Commercial radio bosses outline their content game plans and expectations for 2021

2020 was a year punctuated by tough decisions for radio bosses. But as the market begins to recover, Mumbrella's Zanda Wilson speaks with Southern Cross Austereo's Dave Cameron, Nova Entertainment's Paul Jackson, Australian Radio Network's Duncan Campbell and Nine Radio's Greg Byrnes about how they plan to move forward content-wise in the new year.

Commercial radio, like most segments of the media, has been hit hard by a tough ad market in 2020, with the major networks forced into redundancies, restructures and other measures to keep functioning at a level resembling normal.

Signs of continued recovery are well and truly within reach as ad spend begins to rebound, so for the content directors from Southern Cross Austereo, Nova Entertainment, Australian Radio Network and Nine Radio, it’s back to what they do best; focussing on the content.

So what are their key areas of focus heading into the new year, and what is their take on the recovering advertising market looking ahead to 2021?

Clockwise from top left: Cameron, Jackson, Campbell, and Byrnes

What stations or markets have you identified as needing close attention next year, and where will your key areas of focus for ratings improvement be in 2021?

Greg Byrnes, head of content at Nine Radio: Sydney and Melbourne are always going to create the most amount of noise, but we relaunched ‘Locally Brisbane’ only six months ago, and there’s been an immediate success up there. And then Perth, [we introduced] a new lineup and really just maintaining what we’ve done across the country in Perth, which is live, local, engaging, and 6PR will become the leading voice within Perth for news content, opinion, and … companionship.

I think that’s what surprises a lot of people who have maybe sampled us for the first time or come back to us to hear different voices. They’re getting a laugh, they’re getting informed and entertained, but I think the companionship is what’s really taken a lot of people by surprise.

2020 was a big year of change for us. We will continue to do more local programming in Brisbane. I would hope that in Melbourne and Sydney … that there are no changes at all for the next 10 years, that everything stays exactly the same, because that’s what our audience [want], they like consistency.

Dave Cameron, chief content officer at Southern Cross Austereo: [On 2Day FM] We feel like we’re coming into the market with a show [Hughesy and Ed] that’s familiar. As I’ve mentioned before, a show that has already got a fanbase… that has already crafted its chemistry together. We’ll start low and then grow with that show, as is always the strategy with new shows.

Erin [Molan] will be a magical source for us in between the boys We’ve been considering Erin for a long time. She was always first pick, and the right pick for that show. We knew that we needed to put something in a little different from what’s sitting in the drive show at the moment.”

(On Fox FM) I’m quite relieved to see that Fox is the one that’s probably broken from the COVID lockdown packet there, while it’s not the numbers we would normally see in regular times. In the case of Fifi [Box] we felt there was an opportunity to put a comedic contribution unto the show. Fifi’s always been at her best when she’s been with a comedian, and she reacts well to having comedic inclusion into any shows that she’s headlining. It was the right move at the right time for the right person [for Nick Cody]. I think that will be a really strong show for next year.

Duncan Campbell, chief content officer at Australian Radio Network: Kiis 101.1, and 97.3. Also WSFM, even though it has performed well, it shares a lot of audience with Smooth – we want a stronger duoply in Sydney. That is the big focus for us as we head into Christmas and return in January. Perth is always a focus for us.

Australia is a uniquely competitive market. The desire to be number one and have high performing stations is higher, and more expected to some degree

Paul Jackson, chief programming and marketing officer, Nova Entertainment: We’re at a different stage to some of the other networks… we’re not building new shows and hoping they’ll connect. We’ve got the consistency, we’ve built the big shows. We’ve got no change on Nova, got no change on smooth. So I think that’s probably the greatest strength for us that you can see that reflected in the numbers.

Brisbane was absolutely dominant this year. And then at the end of this year we had some of our best performances ever there and it is our best performance ever in Perth. When you’ve got enough of people coming through our radio stations, you just gotta keep engaging them, understanding what they want.”

Paul Jackson

Several networks have made changes to flagship breakfast shows in key markets already in 2020, while there are more changes to come when shows start back in the new year. Many in the industry are suggesting that networks are using a COVID-normal Australia as a radio reset. What’s your take?

Greg Byrnes: I can only speak for talk radio and the changes we made. Brand identity. The next generation, resetting for the future. There’s always reluctance to change, for all the right reasons. So we made the decision to do that this year. To be in survey eight and have the figures that we have makes for a pretty good Christmas.

