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Talk 107 casualty Mike Graham warns station's future is uncertain

HE was the "shock jock" who never tired of telling his listeners what he thought. And when Mike Graham exploded on to the airwaves with the now shaky Talk 107, radios burned red hot.

Now the troubled station he once fronted has announced it's up for sale. And the host with the most – listeners, that is, until he was sacked earlier this year – is left musing over what might have been. He is of the opinion that the time for all-talking is probably over.

The first local FM commercial speech radio station outside of London when it launched in February 2006, he believes, is on the verge of a radical makeover.

"No-one wants to see a station shut down and I suspect if someone buys it then they might well ask OFCOM for a change to the licence so they can vary the output and play music," he says.

"Who will buy it? I imagine it would cost at least a couple of million, which for some people is not that much money. (Glasgow-based] Real Radio could look at it as a boutique station that does things slightly differently. Take what happened to Paisley-based Q96 which was a rock station bought by Real and turned into Rock Radio.

"It has a skeleton staff, their news comes from Real Radio and it's run from Real's Baillieston base. There are no overheads, everything is centralised and you can use the same producer for different stations. It makes financial sense."

If Ofcom agreed, it would mean the death of an Edinburgh-based talk format – even though the city presenter firmly believes that is a genre the city public has a huge appetite for, despite that never being reflected in the listening figures.

"I feel quite sad at the news because I always felt that Talk 107 could have been a success," says the one-time programme director. "But I can't say it was a complete surprise to hear it's for sale."

Today he's based his "Independent Republic of Mike Graham" show in London, where he works for TalkSport, run by the same Northern Irish media group, UTV, that has just announced plans to sell Talk 107.

Ironically, having been ditched by the Edinburgh independent station in March and told to clear his desk, he has since been broadcasting for them almost daily: his late night TalkSport programme is picked up and aired by the city station he once helped run.

Not that many Edinburgh radio listeners would know, though. For the official Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) figures suggest that tuning into Talk 107 on a regular basis was something of a rarity for most of us.

Figures from May showed an annual 23.3 per cent plunge in the number of people bothering to tune in for at least five minutes a week. And with only a four per cent slice of the potential listening public, the station – established almost three years ago – has long been seen as struggling.

For having confidently predicted obtaining an average of 140,000 listeners a week – 12.5 per cent of a potential 1.1 million – in its original licence application, Talk 107 currently has just four per cent, or just under 50,000.

That combined with the costs of running an independent station cost 47-year-old Mike, fellow presenters Susan Morrison and high-profile signings Tommy Sheridan and Scottie McClue their airspace earlier this year.

They departed amid statements from station boss Matt Allitt referring to phone-in shows which had fallen victim to the "mad, sad, bad and lonely" and predicting a new launch for the station.

A move, feels Mike, that simply served to turn off even more listeners. "They alienated people who were currently listening and who quite liked the way it was," he declares. "

The remit we had was to talk about local issues. Take the trams, the hot issue in the city . . . the idea that people aren't interested in talking about that is just nonsense.

"They don't want to talk about what's your favourite biscuit!"

So if the confrontational style of picking an issue and beating it into the ground wasn't the reason for Talk 107's poor performance in the race for listeners, then what was? "It's just a very expensive way to produce radio," shrugs the former Scottish Daily Mirror editor, specially picked for the station for his gritty news sense.

"Everyone is talking about consolidating, small stations are being centralised, all the news input comes from one hub. Speech stations are expensive to run, you have to pay people more money, you can't operate a music system, you can't pre-record the shows and you can't get computers to do things."

He also believes Talk 107 has become a victim of a contrived means of establishing listening figures and a failure to promote the station beyond the city limits.

"I do feel the audience was higher than the numbers were suggesting simply because of the way RAJAR works them," he explains, referring to the method of carrying out snapshot surveys aimed at determining how many listeners a station has, the times they listen, how often and for how long.

"Bigger stations get more recognition because more people have heard of them. Ask ten people in the street to name five radio stations and they might not even mention Talk 107 even though they do listen. We were said to be getting four per cent of listeners and we needed more – I'd argue we had more in Edinburgh, it was the figures for outlying areas that brought the figure down."

His job was axed, he shrugs, largely because he cost money that the company simply couldn't justify paying any longer. "It was cheaper to run without me and without highly paid presenters. Was that a mistake? That's a strong word because it was driven, I suspect, by financial concerns.

"Something had to be done because the station couldn't continue as it was."

Media watchdog insists new owner must stick to all-speech

MEDIA watchdog Ofcom today ruled out any move away from the all-speech format at radio station Talk 107.

The Edinburgh-based station's owner, UTV, has said it is to listen to offers for the brand. Media experts say that the sale of the station is proof that the all-talk format cannot work outside of London.

But Ofcom confirmed that any buyer would have to stick to the same format as is already in place – meaning it cannot become music-based.

The current 12-year radio licence – which stipulates that music will only be used for "illustrative purposes" – will need to be adhered to until it expires in 2018. If UTV was to receive no bids and did not want to continue to run the station itself it could hand the licence back to Ofcom. UTV would receive no refund, and Ofcom could then invite new bids for an amended licence.

UTV has cited the interest in the Edinburgh FM licence when it became available in 2004 as evidence that it would be in demand.

But Wireless Group, which successfully bid for the licence then taken on by UTV, was one of only two bidders that proposed an all-talk station.

UTV maintained today that it remains confident that someone will want to take the all-talk format on.

A spokesman for the firm's radio arm said: "We are very confident that we will be able to find a buyer for the station.

"There has been a change in the sound of the station– from confrontational to more of an entertainment focus – which has worked well."

 
 
 

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