Crossing fingers ‘there are no changes at all for the next 10 years’: Nine Radio’s Greg Byrnes on talent longevity

Nine Radio overhauled its talent line up this year, and so far, it's working. Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby spoke to the business' head of content, Greg Byrnes, after yesterday's survey results to discuss the final ratings of the year, whether the trend towards talk radio during lockdowns will recede, and how long he wants to keep talent like Russel Howcroft on-air.

Yesterday’s final radio ratings survey of the year makes for a “pretty good Christmas” at Nine Radio. Importantly, Ben Fordham held onto his breakfast dominance in Sydney, gaining audience share for the first time since replacing Alan Jones. He now commands the attention of 17.1% of listeners in the slot, well ahead of Kiis 106.5 Kyle and Jackie O’s 11.3%.

And at the same time of day in Melbourne, ad man Russel Howcroft and Ross Stevenson dropped a few percentage points, but still had a 25% share of breakfast listeners – more than double that of the second-placed ABC Melbourne.

While Howcroft and Stevenson’s 8.8 percentage point surge in their first survey together back in September wasn’t anticipated (Howcroft told Mumbrella, “I don’t think anyone expected it”), is this how head of content Greg Byrnes expected his talent to end the year?

Byrnes hopes 2021 brings momentum and stability

“Yes it is. We didn’t put them into these positions really expecting otherwise,” he tells Mumbrella after the results came through.

“[Russel] he’s a smart operator. He’s a proven media performer. He knows the market, so we’re always pretty confident with Russel.

“[And with Ben] there’s a drive show that’s been successful in Sydney for 10 years. He knows the market, he knows Sydney. We’ve said all along ‘live and local’, and we’re getting back to that real basic ‘What’s happening in my city now?’. And Ben does that exceptionally well. So I’m very pleased that they finished as they do, but we are looking for even bigger and better next year.”

Fordham ended the year on a high in Sydney

After a swathe of line up changes in 2020 – Fordham jumped to breakfast while Jim Wilson filled the drive slot, Howcroft took over from Stevenson’s former partner, John Burns, and Deborah Knight replaced Steve Price – Byrnes wants things to stay the same in 2021 and beyond.

Speaking to Mumbrella in October, Howcroft was coy on whether he wanted to replicate Alan Jones’ 35-year tenure, or Burns’ 20 years on-air, commenting: “We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we? Certainly, right now, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. I’ve got no intention of going anywhere soon.”

In contrast, Byrnes is happy to put a number on how long he hopes Howcroft and co will be in their seats. He wants the “same voices on [air] doing the same thing” for at least a decade.

“2020 was a big year of change for us,” Byrnes says.

“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.”

Howcroft joined Stevenson earlier this year

Byrnes acknowledges that such a significant talent shakeup can be “dangerous” and “there’s always reluctance to change”. But new additions like Wilson, best known for his previous role as a longtime Seven sports journalist, and former Today Show host Knight are providing people with information, entertainment, and companionship.

That’s why Byrnes doesn’t think the listeners who have turned to talk radio during COVID-19 will change the station now that lockdowns have eased and a sense of normalcy resumed.

“The difference is that the people have sampled us and they like what they hear,” he suggests.

“And these sort of figures [the radio ratings] are showing that there’s no big trend away [from talk radio]. Things will obviously return to normal, whatever normal looks like next year, but will they still want local, engaged comment, news and opinion? Yeah, I reckon they will.

“People have probably been a little surprised at what they found, and going into next year, well we just want to make the product better. We reset this year and that’s always very dangerous with talk radio, but we’ve reset with trusted, entertaining people and from here we’re only building.”

The first three surveys back after a lengthy, pandemic-induced pause on the radio ratings have yielded strong results for Nine Radio. The company’s talent risks are paying off, and Byrnes only wants the hosts to get better and the audiences to get bigger.

“I think that’s what’s made things a little bit tricky for the new voices around the network, that there has been some immediate success over the last three surveys, which is really good, but we’ve said all along that we have to lay the foundations and build from there,” he explains.

“And that’s what these guys are doing. We’re very well positioned and very comfortable as we wind down 2020 and we head into ’21.”


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