The Times’ decision this week to launch a new radio station targeting “disenfranchised” BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live listeners was news to make BBC bosses’ ears bleed, already roiled by job cuts and falling listener numbers.
The explosion of political news in recent years – driven by Brexit in the UK, the Trump era and rise of China – has been a boon for some commercial news outlets. The New York Times, The Times, The FT and Economist have all piled on subscribers. The BBC hasn’t managed to match their success with nearly a million listeners turning off Auntie’s flagship news programme Today over the past year.
The Times has scented an opportunity. With the backing of News UK, the new station is likely to be a serious contender for those looking for quality current affairs without distracting non-factual content such as long running soap The Archers.
It may also be a place for politicians and those looking to influence public debate to come back to the radio waves. The Tory party has boycotted Today since the election, claiming the BBC spoke only to “a pro-Remain metropolitan bubble in Islington” during the campaign. Trumpian social media tactics, and the use of theMail, and TV, have instead gained favour.
Today’s editor Sarah Sands’ resignation this week, coming at the same time as an £80 million BBC cost saving drive across newsrooms, has given impetus to the new Times station. During Sands’ editorship, Today attempted more diversity and a magazine style, with celebrity interviews and guest editing. The core audience was put off by a lack of serious, informed debate.
Arguably, with a clean slate The Times and News UK can also have a better crack at digital radio, online, on app, focussed utterly on quality news. Like the Beeb, there will be no adverts and one can expect current Times journalists to be part of the line-up, as well as others in journalism and production perhaps being poached from the BBC after this week’s announcement of 450 job cuts.
Radio scores highly on audience trust and most people listen alone to aural content, having a thoughtful and intimate relationship with it. 90% of the UK population continue to tune into radio – either live or catch up, every week. 7.1 million people in the UK now listen to podcasts each week, an increase of 24% over the past year.
With the public rating the medium and new commercial entrants and competition,The Times’ new channel looks convincing. Corporates, like those in politics, should be all ears.