When talk is a turn-off

Shock-jock radio did not go down well on this side of the Atlantic. After a year of mixed fortunes, where does Talk Radio go now?
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Abstinently sipping water, Talk Radio's programme director is certainly frank about its launch, which happened a year ago this week. "There was an overwhelming vote by the public," Jerry Thomas says. "They voted with their fingers. They switched us off." There is a brief silence as this unavoidable truth is pondered.

A brilliant idea or doomed to failure? Talk Radio UK launched Britain's first national speech station. It was, as lavish pre-publicity boasted, a bid to recreate the hit US concept of shock-jock radio, an integral part of America's cultural life.

There was an agenda: the North American shareholders, Emmis Broadcasting, wanted to move away from the patronising Fifties style of Radio 4 and the Seventies feel of Radio 5 Live. Talk Radio would be very Nineties - accessible, unsanitised, mischievous, open to the man in the street. The other shareholders, CanWest, Hambros and MVI, bought the concept and bid an enormous pounds 3.8m for the annual licence.

The station's launch was overseen by John Aumonier, a former head of Virgin Radio. Jeremy Scott, also from music radio, became programme director. Controversial DJs Caesar the Geezer, Dr David Starkey, "Wild" Al Kelly, Terry Christian and Jeremy Beadle took the hot seats in front of the microphone, ready to attract 4 million listeners.

It went horribly wrong, horribly fast. Within days, complaints were pouring into the Radio Authority about bad language and discussions of "scatological sexual habits". In May, 28 complaints were upheld. The authority said the output was so offensive it would have fined the station had not Kelly, a key offender, already been sacked for "persistent" use of sexual references and strong language. Downmarket was not working. Neither was upmarket. Nigella Lawson, one of the few female presenters, was dropped in April after mentioning on air that she got her baby's nappies delivered. She was rather put out when the station explained that her lifestyle "did not fit in with the average". As she pointed out, "They took me on knowing exactly what I was."

Blood began spattering the plush Oxford Street corridors in earnest as MVI took fright at listener figures of 1.5 million. Editorial staff were culled: Jerry Scott out, Jerry Thomas (ex-GMTV, TV-am) in. MVI's chief executive Peter Clark arrived as acting managing director in place of Aumonier. The sales director, Alex Kenny, was dumped and replaced by David Lees. Was it enough?

No. In June, Thomas told the Radio Academy Festival that the station's launch was a "flop". Shock-jockery was formally interred three months later with the September sacking of Terry Christian and Caesar the Geezer. Both had "transgressed the standards of taste and decency expected by the public", Thomas announced. Two months later, the shake-up was complete. MVI bought out CanWest and Hambros and Emmis, and sold 49 per cent of shares to CLT, the European broadcasting company. MVI now holds 46 per cent.

Overseen by its managing director Travis Baxter, also MD of CLT UK Radio, Talk is now racing full-tilt in the opposite direction in a bid to become the Daily Mail of the airwaves. To this end, it expensively hired ITN anchorman Trevor McDonald, veteran presenter James Whale, Jonathan King and former Radio 1 DJs Simon Bates and Steve Wright. With the arrival of Bates's Our Tune, listeners might have been forgiven for thinking they had tuned in to a time-warped Radio 1. Above all else, it epitomised the complete rejection of Talk's launch ethos.

What went wrong? Thomas argues that the shock-jock concept was badly applied: "By the time it had travelled 3,000 miles across the Atlantic it had been reinterpreted as gratuitously offensive. It was rather sad." There was, he adds, a "lack of professionalism" and clear editorial message: "It offered phone-ins about the merits of coleslaw but ignored news events."

Caesar the Geezer, who recently left the soft-porn cable station The Fantasy Channel, has a different idea: "The concept was an excellent idea, but this country is 10 years behind. I told the American investors a shock-jock station wouldn't work, but we had to do it their way.That screwed up my career."

Caesar also claims the Americans forced him to be more outrageous than he wanted to be. "They'd be in the studio, pushing. I hold certain views on child molesters [viz, they should be dissected and their organs given to patients] and they wanted me to go over the top on that." He does not agree that the early audience was what Baxter describes as "a few pub hooligans". "Did he say that? I'm amazed. I had authors, lawyers, banks clerks, even MPs ringing."

Asked when he hopes to go into profit, Baxter mutters, "in my lifetime". Thomas, more radically, thinks Talk will become "the most popular radio station in the UK".

"People are now getting what Talk Radio's about," he adds, brightly. Well, some are. Estimates vary depending on whom you talk to, but Talk claims Rajar figures (Radio Joint Audience Research) of 2.5 million listeners in the third quarter of last year; however, the fourth quarter revealed a loss of 700,000; this may be the result of Rajar's changed methodology. Either way, it has a long way to go to achieve its target of 6 million listeners in two to three years.

Talk has been a textbook study in failure. It initially alienated advertisers and listeners by its aggressive image. It has operating costs of pounds 14m a year, compared with advertising revenue of pounds 3m. It bid more than its national commercial rivals Virgin Radio and Classic FM for its licence. Virgin went into profit last autumn after two-and-a-half years and Classic was a runaway success from its September 1992 launch.

In Talk's favour is the fact that Baxter is prepared to pour money - some from its sister music station Atlantic 252 - into getting it right. If this means sacking presenters, he does not flinch. Last week Vanessa Feltz was dropped from her Sunday morning show after failing to deliver the expected audience. More may follow as each show is scrutinised.

Commercial radio is an expanding medium. Advertising revenue in the year to last September went up 25 per cent to a heady pounds 260m. The Advertising Association predicts a prodigious growth of 93 per cent between now and 2007, compared with 54 per cent for TV and 37 per cent for the press.

Baxter believes national commercial stations such as Talk will be in the best position to seize the lion's share of a projected revenue bonanza. As radio moves into its digital future and commercial stations such as Virgin Radio begin to mushroom across Europe, time will tell if his hunch is rooted in reality - or just idle Talk.