BBC broadcaster John Inverdale has said commercial sports radio could boom within the next decade and that “exclusive rights” to live events will be the “currency” that determines success.
Inverdale, who left BBC Radio 5 Live after 25 years last week, said rights for sporting events would be the next “big battleground” in radio, pointing to the rise of commercial stations such as Talksport.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned station had been a “minor irritant for the management” throughout most of Inverdale’s time at 5 Live, he said, but now was a “major player”.
Ofcom rejected a call in December from Talksport-owner Wireless Group, a subsidiary of News UK, for a competition review into how the BBC acquires sports rights for 5 Live, Sports Extra and Radio 4.
The group claimed the BBC’s activities in this area “harmed competition” for commercial sports radio, including its own ability to procure rights.
Inverdale said audience figures for live events are typically far higher than for regular output, which is why they are so coveted.
“The live sporting event where you are experiencing it in real time is the thing that people ultimately want,” he said. “I think it’s going to be fascinating to see over the next decade or so how this all pans out.
“Will we have Manchester City [Football Club] Radio? So that if you want to listen to Manchester City you will only be able to do so on Manchester City’s own radio channel?”
He said there could even be a radio station dedicated to covering the Six Nations rugby tournament, or the Wimbledon tennis grand slam, adding that after so long in radio he had learned to “never rule anything out”.
“It’s changing at such a rapid rate at the moment it wouldn’t surprise me in ten years’ time if there was literally a hundred sports stations operating with a very limited remit – Table Tennis FM for example – and if you are a judo aficionado there might be a radio station for you.
“I don’t know how the model works, but if there’s 50,000 of you and you’re paying £10 a year, that’s £500,000. Can you run a radio station on that? Yes you can.”
He said his own independent local radio station, Radio Jackie in south west London, was celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“The idea that 50 years ago there wasn’t a single commercial radio station is a preposterous thought,” he said. “The speed of change in society for the first thirty years after that was at a snail’s pace, now it’s going like a cheetah every day, so heaven alone knows [where it will go].
“But I do think in the sporting context, if you have got exclusive rights to the live events that will be the currency that determines, in the end, the success of a radio station.”
Inverdale, who has worked for ITV and Sky, as well as the BBC, also said he wouldn’t rule out working for commercial radio. His BBC TV contract currently runs for another two years.
He told Press Gazette the launch of BBC Radio 5 Live on Monday 28 March 1994, replacing Radio 5, had been “one of the most exciting days of my life”.
“I remember the night before barely being able to sleep,” he recalled. Inverdale presented the station’s first drivetime programme, having presented the slot for Radio 5’s final broadcast on the Friday.
“There’s nothing as exciting in our [media] world as launching a radio station – that sense of anticipation and excitement, and fear as well in case the whole thing goes absolutely haywire.”
Inverdale said he had taken his parents advice to his younger self to leave a party while you were still having fun in choosing to now leave the station, adding: “Something inside you just says this is the right time to do it.
“Also while you are still young enough to maybe take on other challenges. If you leave it another three or four years the get-up-and-go has probably got up and gone.”
He said it “defies logic that radio is still a booming industry” given the advent of social media, smartphones and the decline of traditional media in other sectors, such as print.
“The key thing about it is people still want that human contact which is why if you do radio you feel a real bond with your listeners. It’s an extraordinary emotion that’s actually quite hard to explain.
“It doesn’t exist on television, but does exist on radio. And that’s why as a listener, if there’s someone I listen to on a regular basis and they dare go on holiday for a week I’m incensed – how dare you go on holiday. I expect to hear you, not some random who has been parachuted in.
“It’s an extraordinary relationship that one forms between whoever the voice is on the radio and the listener.
“And I think people just love that, whether it’s Greg James [on BBC Radio One] or John Humprhys [on BBC Radio Four], and all points in between, they are your friends and you feel a real sense of ownership over them and that’s the perennial selling point of radio.”
He said news radio had changed the most during his long broadcast career.
The first big news story he covered was the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987 when a ferry capsized shortly after leaving a dock in Belgium, killing 193 people.
He said the only radio outlet for news of the tragedy back then had been BBC Radio 4 shows the Today programme and the World At One.
“What that meant was you always had a bit of time for reflection before you said what you said, or did what you did. Nowadays, before anything has been said, something has been sent on a news alert – and if you put the radio on and there’s nothing there, you think why not?
“You often have to speak [as a radio journalist] when you are not in full possession of the facts and hypothesise, because that’s what the medium demands of you. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing, but that’s the way it is and there’s no going back.”
He said the nature of the industry now meant journalists covering tragedies were “duty bound to talk in clichés – because that’s all you can do in those circumstances”. He added that he wasn’t sure if it makes for “great radio” but is what the immediacy of the news agenda now demands.
“The only way you can get around it is having a very bold editor and production leadership and a presenter says: ‘Something has happened, as soon as we have more details we will let you know,’ and not spend the next six minutes talking to someone on a phone line who knows as much as you do.”
He also pointed to the relative importance with which stories are treated, with news of three dead in an Ultrecht tram shooting this week reported as “let’s get everyone in a state of panic”, while some 1,000 killed in a cyclone in Mozambique is reported as “that’s the horror of nature for you”.
Said Inverdale: “It’s the nature of how news is, but it becomes slightly hysterical… maybe it was ever thus.”