Navigating controversy: Radio bosses get heated on how to handle media scrutiny

The third radio ratings survey of the year is in and despite ongoing media scrutiny, 2Day FM has seen another healthy boost to its ratings. But what does a content boss do when situations like this explode? Zoe Samios checks in with Australia's major radio networks.

Shock jock drama is to be expected in the radio business. For some of Macquarie Media’s news talk shows and hosts such as Kiis FM’s Kyle Sandilands, controversy is always anticipated.

For the most part, that commentary stays between the host and listener. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

The last few months have seen 2Day FM’s breakfast co-host, Em Rusciano, making headlines. The most recent scrutiny came from Triple M breakfast co-host Wil Anderson’s Wilosophy podcast.

And while Rusciano has been dragged through the media since her arrival at 2Day FM last year, this particular instance was different, because it involved commentary about the company she and Anderson worked at: Southern Cross Austereo.

Rusciano was splashed across headlines around Australia in May

Each radio network – SCA, ARN and Nova Entertainment – manage things differently when things don’t go to plan. And when a show is axed or a radio star opens up in unanticipated ways, the network’s response is crucial.

But while it might be a delicate situation, the real question is: does controversy damage ratings? In Em Rusciano’s instance, following yesterday’s survey, the answer is no.

Hit Network’s 2Day FM breakfast show featuring Rusciano, Ed Kavalee and Grant Denyer has reached new heights, with yesterday’s survey providing the highest rated breakfast show for the station since the days of Kyle & Jackie O.

Daily Mail’s Rusciano obsession

The trio finished with a 4.9% share, edging them further towards their rivals. ARN’s Kiis FM with Kyle Sandilands and Jackie ‘O’ Henderson led the FM bandwidth with an 11.9% share, while WSFM’s Brendan ‘Jonesy’ Jones and Amanda Keller achieved a 9.9% share.

Triple M’s Grill Team with Gus Worland, Matthew Johns, Chris Page and Emma Freedman held its 6.5% share, while Nova FM’s Ryan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald and Michael ‘Wippa’ Wipfli dipped 0.5 points to a 6.4% share.

Overall, it was 2GB’s Alan Jones which collected the biggest breakfast share, finishing with a 15.3% share. Jones currently has a defamation case out against him.

Gemma Fordham, Hit Network’s head of content, said the latest results are a “testament to the team” who are focused and passionate, despite coming from the bottom of the FM ratings ladder.

“We started over with a 3.4% share, so that’s a 50% climb in breakfast and we are obviously beating Nova in the workday, which we’ve never done before and we are now back in the pack,” she tells Mumbrella.

Fordham: Pleased about yesterday’s results and still committed to 2Day FM breakfast show

Despite the controversy surrounding breakfast co-host Rusciano, she’s still committed to the team and their offering.

“People can get caught up in the rumours and obviously we can see how one rumour can completely snowball. I’ve had challenges with heaps of different shows in many different markets. I know we have a show that is really special, the chemistry is fantastic and the three want to be there,” Fordham says.

“One of the things I’ve personally worked incredibly hard on is the culture, and whether its an on air personality or junior staff member, I will not tolerate someone who behaves inappropriately or conducts themselves inappropriately.

“The thing I’m most proud of is the culture we’ve have here and it’s been something we’ve worked on.”

Sydney cumulative audience. Survey three. Source: GfK (Click to enlarge)

Fordham points to the specific comments made within the Wilosophy podcast, noting that what Rusciano was referring to was an ego hit when her show with Harley Breen didn’t rate last year.

“That comment was not a reflection on her current co-hosts,” Fordham says.

“She’s the first to admit she’s really passionate about what she does and she is a fighter. She doesn’t just rest on her laurels. She wants it to work and she wants to be proud of the product and associating it with her name.”

“I was very forthright in saying if there are issues come and speak to me, but no one has come to me. The comment she made on Wil’s podcasts were absolutely her right, and she focused on last year and not about the opportunity that’s in front.”

Naturally, not every content boss agrees.

