Talk are not just hot air

Alan Hubbard says that money has sounded the BBC a warning
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The Independent Online
WHEN KELVIN McKenzie, erstwhile Sun God, scooped the broadcasting rights of England's winter tour of South Africa for his new toy, Talk Radio, with some old fashioned cheque-book journalism, it must have felt like a kick in the bails for the BBC. Yorked, they mutter, by an underhand delivery from the cheekiest chappie in the business.

Launched in 1995 Talk stuttered before coming under new management last November when McKenzie headed a take-over consortium with the financial assistance of his former employer at the Sun and BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch. Subsequently, McKenzie's offer of pounds 150,000 to the United Cricket Board of South Africa was up to 10 times as much as the BBC would have expected, or wanted to pay. Perhaps more significantly, it can be seen as a down- payment on the rights to an even bigger battle - the control of sports airwaves.

Can Talk, with McKenzie's boot up their backsides, do to BBC radio what Sky has done to them on the box? And could it be that those Sky-styled upstarts of the FM wavelength will become radio's first all sports station? The thought will have crossed McKenzie's mind - and Murdoch's too. Their renewed alliance puts Talk on the field as a serious player and, ominously, gives Murdoch with his 20 per cent stake yet another kick at goal.

Rejected as would-be owner of Manchester United, Murdoch now takes comfort from the fact that Talk Radio has exclusive rights not only to England's cricket tour, but United's home fixtures in the Champions' League.

Talk claims to reach 2.6 million people a week (around half of BBC's 5 Live) but its sports output is considerably more substantial than any other commercial station - 40 hours a week and growing.

Moz Dee, Talk's head of sport, is not overplaying the cricket capture: "This is a very minor victory for us. The biggest share of radio sports is still the BBC's. We've had little coups before, notably on football, but never any reaction like this. They seem to have gone mental, apopletic with rage, and this seems to be what the BBC is all about."

The talk about Talk is that McKenzie has them buzzing around at their London headquarters like the proverbial blue-arsed flies. The station is taking much of its technique from Sky - the hype, hoopla and the expertise. The re-running of the commentary on the Lewis-Holyfield fight, for which McKenzie also snapped up the live rights, during the following week was a classic Sky ploy.

Unlike Murdoch, McKenzie has a working knowledge of sport, although the nearest he gets to being an aficionado is a passion for Millwall. Moreover, he has always been a hard man to resist. His take it or leave it technique means he gets what he wants, but one who didn't snatch his hand off was an established member of the Test Match Special team, Christopher Martin Jenkins.

Tradition, as McKenzie is said to have remarked in the Sun newsroom, is a load of bollocks. Yet he takes his rebuffs with the smooth having struggled long enough to have gained membership of a decent golf club. He has persuaded some big names to join the Talk show. Sebastian Coe does a weekly radio version of John Inverdale's Onside, called Offside. Their Lewis-Holyfield team was headed by ITV's Jim Rosenthal and Gary Newbon, with Chris Eubank.

Rosenthal has no doubt that that Talk is now to radio what Sky is to TV. Actor and journalist Tom Watt is another Talk regular with popular phone-ins. "The quality of the calls is outstanding," he says. "They come from the sort of people, who, if you were sitting next to them at a match you'd be happy to talk to. No nutters and relatively few armchairs." Watt can see a future for an all sports station. "If someone has their head screwed on, it won't be a long time coming."