TalkSport boss waves goodbye, so what next for the station?

As The Wireless Group’s chief executive gets ready to switch off, Tony Lithgow looks at the impact

Imagine the Beatles without John Lennon or the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger.

He may not be rock 'n' roll icon – more like the antithesis – but Kelvin MacKenzie, outgoing chairman and chief executive of The Wireless Group and its flagship station TalkSport, is certainly a towering personality who became intrinsically linked with the company he headed, especially in the eyes of the media community.

But what next for The Wireless Group and its TalkSport?

With the driving force behind the success of spoken word radio on his way out, some in the industry wonder how TWG and its TalkSport brand – which recently overtook Virgin Radio in terms of total listeners and share of listeners across the UK– will fare under its new owners, Northern Ireland's UTV?

The former Sun editor and LiveTV boss, a man with a talent for backing none too reluctantly into the limelight, had an uncharacteristic attack of modesty when Media Week spoke to him about the shape of things to come at the radio empire he founded seven years ago.

MacKenzie, who is departing after the Wireless Group was bought by UTV for a reported £98.2m, concedes that even he is not irreplaceable.

He sums up the position in his own inimitable way: "Graveyards are full of irreplaceable people.

I've met the guys from Ulster.

They're a talented management team and I have absolutely no doubts that they are going to make TalkSport even more successful than it is today."

But elsewhere at The Wireless Group, there is a strong feeling that UTV chief executive John McCann – a 52-year-old accountant whose career path has been somewhat less colourful than the brash MacKenzie – will probably make changes to the rest of the management structure of his new acquisition. "It's what incoming companies do," says one source.

A major radio and television operator throughout Ireland, UTV now gains a strong foothold in the UK marketplace with its acquisition of TWG (see: What The Wireless Group operates).

Commenting on the deal, McCann said: "We believe that this acquisition will offer exciting opportunities for the continued expansion of UTV's business by providing a cornerstone for a broader radio strategy in Great Britain."

The possibility that McCann might make major changes at TWG is worrying some agencies that believe that the best thing UTV can do is to leave the set-up at TalkSport alone to let the station continue on its present path of success.

A leading agency executive says: "The last thing TalkSport needs right now is for some new broom to make sweeping changes that could remove some of the really talented managers and sales team, which are key to the station's continuing success.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it is the message that should go out to the new owners. The same applies to how the rest of Wireless Group's portfolio of radio stations is run in future, as well."

And there can be no question that MacKenzie's radio empire can boast of a triumphant past two years. Its high water mark was the latest Rajar results, which saw TalkSport overtake rivals Virgin Radio with 2.5 million listeners – compared to Virgin's 2.4 million.

The Wireless Group, which also owns a raft of local radio stations, including the lucrative FM licence in Edinburgh it won last year, turned a £2.3mloss into an operating profit of £2.3mlast year – and ad sales shot up by 19%in the first three months of 2004.

MacKenzie tried to lead a management buyout to hang on to the company, but the bid collapsed in February when he failed to raise the necessary cash.

The Beatles and Rolling Stones comparison has been made by more than one agency in contemplating the scale of Mackenzie's influence at The Wireless Group.

Future developments

And a media analyst echoes these sentiments: "It's hard to imagine The Wireless Group, and TalkSport in particular, without him. But the talented programme guys and sales team put in place under his administration can take the operation forward, if the new owners keep them in place."

UTV has restricted itself to saying it plans to have a discussion with executives of The Wireless Group about future developments.

But McCann is on record as saying: "I would have difficulty believing that any one individual is indispensable to a company."

It is a view which is echoed by Richard Jacobs, head of radio at Mediacom, who believes that MacKenzie has done such a brilliant job of building up TalkSport and hiring such a talented team to run it, the station can now steam on successfully without him at the helm.

"It's a tribute to his ability and to the success he's achieved that it doesn't need him there any longer to go on being a success," he says.

Jacobs is also full of praise for the tier of management below MacKenzie and his top-ranking colleagues at The Wireless Group.

"They've got a really tight team there, which is producing great ideas and working really cleverly together to produce solutions for some of our clients who we are very happy with," Jacobs says.

"It's the guys on the ground who are developing the different pieces of programming and sponsorship. I would hope that Ulster have the sense to realise that they've got a really good team in place – and, with the exception to changes to the very senior management group, they should probably leave well alone," says Jacobs.

