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talkSPORT chief explains how station has evolved, cutting down on phone-in ranters and hiring hosts who ask the key questions

Evening Standard

In command: Moz Dee. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

There is much for Moz Dee, programme director of talkSPORT, to be happy about. Next Monday, for the second successive year, he could win the prestigious Sony radio programmer of the year award. Last year talkSPORT was also Sony radio station of the year.

We are meeting in a restaurant not far from Dee’s offices near Waterloo station, where he has been overseeing the building of 18 studios to prepare for next season. Then talkSPORT will broadcast all 380 Premier League matches in Spanish, Mandarin and English to Latin America, China and Indonesia.

But the thing that makes Dee really proud is a change of attitude towards his station. He says: “talkSPORT used to be a guilty secret. Like the bloke you meet in the pub. He’s on the fruit machine and you go over and have half a lager with him and a bag of crisps. He’s funny, irreverent, a bit mental. Then you move off and talk to your real friends, the ‘5 Live’ lot. What we’ve created is something where, when you meet that guy now, you’d want to spend the evening with him.”

His station is no longer the preserve of the white van man. “We are happy to have people in white vans but also the guys being driven around in the back of a Jag or driving Range Rovers. Well over half our audience is ABC1. We’re talking to individuals who may not have looked at talkSPORT in the past. We’re about to announce a massive deal with Coca-Cola for sponsoring the Euros [for the live commentary of the finals]. Five years ago Coca-Cola would not have touched us.”

And this has come at a time when Dee believes BBC Radio 5 Live, where he was managing editor for seven and a half years until 2008, has not helped itself by moving to Salford. “I’m from the Midlands. I get as frustrated as everybody else about that sort of metropolitan ideal but it’s just a fact. London is the seat of government.

“I still talk to the staff there. The amount of frustration that’s involved in the move to Manchester: 40 to 50 per cent of the programme is still coming from London. I’ve got huge respect for 5 Live but their backs are against the wall.”

Dee also has doubts about the editorial decisions his old station has taken. “Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Moz, you are becoming more and more like 5 Live?’ I said, ‘Well, actually, I’d like to ask whether 5 Live is becoming more and more like us?’ They’re going in the populist direction but also getting it a bit wrong in the way they are moving.”

For 45-year-old Dee, this was most potently demonstrated in February last year when Mike Parry quit talkSPORT. “I was amazed to find out that, as soon as he left, he got employed by 5 Live. I thought, ‘Why did 5 Live go after him?’ Why would you do that unless you thought there was some kind of threat from talkSPORT? Mike would say gratuitous things like race horses should have wing mirrors so they don’t bump into each other.

“The first thing Parry does is go on 5 Live and talk about Millwall being banned from the FA Cup just because they’re not good enough. That would have been something that people would have had an expectation of talkSPORT doing but we don’t do that any more. We’ve moved on.”

As proof, Dee offers talkSPORT’s stance on phone-ins.

“I hate it when people say talkSPORT is just an endless stream of phone-ins. It’s not. It is about content and — I’m not ashamed of using this word — journalism. Let’s break a few stories. Let’s not talk about Harry Redknapp, let’s talk to Harry Redknapp, that’s the difference.

“One of the things we got wrong at 5 Live in the early days was having lots and lots of heat but very little light, allowing people to ring in all the time and say X, Y, Z. We’re moving into a different direction now. I’m not saying it’s the death of the football phone-in but certainly talkSPORT is taking less calls now than it ever has.”

The station’s breakfast show takes calls between 9am and 10am. But the afternoon show between 1pm and 4pm does not; neither does the preceding show between 10am and 1pm presented by Andy Gray and Richard Keys.

The pair were hired 10 days before Parry departed. They had just left Sky — Gray was sacked, Keys resigned — following revelations they made sexist remarks about a female linesman and behaved in a sexist fashion with Sky staff. Dee knows Keys well and, having worked with Gray, is an admirer of his broadcasting abilities. Dee vigorously denies there was any plan to get rid of Parry.

“Mike was not shoved out to make way for Gray and Keys, I swear to you. Mike and I didn’t have the best relationship but he went off to do other things. It was just that all of a sudden we had this opportunity.”

Dee still reels as he recalls the media storm that broke over Gray and Keys. “In my time in the media, I’ve never witnessed anything like that. It was leading the News at Ten. They came off the air and got in a car and there were people trying to leap into it so we had to have bodyguards.

“They were nervous for that first show. I said, ‘Lads, you’re going to get slagged off, your programme’s going to be called s**t. Get this show out of the way and I guarantee you tomorrow morning, once you’ve been officially crucified, they’ll be gone.’ They’ve got better. Listenership of between 750,000 and 850,000 has gone up to more than a million and they’ve been nominated for a Sony radio award in the best sports programme category.”

Could they win it? “Maybe people aren’t quite brave enough for that to happen.”

But should Dee have hired Gray and Keys at all?

“Let’s accept that the guy was indulging in sexist behaviour. I’m not here to defend the guy’s actions. I talked to Scott [Taunton, the Australian chief executive] and colleagues in sales: how would this affect sponsorship? What I did know is that these were two great sports broadcasters. They are an asset to talkSPORT. It’s proven to be not as big an issue as people might think.

“Yes, we need to condemn wrongs but let’s be proportional in the way that we assess wrongs. Neither of these men are murderers or paedophiles. Was their attitude right? No. Should they be punished? They have been. They’ve lost those very lucrative Sky contracts and lost a lot more besides the millions: emotional distress, problems with family. What more do you want? We pay them well but clearly not what they were on. But is it right that they never work again? Is there no chance for any of us for any type of redemption?”

Such talk of redemption seems natural for a man with deep religious roots from an Irish immigrant working class background of which he is immensely proud. “Everyone I went to school with was Irish, I was an altar boy, a chorister.”

Dee confesses he never saw himself getting involved in sport. “I wasn’t a big sports fan, I wasn’t a sports journalist. I was a luvvy, an actor.”

At the age of 14, spotted in the Coventry Mystery Plays, he moved to London making films for David Puttnam in P’tang Yang Kipperbang, then The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and The Monocled Mutineer. There followed plays including working with Nicholas Hytner, now director of the National, before, Dee sorrowfully recalls: “I got older, the parts ran out, I became less pretty.”

This meant a return to Coventry as a 19-year-old working on building sites with his dad, whose mates heckled him. “It was the best thing that happened to me because it grounded me.”

Dee ended up writing a play which was homage to his father. Two more plays followed before he was suddenly asked to do an Irish radio magazine programme in the Midlands. This led to a job at the BBC. That is when he realised, “This radio lark’s great.”

But, even as he marvels as to how he ended up running Britain’s only dedicated sports radio station, he recalls the warning given by Standard columnist Patrick Barclay. “Paddy said, in those dulcet Scottish tones, ‘if you’re not careful, talkSPORT will become: A, establishment, and B, the Radio 4 of sport.’”

For all the changes he has made, Dee may not want talkSPORT to go that far.

      

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