Interview Special: Stig Abell of Times Radio

Find out what Stig thinks about his RAJAR figures (12min read)

Happy Sunday. A bit of an experiment today as I’ve been thinking about maybe publishing some longer form interviews with audio folk in the newsletter on the weekend. Is that something, dear reader, you would like me to do? Do reply to this and say so, along with any suggestion of who you would like to hear from.

This first one is with Stig Abell, who’s Executive Editor at Wireless, was the launch Director for Times Radio and now also presents its breakfast show. I caught up with him for the Media Podcast to talk about his first RAJAR figures, and Times Radio in general.

The interview’s a transcript of our chat, just tidied up to make it clearer to read. If you want it in audio form, the aforementioned the Media Podcast is where to go.

Matt Deegan: You’ve got your first RAJAR for Times Radio, what do you think?

Stig Abell: I think it's slightly beyond my expectations. You never know because it's very strange times, and this is the summer quarter as well, so you don't quite know what's going on. We only launched sixteen months ago, so we didn't quite know what to expect. But, the feeling we have is that this is pretty good, we're pretty happy with it and it's the first in hopefully a whole series of stepping stones for us, as well. 

Matt: So, the number is 637,000 weekly listeners. 

Stig: Yes. 

Matt: What did you expect? Because, you must've had a number that you at least hope you'd hit when you were doing your breakfast show every day. 

Stig: Yes, I mean, when we were planning this, and again, we launched on June the 29th, 2020, so that was really mid-pandemic, just as lockdown was starting to loosen and we thought we'd get a RAJAR, by the end of the year, really. And, a lot of our planning was based on finding out our number quite quickly. And of course, that never happened. We've been looking at numbers like the connected listening, but you never know your ratio, you never know how many of your DAB listeners compare to your connected listeners, so we were a bit in the dark. 

We felt that 500,000 would be good for us. And, we hoped it was going to be that, we hoped it was going to be a bit more and I think 637k feels good. There's people walking around Times Radio with a spring in their step, I had the commercial guy, I got the results, you know this but, when the results come out, it's very weird. I'd never done it before, actually, so we all went to a floor in our building and there was just a bunch of people huddled around a computer and all of the wireless numbers came out and then the Times Radio page wasn't there and I was like, 'Oh God, why is there no numbers for Times Radio?' And then it came out, and then we got the hours, you know exactly what it's like but the commercial guy for Wireless said, 'Oh, I've just got goosebumps,' so he was really pleased. Because, he's been trying to sell Times Radio to sponsors completely blind and the fact that he got goosebumps, I think, was probably the sign that this is a pretty good number for us. 

Matt: What a little birdie told me is that your advertisers had been told that it'd probably be around half a million. So, if you were lower than that, you'd be sending cheques back to them? 

Stig: Yes, well, it's a difficult game, isn't it, all of this. But, we've had more than thirty companies sponsor us over different shows in the first fifteen, sixteen months, which is a real article of faith, isn't it? Because they didn't really know who was listening, and I think we had a feeling of an audience there and we also felt that people, if they liked us, they really did like us. And, they listened for a while, actually, the hours number is particularly good for us, it's, sort of, averaged out over five hours a listener per week, which is really good for us. We just had this sense. We did so many funny things, like we did competitions for sponsors and we got far more respondents than we actually thought we ever would, more than other people in our building would have got, even with bigger reaches. The thing I love about the Breakfast Show is we get quite a lot of interaction, we don't have callers, we're not a phone-in station, we always said we never would be, but there's just this feeling of a bunch of people out there. You and I know it's funny old methodology, it's a funny old thing, but just a bit of confirmation that there's people out there is a good feeling. 

Matt: And so, where does it sit in amongst The Times brand? You've obviously got the, the newspaper, the daily, the Saturday, the Sunday Times. You've got the website, there’s podcasts, how does Times Radio, and its numbers, fit in amongst all of your products? 

Stig: What I think it is, like everyone else, we have to be a digital first business. The Times and the Sunday Times have become, over the last few years, very profitable, they're a very well managed business. They're in growth, they're growing digital subscribers and they want to be digital first. And, they are a digital first business, and the great thing about digital radio is we're naturally a digital first position, we've not had to transform any news rooms, we've not had to do anything structural because we came out as a digital radio station that's live twenty hours a day, rather. And actually, as there are not many competitors doing that, so if something interesting happens, we don't really have much furniture that we have to tiptoe around. We are a very live station, we've got correspondents all over the world thanks to The Times and The Sunday Times. So it feels that we are a kind of paradigm of a digital first theme in a business that is now digital first that takes broadcasting very seriously. 

We've always slotted in, I always used to say this before we launched, we always fitted in, I felt, with the future of the business very well. We perform a couple of functions for the business but one of the main ones is to say, 'Here is the journalism of collectively The Times and The Sunday Times,' that helps us with our content, we help them with reaching, probably, a new audience, a different audience. Which is what we always said we'd try and do. So, I think we fit in pretty nicely with where the business wants to go. 

Matt: So, picking up on that, what's your job? Is it to bring dosh and just some cash for the bank account? Is it to drive subscribers, is it a brand's halo effect? What's your boss saying you need to be doing? 

