TalkSport proves that there is life after Kelvin

The fortunes of the once unloved station have been transformed since new owners took over and the former Sun editor moved on. And Germany '06 is its biggest moment yet
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The Independent Online

he latest mayhem at TalkSport, the radio station founded by Kelvin MacKenzie, has already produced one of the great World Cup headlines: "Brazil out of the World Cup". This is Alan Brazil, the former footballer and TalkSport's colourful breakfast show co-host.

The row seemed like a return to the good old days at TalkSport. Brazil was once "fired" by MacKenzie, the former Sun editor, after failing to return from Cheltenham racetrack, only to be later reinstated.

Now Brazil has apparently been "fired" again by new owner UTV after rows over jokey trails for the breakfast show suggesting that the presenter likes a drink or two. "Alan is renowned for a bit of a tipple and all the rest of it and the audience loves that kind of thing," says Scott Taunton (below), the Australian who now runs TalkSport. He hardly seems outraged by the misdemeanours of the former Ipswich Town and Scotland striker. Brazil could have a great World Cup after all.

Much has changed in the year since the Belfast-based broadcasting company bought MacKenzie's Wireless Group for £98m. "It [The Wireless Group] was a fiefdom. It was a plc in name only," Taunton says. Almost the entire management team was changed - including MacKenzie's son Ashley, the former sales director - within a month.

But the biggest symbolic change is TalkSport's relationship with live football and the World Cup. The station became notorious for covering football matches it did not have rights to by having commentators watch television in hotel rooms or the office while sometimes adding loops of "crowd noise".

The BBC, which did have the rights, went to court and as a result TalkSport had to broadcast reminders of where it was broadcasting from. Now TalkSport is an official World Cup broadcaster alongside the BBC and ITV and will take 20 staff to the finals, probably including Alan Brazil.

Taunton accepts most people will watch the top games on television but has paid for the rights to lift TalkSport's credibility and to be able to attach the word "official" to what has been in the past an eccentric radio station. "We can at least look advertising agencies in the eye," says Taunton, who runs all UTV's radio stations in Britain. Its Irish stations are run from Belfast.

UTV, the ITV broadcaster for Northern Ireland, has had a rapid expansion in radio. In the year to March, radio turnover grew to £38.9m out of total group turnover of £92.7m.

Taunton started his career in IT, founded an internet business and continued to run it after it was bought by UTV. As he talks in Kelvin MacKenzie's old London office, Taunton says he initially had great difficulty getting into it, even after UTV was formal owner of the radio group.

MacKenzie explained that he had no London office. Perhaps he could use a little meeting room for a while? "Look, Kelvin mate, I'm not going to kick you out of your office, you stay where you are. So long as it's only a week," Taunton recalls. After two weeks Kelvin was still in his office and the TalkSport CE was in the meeting room. "Two and a half weeks in I said, right, there are two ways to do this - walk out or we call the cops," says Taunton. MacKenzie went quietly.

"He didn't want to go. It was his baby," says Taunton, who pays full tribute to MacKenzie for the creativity that carved TalkSport out of an ailing station.

How the place was run is a different matter. There was a MacKenzie factor. "It wasn't a nice place to walk into. Kelvin is a bully." Now pay and conditions have been improved and the staff turnover rate cut from 40 per cent to 20 per cent.

When UTV took over, there were calls from sports organisations saying they would be delighted to do business with the station - something that had not always been the case. "If you are not liked and are fighting for credibility then the prices at which you sell airtime bear no resemblance to the quality of the audience," Taunton says.

"Here we are with the type of audience ITV would chew its right arm off for - young, affluent men - and yet we still sell TalkSport at a discount to the rest of national radio."Taunton says 55 per cent of the audience are ABC1s and the audience is becoming younger. The first woman presenter, Lisa Francesca Nand, has been appointed, George Galloway was hired to present a weekend current affairs phone-in and the QPR legend Rodney Marsh presents a drivetime show.

The effect of UTV's changes on profits has been dramatic. In 2004, the last full year of Wireless Group ownership, profits were about £2.2m. In the first six and a half months of UTV's reign, operating profit reached £4.8m.

As for the World Cup, Taunton is prepared to set aside any Aussie patriotism in the interests of business. "I hope England get all the way to the final, but if they then lose 12-0 I wouldn't mind too much."