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April 2, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:07am

Interview: Head of Talksport Lee Clayton on running a sports radio station with no sport (+video)

By Charlotte Tobitt

Head of Talksport Lee Clayton says his station’s responsibilities to its listeners during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic are to “continue to inform, entertain and also to give them some escape”.

As a radio station that focuses on sport, Talksport has had to adapt quickly following the suspension of all professional football matches in England, and many other sports, on 13 March due to the virus.

Wimbledon has now also been cancelled for the first time since WW2, as people heed official advice to stay at home.

Many newspapers have reduced their sports paginations as a result, and organisations including PA Media and regional publisher JPI Media have put large numbers of sports journalists with nothing to do on furlough.

But Talksport, named network of the year at the Sports Journalism Awards last month, is still broadcasting around the clock and even launched a revamp of its breakfast show this week.

Presenter Laura Woods has taken over from stalwart host of 20 years Alan Brazil on Mondays to Wednesdays, splitting the week between something new and fresh and something familiar to listeners.

Scroll down to watch the interview as a video

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Clayton, who was head of sport at the Mail titles before joining Talksport, which is part of News UK, at the start of 2019, spoke to Press Gazette this week about how the station is covering “sport without sport”.

He said his newspaper background has come in useful for programming and set out where he believes Talksport’s responsibility lies in the current crisis.

“I likened it to being one of those days I always quite enjoyed when the diary was blank and the pages were blank – you started the day as if you had nothing and then throughout the day you were looking to build and create and develop stories and to fill those pages,” he said.

“And that’s what it’s been like every day.

“It’s been creating shows, developing narrative, really challenging our broadcasters to be at their best without the help of discussing a great sporting moment or certainly a recent great sporting moment.

“So it’s not been without its challenges, but I think we know what our responsibilities are to our listeners and right now that is to continue to inform, continue to entertain and also to give them some escape.

“Some of the feedback that we get is ‘don’t give us too much news. We know where to get that – we can go to Talkradio. We know where to go for our news. Give us something that allows us to escape from it and give us something to make us smile’.

“And that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

Clayton pointed to an emotional email he received from a listener in Exeter with mental health issues.

“Thank you for what you’re doing for me,” the listener wrote. “I’m missing my sport and need my sport, it’s an important part of my life and it’s not here at the moment but what you’re giving me is something else.”

“Come and have a laugh with us”

Clayton said listening habits had changed since social distancing practices began in the UK, with more people tuning into the mid-morning and afternoon shows compared to the usual focus on breakfast and drivetime.

“It’s almost as if the messaging is you can give yourself permission to come and listen to us,” Clayton said.

“Of course you want to be around the coronavirus messaging and the really serious important work that the news programmes and news channels are doing, and the newspapers, but give yourself a bit of time off, come and have a laugh with us for some time during the day because we just need that level of escapism.”

To keep its service going, Talksport has introduced a limit on the numbers of people in its control rooms and studios at News UK’s London Bridge headquarters, with a maximum of two presenters in the studio at one time. Other staff dial in remotely.

But despite some technical issues such as delays and one presenter’s voice being slowed down so much he “sounded like Barry White”, Clayton says the “chemistry and the warmth” between presenters remains the most important thing.

Talksport has used its status as an official broadcast partner of the Premier League to promote the work clubs are doing in their communities in return for access to players for interviews and to continue giving “insight into what’s happening in the sports world”.

Outside of football, England cricket captain Joe Root was on the breakfast show this week talking about learning to play the guitar during lockdown, while Taekwondo Olympian Bianca Walkden discussed clearing out her garage to make space to exercise.

“I’ve always thought whether you work for newspapers or whether you work for radio that providing insight into the lives of sportsmen and sportswomen is really important to do because no matter how good you are as a broadcaster or as a writer, you’re not in the dressing room… or in this case you’re not in that garage working out trying to maintain your Olympic dreams,” Clayton said.

“So again, it’s the same principle – it’s provide us with insight, give us some kind of idea of what’s happening in your life, share with us the challenges that you face.”

Crisis presents an ‘opportunity’ for new shows

Clayton said he saw the coronavirus crisis as an “opportunity” to create new shows for the schedule while the station waits for football to return.

These include a number centred around mental health, a cricket-focused show, and one coming soon called “Up Front With” featuring interviews with goal scorers – as well as the new-look breakfast show.

“But let’s be honest, we’re all just waiting for football to return,” he said.

Looking forward, Clayton said that once the lockdown is over “football will change and we’ll have to change with it”.

Commercially, the station lost partnerships such as those around the European Championship this summer but he hopes these will be postponed to next year.

“The challenge for me is to keep us at the top of the game and even though we don’t have any sport there’s so much to talk about, so many ways that we can entertain, so many ways that we can inform and I’m hoping the shows continue to do that.”

Talksport and sister station Talksport 2 reached 3.1m listeners in September to December 2019, according to the latest figures from radio audience measuring body RAJAR.

Read all Press Gazette’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the news industry here

Picture: News UK

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