Stig: It's all of those things. And, I think you actually wrote a blog just as we launched, it was a very perspicacious blog because I think what it said was absolutely right, that we've got to try to have multiple strands to what we're doing, we don't want to just be judged on RAJAR, we don't want to be judged just on commercialisation, because that would've been very difficult for us, with fifteen months without RAJAR at all, if we were purely being judged on how many sponsors we could get in. It's a real bar as the currency of sponsorship and commercial activity is RAJAR and if you don't get one for your entire life for the first sixteen months, that would be a real difficulty for us. We're a big company with a strategic vision, we've got longevity hardwired into us, which is good and it's healthy in that respect. But, it wasn't the be all and end all for us. 

One of our aims is to solidify the journalism of The Sunday Times and The Times, to bring more people to it. The digital business is a subscription business, so much of it is about finding people and then keeping them. And you know, from what we can see from some of our internal modelling, that if people subscribed to The Times and listened to Times Radio, they're less likely to churn. Because, although Times Radio is free, it makes you even more part of the gang, part of the family, part of the community and that's quite important for a subscription business. So, I think we're judged on reach and listening figures, on hours, we're judged on what revenue now will bring in on the back of knowing our listenership. 

So, sponsorship and other commercial opportunities and we're judged on whether we are part of the digital first brand of The Times and The Sunday Times. And, at the minute, all of those three things are aligning. 

Matt: And, diving into the numbers a little bit, had a bit of a look at the shows on Times Radio and how the individual shows were doing. So, Breakfast Show is the number one show on the station, which happens on a lot to radio stations. But, Matt Chorley’s very, very close to your breakfast show numbers, are you worried that he's going to come in and scoop up the most listeners? 

Stig: No. Actually, I'm really chuffed with Matt's show. I'm chuffed with all of them in different ways because you've got to remember that eighteen months ago, this was just a whiteboard, we were trying to launch this thing and were trying to work out who would fit in where. We had Matt down really early on as a Times asset. Funny, quirky, really a show that he'd done the Red Box podcast, we felt there was a show in embryonic form already. And, that's been proven. But again, it's part of the community. 

When Matt does his show, he goes around the country, he’s been to the party conferences, he went to chart them. Loads of people come up to him and say how much they love him but how much they like breakfast, how much they like Mariella Frostrup, we're always bigging up Calum Macdonald, who does the early breakfast. We're looking ahead to Carole Walker and Phil Williams, John Pienaar. The thing I wanted, honestly, at the start, was a kind of community where everyone, this isn't always true on radio stations, everyone is supportive of each other, we really want everyone to do well. We genuinely quite like each other. I don't want to work in a place and I've worked in places like this before, where people are backstabbing each other, it's all about their ego. One of the ethoses of the station was that we're not going to interrupt people, we don't want hectoring presenters, we don't want me, me, me presenters who burst in and make it all about them. We want people who represent the listener, you know, I will say this of Aasmah and me, we're useful idiots. 

We're the kind of people who want to try and ask the questions that other people are thinking when they're listening at home. So, having that, kind of, egoless or small ego environment was really important to me when we were picking people. And, you know, Matt Chorley, I'm pleased for him. Don't tell him I said that. 

Matt: Well, give it time, give it time, I'm sure that ego will grow. Obviously, when you started, there was a lot of coverage saying it's there to attack Radio 4, which is a concept that doesn't really work in reality. It's a very different kind of radio beast, established in operation. But where do you think your listeners have come from? 

Stig: I don't know that yet, I think that's a really interesting question that we don't fully know. I mean, one of the things that I've seen but you will correct me because you've probably looked at the figures more closely than I have, is it feels like the sector as a whole is pretty healthy. And, I said, again, from the beginning, I was very keen on this idea of a golden age of speech radio, I do feel that. And podcasts contribute to that too. There's a golden age of audio in this country, whether it be podcast, whether it be live radio. So, it felt to me that we were never going to attack anyone, particularly not something that's got 100 years and the weight of the state around it, it just seems ridiculous to even talk about that. So I'd like to believe, and I hope the industry recognises this, we're a good thing for the sector, we're going to bring in some people that weren't listening to the radio, we want to do that for The Times. We want to do it for everyone, I don't think our success comes at the expense of other people but, in the end, this is our first bit of data properly from RAJAR, so we'll have to see. I don't get a massive sense we know where people are coming from. I'd like to think that some of the things we've done is bring some people into the industry as a whole. I think, particularly probably into commercial radio from BBC. It's good that people come into commercial radio, you know, we're unashamedly commercial. 

There's nothing wrong with being commercial and sometimes there's a bit of sniffiness and snootiness. And, I hope when these figures come out, people avoid that type of commentary because I think, commercial radio people taking a punt. They're not backed by anything other than their desire to make the business work. And, that's a really risky thing in lots of ways. And, in lots of ways, it's a really credible thing because you're basically saying, 'Here's this product that we've crafted and we want people to come find us,' and this is stage one of a thing for us. I've got vast ambitions for Times Radio, I always have. Not taking on big leviathans but just to build something that's substantial. And, I kind of hope this is step one on that. 

Matt: One last thing before I go, can you explain to me how concrete grows? 

Stig: We are happily staying away from the great concrete debate. Although, I see that they're so happy, they keep tweeting about it, Talk Radio. We actually played a bit of it on our breakfast show because we do our viral stuff and it was clearly the viral thing. But, we want to achieve growth even greater than concrete can achieve, that's the aim of Times Radio. 

You can listen to Stig, along with Aasmah Mir, Mondays to Thursdays on the Times Radio breakfast show from 6am.