The BBC pair, who will launch a new podcast as well as front a show together for LBC, are the latest in a line of high-profile hires by Global, Europe’s largest commercial radio company. A series of acquisitions over the years brought stations including Capital, Heart, LBC and Classic FM into its portfolio.
Although it’s too early to say what the impact of the newest hires will be, data suggests that Global’s past investments have paid off. Figures from official radio measurement body, RAJAR shows that LBC is the fastest-growing player in talk radio, more than tripling its audience from 2004 to 2.6m weekly listeners. BBC talk radio audiences have in contrast mostly stagnated.
As Europe’s largest radio company, Global’s brands include: Heart, Capital, Capital XTRA, Capital Dance, Classic FM, Smooth, Radio X and Gold.
So what has been the driver behind LBC’s growth?
It’s partly due to former owner Chrysalis just switching where the station sat on the dial, says radio industry analyst Matt Deegan referring to when Chrysalis swapped the station’s frequency over to FM in the early 2000s.
But LBC’s success is down to more than just taking a coveted FM slot.
"The thing which Global did when they bought Chrysalis was they shifted its focus to be on politics… in radio, consistency does very well," says Deegan.
"Parallel to this was investment in talent but a lot of stunt-casting with people like Nigel Farage or Katie Hopkins which is something LBC has always had. The purpose of hiring people like that isn't really that the shows particularly get lots of listening but it gets in the papers. It gets people to consider LBC as an option to target non-listeners."
Capitalising on the desire for more lively debate around the time of the Brexit referendum also played into the station’s favour. "What they’ve been really good at is seeing this move towards more opinionated news. The demand there is for lively debate," says Tom Standen-Jewell of Enders.
The advent of video on social media meanwhile also proved a boon for the personality-driven station which Global took advantage of by investing in its studios to make them more visually appealing. "It unlocked the ability for TV to cover what LBC was doing. When someone said something, there was a video of it," says Deegan.
"All those things together made it a much more interesting operation than it had ever been before."
Global’s funding structure also gives it an edge over some of its rivals. Last year the company still generated £314m in revenue, although it is mostly funded by debt.
Loans from owner Ashley Tabor-King’s family and various banks (Ashley’s father Michael, an investor in the company is one of the UK’s wealthiest businessmen) means it enjoys the financial freedom to invest to grow. This says Deegan allows them in his view to make decisions that aren’t necessarily driven by immediate finances.
"If they see LBC as important for the business and to help them drive other elements of the business, not just the bottom line, then they'll do that. By hiring the BBC talent - Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis and before that Andrew Marr, Eddie Mair, Iain Dale and Shelagh Fogarty - you look at that lineup and you see they mean business - whether that's to government, advertisers, or whoever. It’s a very strong lineup."
He adds: "Whether it will be successful in ratings terms, it's going to be six to nine months before we really know."
And while advertising was hit during the pandemic, radio advertising has held up well says Standen-Jewell, with Global taking a sizeable chunk of the pie.
Data from the AA/WARC shows that in recent years, Global has consistently outperformed the radio market as a whole for advertising (although LBC is not likely to be a large part). Last year ad spend fell 16.6% year-on-year across the sector as a whole, but by 12% for Global. In good years, its growth has significantly outperformed the sector.
Yet despite LBC’s growth and well publicised poaching of some of the BBC’s biggest stars, the BBC is still the clear market leader in talk radio. Although digital radio has somewhat levelled the playing field for less encumbered commercial players to launch new DAB or online services, LBC lags well behind the 10.5m Radio 4 reached last quarter.
"Whether the majority of the country [is] behind really partisan news and debate is an open question at the moment," says Standen-Jewell.
Deegan believes that there’s more of a market for upmarket speech radio - such as Times Radio - than more downmarket rivals. LBC, he says, has definitely shifted its audience to take in more "up market" listeners.
Shifting audio distribution trends driven by digital and IP listening, as well as the increasing influence of smart speakers and connected devices, however represent significant challenges for the radio industry going forward. LBC is no exception with the numbers clearly showing internet listening accounts for a small part of its hours.
"LBC has been quite slow to digitise and move on to online platforms," says Standen-Jewell.
Its new hirings however, might be an opportunity to change this.
"One of the opportunities is to be more digital and to be a bit more digital first. Maybe Sopel and company are the thing that's going to do that for them," says Deegan.
The company may also, he speculates, one day make a foray into TV.
"I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if it suddenly arrived on TV,” says Deegan. "When you look at the people they've hired and you see what's happening in GB News and Talk TV it would seem like they're all the right sorts of people to have for a TV channel.
"From a Keeping Up with the Joneses perspective, even though LBC is at least ten times as big as Talkradio you want to be able to do at least what it does."