Greg Byrnes

Dave Cameron: Well we’ve always been interested in finding the opportunity, somewhere somehow, to complete the Triple M network. To blow up Mix 94.5 Perth would be pretty crazy. It fits really well to have five local heritage brands heading up the metro stack of the Hit Network. Also the format of Mix aligned much closer with the Hit Network, so it was a bit of an odd station out on the Triple M network. That gave us the chance to put a rock station back into a market that loves its rock, and we feel like its been completely underserved in that market.

Whereas in Melbourne, Eddie McGuire and Luke Darcy’s The Hot Breakfast came to the end of its lifespan. It was hugely successful and came to the end of its lifespan as most shows do. It was an opportunity for us to move forward with the highest respect for each party. It was time for us to have a look at what we do next.

Dave Cameron

Duncan Campbell: ARN did most of the changes in 2018 in terms of line ups. There’s only one change for us in breakfast which is Adelaide, and we had some ratings issues in Brisbane for example. Our breakfast line up is fairly stable. End of the year is a good time to re-evaluate. Make decisions based on the performance of shows.

There is a key day and entry point for the station. The old adage is that if you win breakfast you win them for the rest of the day. A lot of focus and energy is put on making sure that you have the right hosts and right show, and support teams and marketing to make sure that the show is a success. There are no guarantees in this industry.

[The churn] is higher than normal – four or five shows. Some are because of the end of the cycle – and some are reactions to the audience. Makes for an interesting 2021, as a result of a change in breakfast there is always a reaction in terms of tune churn, gives established listeners the chance to go looking somewhere else.

Paul Jackson: We’re very loyal to [our shows] as they are to us. And we are to our audiences as well. So I would hope and expect a good, strong, consistent year. To your point, we’re talking about that market dynamic change a bit in Melbourne, So we’ve got to be ready to capitalise on new opportunities because audiences don’t tend to move around that much unless the station they’re listening to does something really radically different.

All the SCA ones have done something radically different with their music and seem to be moving again and their names and their presenters, and a little bit of change with ARN as well. So I think. You know, we’ve got to look at that. And while there’s a bit of churn, like people would have done in reverse to us when we were changing our drive show, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the best offering for those people.

Radio ad spend for October and early November was down -17% on the same time last year, while regional radio bucked the trend and was only down -2.7%. How long do you think until we see spend return to 2019 levels, and what do you make of those figures for regional radio heading into next year?

Greg Byrnes: We’ve had some really promising signs over recent months. Certainly in Sydney, with Ben [Fordham] in breakfast, there was literally an immediate turn back. As the lockdown lifted, it’s been very promising. I know our sales guys, and figures like today’s go a long way to helping all of that, because ultimately it’s all numbers.

I think things will return to normal pretty quickly. I’m sort of speaking without qualification, but I understand the TV market is showing very positive signs.

It was pretty dire there for some months. I think that the strength in Nine is just the size of the business and the scale. So we were shielded from staff pay cuts and things. That scale now helps as we particularly target agencies with a national product.

Dave Cameron: So I would expect that, as standard listening behaviours return, money will flow back to where it’s been. In terms of regional one of the greatest strengths of SCA is our scale and our regional network to tap into community dollars and community audiences. To be able to see the money flow into those markets, it’s been really encouraging for an industry that is hoping for better times next year.

Duncan Campbell: There was an expectation that there will be a new norm as a result of COVID, and I think the more that you look at the market, with Melbourne as an exception, if you take Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth – have returned or are on the way back to norm.

There is a desire from people to get back to that normality – we are seeing ad revenue return slowly and we expect that to accelerate and should see a return to pre COVID levels sooner than expected.

Duncan Campbell


Paul Jackson: Well, hopefully something, something to do with the fact that we’re all traveling around Australia and we’re all going to visit regional areas and spending all our time on these isles. So hopefully we can have some very good times in the next 12 months, in our economy in this country. So that will help regional radio.

I mean, it’s so hard to know what’s next. We just don’t know what’s around the corner. You think things are recovering and it’s all about confidence and it depends on what’s happening on so many factors, but with a strong wind in the right direction and everything going as well as projected, then there’s no reason why we can’t have quite a strong bounce back as well.

The underlying economy was in a really strong position before everything happened. It’s an impossible one to answer, isn’t it? Because there were slightly different positions in the from markets and it’s all down to so many variables around us, but certainly, the infrastructure is there in terms of our economy to bounce back quickly.


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