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June 30, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:27am

Times Radio launch-day verdict: A cautious thumbs-up for Rupert Murdoch’s alternative to Radio 4

By Dominic Ponsford

Launching a new national talk-based radio station in the midst of a pandemic lockdown could not have been easy.

But News UK pulled it off yesterday with barely a hitch.

And on the whole it fulfilled its brief to be a more thoughtful and less hectoring home for current affairs-based coverage.

Our snap poll amongst 290 Press Gazette readers suggests that on the whole it was pretty well received.

We asked readers last night whether they had listened to Times Radio and what they thought of it.

Some 290 voted and 37.6% said they had listened. Of the 290: 15.2% said they liked it, 14.5% said it was OK and 7.9% said they didn’t like it.

On the whole, this seems like a pretty good result for day one.

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The station’s big opening day “scoop” was the “first sit-down broadcast interview” with Boris Johnson since lockdown began.

The revelation element of this slot was rather spoiled by the in-depth interview with Johnson which appeared in the Mail on Sunday the day before in which he revealed plans for billions in infrastructure projects and declared he was “fit as a butcher’s dog” and fell to the floor to do press-ups.

Stig Abell and Aasmah Mir, as billed, adopted a less confrontational style of interview than you would expect to see on Radio 4’s Today. The result was arguably easier on the listener, but failed to produce anything which would require Times editor John Witherow to clear the front page (or any page in today’s edition).

Johnson’s picture does appear on the front of today’s Times, but the accompanying story about £5bn in spending for a Rooseveltian “New Deal” is based on a speech he is due to give today.

Witherow himself was an early interviewee. One of the great things about the BBC is that it can be very good at holding itself to account. Abell gave Witherow the very lightest of grillings.

Talking about the current crisis in the global news business, Abell said: “The industry has itself to blame” – pointing to the fact that, according to one survey, 18% of people trust journalists.

Witherow said: “Yes it is to blame. Trust is absolutely critical for our reporting.”

And there the discussion ended. One would have thought that these two might have a more interesting discussion about trust and journalism than that. Abell himself was, after all, a senior figure at former press regulator the PCC and Witherow was a senior exec at News International as the hacking scandal unfolded.

Asked what his biggest mistake was, Witherow said it was losing a libel action against Michael Foot over a story which – he said – later turned out to be true. Mmm.

It felt that Times Radio will struggle to compete with Radio 4’s Today in the morning slot. As one commenter told Press Gazette on Twitter: “It felt like Radio 5. A bit more informal than R4 but without the reporting network and rather uncritical of the government. I turned back to Today after half an hour.”

Another Press Gazette reader said: “It was OK, at least between 7am and 9am when I listened in. But they need to read out fewer stories from The Times if they want to sell newspaper subscriptions, as it was a great way of catching up with the paper’s content for free.”

Another said of Matt Chorley’s mid-morning political programme: “A lively and engaging show. Especially liked the interviews with the two former chancellors, and some American History professors about Trump. Will tune in again.”

On shows like Chorley’s it felt like Times Radio’s thoughtful approach to news offers a serious alternative to LBC and a safe haven for those who switch off Radio 4 during softer spots in its schedule like The Archers or Gardener’s Question Time.

The high-points of Times Radio for me were from former BBC stalwarts like John Pienaar, Aasmah Mir and Mariella Frostrup.

Many complained about being unable to tune their smart speakers to it, with some instead being directed to a station of the same name in Malawi. But the fact that Times Radio is one of the few stations that the ageing digital radio in my shed/office can pick up augurs well for the station’s reach on DAB.

Will Times Radio succeed and provide the first serious competition for Radio 4 since its launch in 1967?

One has to say that the path to pan-media greatness for News UK proprietor Rupert Murdoch has been littered with failures. He launched The Sun, but also the massively loss-making TheLondonPaper; he reinvented broadcasting with Sky, but failed to reinvent the newspaper with The Month (a much-heralded but shortlived CD-ROM edition of The Sunday Times).

Murdoch’s last attempt to launch a newspaper-based radio station, SunTalk in 2009, lasted just 18 months.

Times Radio appears to be a more serious attempt to make inroads on the BBC’s dominance of the UK airwaves and is certainly showing early promise.

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