Issue 247,  published February 25, 2020

Radio Times: Murdoch’s Big Radio Play

Over the past five years, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has been quietly building a major position in the UK radio scene. This effort has been led by Rebekah Brooks, CEO of the London-based subsidiary News UK — part of her rehabilitation at the company after a high profile criminal trial at the Old Bailey in 2014 found her not guilty of charges connected to the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Those working in UK commercial broadcasting may be well aware of News UK’s attempts to use audio to diversify beyond newspaper publishing, but this strategy largely flew under the radar for those outside the media bubble until this week, when a high profile hire brought this story into contact with the major political battle being fought right now over the future of the BBC.

Let’s take a step back and look at how we got to this point first, though. Under Brooks’s leadership, in 2016 News UK acquired the Wireless Group, a Northern Irish company that mainly made television and was formerly known as UTV. With this purchase, News UK took control of a number of commercial speech radio stations in the UK and Ireland. Brooks then invested heavily in talent and rights, luring daytime TV host Matthew Wright away from Channel 5 to host the afternoon show on talkRadio and outbidding the BBC for the radio rights to the England cricket team’s tours abroad to Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and South Africa.

Its most high profile signing came in 2018, when Chris Evans left the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show — where he earned £1.6 million and had 9 million weekly listeners for what was then the most popular radio show on the BBC — to work on the News UK owned digital-only station Virgin Radio. (Not to be confused with the station he fronted, owned and then sued in the 1990s, which is now known as Absolute Radio. This is a new Virgin Radio, operated by Wireless from 2016 thanks to a new license from Richard Branson.) Evans’s huge salary at the BBC had been controversial for months before he left, especially in the context of ongoing gender pay gap disputes and the lack of diversity in Radio 2’s day time line up.

As well as stuffing their station’s schedules with expensive presenters, Wireless also started making podcasts, often as part of a cross promotional strategy with other News UK brands. Two of the buzziest shows from this stable to date feature journalists from the Times newspaper, also owned by Murdoch: Giles Coren Has No Idea and the Red Box Politics Podcast. This was a strong indication of what was to come.

In January, News UK revealed its latest audio project: a new station called Times Radio. This will be a new national current affairs speech radio station explicitly designed to challenge BBC Radio 4. It’s set to launch later this year, with trusted Murdoch lieutenant Stig Abell in charge. All the details that have come out so far confirm that the strategy is to go aggressively after a BBC audience. So far, this is taking the form of an intense recruitment push, with multiple high profile BBC presenters reportedly in talks about defecting to the new station. Today programme presenter Nick Robinson and Brexitcast/Newscast host Chris Mason are among those thought to be considering the move.

Last week, the first major hire happened, with BBC deputy political editor John Pienaar announcing that he would be leaving the corporation to host the drive time show on Times Radio. Pienaar is a big get. He’s been with the BBC for over three decades in different roles, and is a popular and influential political commentator. His show on BBC Radio 5Live, Pienaar’s Politics, has generally been a key calling point for politicians with a story to push, and he’s one of a small handful of people of colour to be appointed to a senior journalistic role at the BBC.

In his Twitter thread announcing the move, Pienaar articulated what I suspect will be a key brand message of the new radio station, saying: “I’m beyond excited to be part of the newest digital venture under the oldest and greatest title in journalism.” The Times newspaper in London has been publishing daily since 1785, so although the new digital radio station is a very contemporary venture, it will no doubt use its parent newspaper’s heritage and centre-right reputation as a way of appealing to the middle class audience that typically feels so comfortable with BBC Radio 4.

In a surprising move, the BBC took Pienaar off the air immediately after the news of his departure to a competitor broke, meaning that he will on longer appear on news broadcasts while his notice period runs and his eponymous radio show will have a temporary host. I say surprising, because Times Radio launch director Stig Abell is still comfortably ensconced as a regular presenter on BBC Radio 4’s nightly arts programme Front Row. The difference presumably is that Pienaar is a full time employee, whereas Abell is a contractor, but it still sends an odd message to an already-spooked Radio 4 staff to remove one but not the other.

I fully expect there will be other similar moves to come, as senior figures at the BBC are tempted by the high pay on offer from Times Radio, as well as the new station’s freedom from BBC Charter rules and the chance it represents to be part of an expanding enterprise at a time when the BBC is making substantial cuts. As we’ve already seen with the spending on other Wireless stations talkRadio, talkSport and Virgin, News UK is making a substantial financial bet on commercial radio. For those who have spent years watching round after round of budget cuts, it’s a very attractive prospect.

This is where Rupert Murdoch’s move into UK radio intersects with the political crisis surrounding the BBC that I wrote about earlier this month. Although the current Conservative government has made very clear that it would like to reduce the size of the BBC, empower its commercial rivals and transform the license fee into some kind of Netflix-style voluntary subscription, it actually has limited legislative options to do this quickly. The license fee is guaranteed until the BBC’s current Charter runs out in 2027, and under current rules there will have to be another UK general election by early 2025. Although an inquiry into the BBC’s funding has been launched, the action ministers can take in the short term is limited.

However, Boris Johnson’s administration can achieve the sweeping changes to the BBC it desires without needing to wait for the legislative clock to run down. The destabilising rhetoric that has been coming from the Prime Minister and his colleagues in recent months has done a very effective job of creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear around the BBC’s future. In that context, a new commercial venture like Times Radio can thrive, poaching major BBC talent and luring listeners away. By the time the government and the BBC get to the negotiating table in 2022 to begin discussing the terms of the new Charter for 2027 and beyond, the BBC could well already be in a greatly weakened position, with audience figures down and a commercial competitor in Times Radio demonstrating that the open market is now able to offer services that the BBC has previously received public funding to provide.

In short, the government doesn’t need to wait years to dismantle the BBC. It just needs to create the climate that will allow Rupert Murdoch’s radio division — and other similar commercial competitors — to do it for them.

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.