"A radio station is nothing without the people who run it and make it happen. They've got some very good personalities on air and they've got some great people in the backroom, such as the sales and production teams."

Jacobs stresses: "The station is not one man. When you go down there, you realise it's a lot of people putting a lot of time and effort into that station."

But he stresses: "There is the question: will Ulster bring in a completely new team of people? That would be really foolish. So who knows?"

Jacobs goes on: "I don't know what Ulster's plans are. I don't think anybody does. However, when you've got a very successful station, which TalkSport is, you have to tread very carefully rather than just jump in and say: ‘Right, we're going to sweep the board and we're going to take out the management and all the rest of it.'

"They're buying a successful company and the success of that company is not just down to Kelvin MacKenzie but the people he's surrounded himself with.

If you get rid of them, you take away quite a lot of the elements that have made that company a success, which would seem a really daft thing to do."

Howard Bareham, head of radio at Mindshare, pays tribute to MacKenzie's role in making a success of The Wireless Group and TalkSport. But he says credit must also go to the team under him as well. "They've turned the station around from what it is was. They have a successful format and those are the ones who have done it. They have delivered an audience for TalkSport and an environment that advertisers want to be in.

"The other smaller stations are not so high-profile, but they have the schedules and the campaigns.

But let's face it: listeners don't tune into TalkSport because of Kelvin MacKenzie, do they?

Listeners tune in because of the station, the presenters and the format."

Bareham is philosophical about the risk of UTV making changes at The Wireless Group and TalkSport.

He says: "I'm sure that they'll make changes at some stage, because new owners tend to do that, don't they?But the people they have there at the moment are very good."

Other agencies also think it would be unwise for UTV to mess with a winning formula.

Erica Taylor, group head of out of- home radio and cinema at Starcom, believes that the alterations that UTV is likely to undertake will be restricted to the very top tier of management.

That, she feels, should not derail TalkSport's progress. "TalkSport is doing very well," she says, pointing out its success against Virgin Radio and its rock format. "We don't know what's going to happen. But at the end of the day, a listener doesn't know who Kelvin MacKenzie is. Him being there or not being there won't make any difference, unless they're going to fundamentally change the programming.

"As long as the Rajar figures show it's doing well, we'll continue to use it. I doubt very much that they're going to change the sales executives or the planners. I'm sure it's just the top end of things that will change around."

If the agencies are quick to volunteer their opinions, other media owners are keeping a distinctly low profile on the subject. Some would say off the record that McCann is someone who may lack MacKenzie's flamboyance and bombast. But they point out that McCann is man who likes to put his own stamp on things. "He just does it in a quieter way," says one.

If so, The Wireless Group in general and TalkSport in particular will still be making the headlines in the months to come.

What next for Kelvin MacKenzie?

Kelvin MacKenzie has never been the most pedestrian of media figures. Many in the industry are now wondering what the former Sun editor "wot won it" for the Tories in the 1992 election, took on the radio establishment over Rajar's diary measurement system and brought the TV world topless darts will do next.

Media Week has a few unlikely ideas: Become the much-needed midfield dynamo for his beloved Charlton Athletic...

...Run training sessions on sensitivity in management..

...Move to the Falkland Islands to run Penguin News, the island's weekly newspaper...

...Run for Mayor of Liverpool (with Boris Johnson as Deputy Mayor)..

...Apply to become the next Director-General of the BBC...

...Campaign for women's rights...

...Run off with Rajar managing director Sally de la Bedoyere to the South of France...

...Emerge as the new surprise contestant on Celebrity Love Island, along with Janet Street-Porter...

...Take a job as an underwear model for giant outdoor posters...

....Sit out a quiet retirement without ever being heard from again

What The Wireless Group operates

TalkSport may be the Wireless Group's flagship station, but the company has plenty of other radio stations too. They include Dunedin FM; Imagine FM; Peak FM; The Pulse of West Yorkshire; Pulse Classic Gold; Q96; Signal 1; Signal 2; Swansea Sound; 107.4 Tower FM; Valleys Radio; Wave 102; Radio Wave 96.5; 96.4FM The Wave; 107.2 Wire FM; 102.4Wish FM and 107.7 The Wolf.

There is also a television channel, TalkSport TV.

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