Does WRC coverage miss Rally Radio’s personal touch?

Opinion: Our voice of rally argues the culled audio service could complement all-encompassing All Live's offering

Colin Clark

You know, it’s almost two years to the day since I stood at my last stop line for Rally Radio. Fourteen seasons of bringing all the excitement and drama of the World Rally Championship directly into the homes and work places of rally fans across the globe ended on that sunny but windy Sunday afternoon in Corsica. Radio was old news, All Live was the bright new future. Or so the powers that be thought at the time.

Obviously there is a great deal of bias in my opinion, but I think the culling of Rally Radio was a mistake.

There is something very special about radio across all sports. There’s an immediacy to it, there’s a rawness and an an honesty to it. Radio done well feels incredibly personal, you’re inviting the hosts into your home almost to enjoy the entertainment with you. And when you head off to work, you know what, they go there with you as well. Radio is flexible and it’s accessible to almost everyone.

With Rally Radio our listeners were our friends, and I’m told many, many times that the opposite was also very much true. We would take our friends on a weekend’s rallying adventure and do our darnedest to make sure that even though they weren’t physically there, they could sense the drama, they could taste the exhaust fumes, they could smell the adrenaline and they could live the action. As the fortunate ones who got to travel to these events, it was our honour to be their eyes and ears on the ground as we traversed the globe breathing in the glorious excitement of the WRC.

I can honestly say I Ioved every minute of reporting live for Rally Radio. I’m passionate about what I do, I’m passionate about the sport I work in and I’m a passionate believer in giving 100% of my energies to our audience. OK, so sometimes I got a little bit too excitable, but it was the sport that did that to me.

Before the advent of All Live, remember that the only way we could work out what was going on in the stages was from the drivers’ responses to our interviews, the splits that were coming in and our ability to speculate and analyse. And you know what, that’s what made the radio coverage so entertaining and so absorbing. I could nearly always tell when a driver was holding something back and the challenge was to work out why. Flashing lights on dashboards, drops of oil under the engine, strange smells coming from the rear of the car. It was all part and parcel of the wonderful game of “Well, that’s what he told us, but this is what actually happened”. Some of the time we got it wrong, a lot of the time we got it right, but I can honestly say that we entertained and informed in a way that kept our audience on the edge of their seats. There was rarely a dull moment.

Colin Clark

It really shouldn’t have worked but it did. We had Becs Williams back in the studio and myself out on the stage and, along with a long list of very capable helpers, we brought stage times and splits to life. It was a constant flow of comment and analysis sprinkled with a fair deal of humour and nonsense.

Audiences buy into relationships, but only those that work. And there is no question that myself and Becs had one of those on-air relationships that worked for our listeners, there was real chemistry there. I was the slightly out of control, overly enthusiastic dynamo at the stage end and Becs was the calm and experienced voice of reason back in the studio.

They were good days.

And isn’t it an irony that it all came to end just as the explosion in demand for audio products was about to go off?

When the visionary media man Greg Strange started Rally Radio the logistics behind it really weren’t easy. FM transmitters dotted around the route of the event and a reliance of dodgy phone signal was only part of the challenge. By comparison, delivering top-class audio from rallies these days is a doddle. But way more importantly than that, audience access now is a doddle. Smart phones and data plans have been the savior of sports radio broadcasting and have fueled the boom in podcast and radio demand. Access and ease of use is everything in today’s society and there’s nothing easier than plugging your headphones in and listening to your favourite sport.

I’m a big golf fan and the BBC coverage of The Open Golf Championship was a must-watch in my house. Much like rallying, golf days are long days and much as I’d love to sit in and watch 10 hours of golf on a Friday, life demands mean that that is almost impossible. And you know what? The BBC recognises that, and provides a first-class radio service from The Open that compliments its first-class TV coverage. It’s the same across just about every other major sporting event and championship.

Radio and audio products done well serve to build a loyal and, dare I say it, exploitable fan base. Even if your main TV output is free to air, radio plays a part in building an audience and engendering loyalty. If your main TV product is behind a paywall then the value of radio increases massively. Paid products might reach tens of thousands of fans, but free radio reaches hundreds of thousands of fans. And converting those radio fans to paying fans is surely an obvious and attractive proposition?

But not it seems for rallying.

Is this a call for the return of radio to the media mix of the WRC? I’ll leave that to you to decide. But in a world of ever-increasing demand for podcasts and great radio, particularly amongst the younger generations, I’d argue that the fans want it, and that the sport needs it.

Words:Colin Clark