Ian Burrell: TalkSPORT’s gamble on Keys and Gray proving a real match-winner

Less than four months after quitting Sky Sports under the cloud of a sexism scandal, the presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray find themselves working for the radio station of the year.

TalkSPORT, the network snootily derided as the favourite listen of Britain’s white van men, was given the top accolade at last week’s radio industry Sony awards, a few days before the station revealed record listening figures of 3.25 million a week, with listening hours up by 36 per cent on last year.

Hiring Keys and Gray seemed like a considerable risk for a station already on an upward curve under programme director Moz Dee, who joined three years ago from rival speech station BBC Radio 5 Live. Dee, naturally enough, defends his decision. “I think they have brought credibility to our product,” he says. “People might smile and smirk at that, given the circumstances in which they left Sky. I can understand that. But look at what these guys bring. Who else can get Wayne Rooney on the phone to talk personally about the swearing-into-the-camera incident? No one else can do that.”

The sexism row may have been the lead story on News at Ten but leading players still pick the phone up for Keys and Gray. “These people are trusted, theyare known to the football community,”Dee protests. “And if I, using them as a conduit, can give that to an audience who are passionate about football, why wouldn’t I do that?”

Although their previous misdemeanours were exposed by their own Sky colleagues, Gray and Keys have been humble “team players” at talkSPORT. “Therehasbeennohint of ego and histrionics in any sense,” says Dee, claiming that Gray is often seen making the tea. The two presenters, their boss says, have made their apologies and the public has been prepared to move on.

Many will not be ready to forgive the pair just yet but for the talkSPORT audience Dee’s words might well be true. The station now uses the strapline “for men who love to talk sport”. Some 2.9 million of its 3.25 million listeners are male. Under Dee, the network’s brand has become much more sharply delineated. “There may have been at some point in the past a confusion with talkSPORT. It was called talkSPORT but there were areas of the output which were still very firmly built in current affairs,” he says.

So Dee will not have been altogether sorry to see the departure of shock jock Jon Gaunt (an old friend from his home city of Coventry) after a bizarre on-air outburstagainst a local councillor in 2008. Gaunt had followed James Whale out the door – another newsbased broadcaster, who breached rules about political impartiality.

Since then the station has increasingly focused on sport. Big advertisers, such as Sure deodorant, appreciate the clarity of message. The hiring of Keys and Gray will not have damaged this macho brand.

On Sky, Gray in particular was known for his skilful use of visual gadgetry as an aid to insightful tactical punditry. But Dee had no qualms about either man’s ability to transfer to audio. Keys (another old Coventry acquaintance of Dee’s) had started his career on Manchester’s Radio Piccadilly. The programme director had worked with Gray on the coverage of the 1998 World Cup for the old Talk Radio UK. “The visualisation, the pictures that Andy Gray can paint are absolutely extraordinary, he’s a brilliant co-commentatorand a brilliant orator when it comes to the game in front of him, so I had no worries about that at all,” he says. TalkSPORT has a track record in rehabilitation. It gave Russell Brand his first radio outing after the Sachsgate scandal (which also had sexist undertones) and Dee has championed Stan Collymore who has had previous problems with depression and domestic violence.

Collymore, who Dee describes as a “great broadcaster”, has formed a successful on-air team with Mark Saggers, who the programme director brought with him from Radio 5 Live.

Though Dee says he doesn’t mind if a listener drives a van that is “white, black or pink”, he says the audience demographic is much wider than the blue-collar stereotype and is 56 per cent ABC1. That will be further enhanced by the station having secured exclusive rights to the upcoming Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, for which it has hired the ex-players Austin Healey, David Campese and John Taylor.

That will be the first time the tournament has not been covered on BBC radio, but talkSPORT has no direct rights to the 2012 Olympics. Is the most sports-focused network feeling squeezed in covering the biggest sports event of all? “We are a bit, yes,” admits the programme director. But the unpredictabilityof the Olympics provides talkSPORT with coverage opportunities beyond the commentary. “We might have a superstar in the archery or a major personality in windsurfing,” he says.

Dee still has issues with his former radio station, claiming that 5 Live does too much sport and “populist speech” when it would better serve the licence fee payer as a rolling news service. Commercial radio, he says, will note talkSPORT’s Sony triumph (and that 5 Live itself picked up six gold awards) and realise that “speech radio is the future of the growth of radio in the UK”.