech radio.'

As far as commercial national radio is concerned, the gap is between the upmarket Classic FM and Virgin 1215. It is the ITV audience with middle-of-the- road tastes, stimulated by good conversation more than by music.

'In advertising and marketing terms we're talking about C1s and C2s,' he says. 'They're the kind of people who find Radio 4 too upmarket. Our research shows that about 60 per cent of listeners will come from BBC services, which means we'll be enlarging the audience and advertising revenue for all commercial radio.' This revenue has already gone up 27 per cent in the past year.

'But it's wrong to think of people switching permanently from one station to another. That isn't how they listen. They switch between two or three favourite stations; when they get tired of music they move to talk. They're becoming their own programme controllers.'

Phone-ins will be an important element of the new station, but Aumonier stresses they will not be like phone-ins on local radio, which can be monopolised by older listeners with time on their hands forming a kind of phone-in club. He hopes to attract younger audiences by his choice of presenters ('If you have a Pete Murray phone-in you get a Pete Murray audience') and by what he calls 'inter-active' use of the phone.

These programmes will resemble Radio 4's Call Nick Ross, with politicians and other powerful people invited to the studio to discuss contentious issues with listeners, but on a daily rather than a weekly basis. To make it easier for MPs to attend, the station will be based in Westminster, and Chris Moncrieff, the retiring political correspondent of the Press Association, has been hired as an adviser on whom to invite.

Under the Radio Authority's criteria for the new station, only 51 per cent of the output had to be speech. The rest could have been music, but Aumonier decided a near-equal mix would not work. At least 97 per cent of the output will be speech including, apart from phone-ins, short news bulletins, plays, comedy and documentaries.

'If you go to a fish restaurant you don't usually order steak,' he points out. 'Basically we're caterers, it's as simple as that.' But, like all new restaurateurs, he will not know whether he has a success on his hands until the first customers come through the door.

(Photograph omitted)