ARN’s national content director, Duncan Campbell, who brought Kyle & Jackie O over from SCA as well as Perth’s Will McMahon and Woody Whitelaw, says he would have dealt with the situation differently.

“SCA don’t know how to manage talent. Contractually I can’t believe she’s allowed to say something of the stuff that she said,” he tells Mumbrella.

“It’s a train crash every morning in terms of having people who aren’t even broadcasting in Sydney. The studios are empty at World Square in the morning and these landlines come in from Bathurst and Melbourne. I just don’t understand it, it’s a mess. And to allow key talent like that to speak like she did about her personality and the business etcetera, I just think it’s inappropriate and we would not tolerate that from any of our talent.

SCA breakfast show a ‘train crash’, according to ARN’s Duncan Campbell

“This says this is a business that can’t control its talent, that hires talent who don’t really want to be there. I mean let her go if she doesn’t want to be there. It’s embarrassing, and it is disappointing from an industry point of view.”

Campbell went on to say Rusciano was “just there for the money”.

He’s not convinced it will be the same show next year: “I don’t know what they are going to do but it won’t be the same show on the air next year.”

Mumbrella’s interview with Fordham was prior to Campbell’s, but she has subsequently responded to his claims: “We are committed to the show and Duncan more than anyone should know that the media often beat up stories.

“Whilst he is entitled to his opinion and I have many opinions about his shows and strategies which I choose not to share out of respect for my colleagues in the industry, I’m not going to enter in schoolyard bullying.”

Nova’s group programme director, Paul Jackson, is less concerned.

“People always listen when they think there’s insight and there’s a bit of a soap opera so people are probably more inclined to listen to what’s going on and what might happen. That’s probably benefiting them,” he says.

Adam Lang, CEO at Macquarie Media, is also no stranger to controversy. The hosts of his shows, including Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Ross Stevenson, have been caught up in sticky situations a number of times.

He says while every situation tends to be unique, there are certain steps in place when incidents happen.

“In the situations that I’ve had to deal with in my career, lessons I’ve learned are be on site with your team as quickly as possible, because you need to communicate a lot to people. You need to understand what the key decision makers are thinking,” Lang explains.

Lang says the scale of the reaction to controversy has heightened in recent years

“Second is communicate with your team first and really work out what they’re going to do. In the case where someone is in the firing line of a situation, make sure you understand their perspective and you can work through that and then you can start to communicate.”

For Lang, what has been most surprising over the years is the scale of the reaction, particularly on social media.

“It tends to explode at higher volume and higher velocity than it used to,” he says.

And while he was not the centre of the controversy, Triple M Hot breakfast co-host Anderson was also caught in the limelight.

His podcast, Wilosophy, which had been running for a number of years prior to his return to radio, was the podcast in which former SCA radio star Jules Lund and Rusciano made the comments.

Triple M’s head of content, Mike Fitzpatrick, tells Mumbrella the incident created a more honest and open conversation between Anderson, his team, and his bosses.

Mike Fitzpatrick says there was no malice intended in Anderson’s podcast

“Wil and I had a very good, open conversation. He was incredibly – as you would expect – adult and realistic about the furore around the podcast. We certainly didn’t have an argument about it.

“He understood the challenging position it put the company in, he understood the position he put himself in. The best outcome out of that was the Hot breakfast team was able to have a really conversation with each other about how they felt about the comments he’d made.

Anderson’s podcast created an open trust relationship among his Triple M breakfast team, Fitzpatrick says

“The podcast existed long before Wil did on Triple M. There was no malice intended in it. Wil is a team player and a smart guy,” he says.

Fitzpatrick adds that while the responsibility ultimately lies with him, there was clearly an oversight by the producer of the show, who hadn’t thought about Wil’s “third party commercial arrangements” that now existed.

“He didn’t go out to deliberately bring down a breakfast show or hurt anyone. If it had been, then there’d obviously be a different conversation.”

“You’ve got three big, male, alpha personalities in there who aren’t going to let something like that go unspoken. They addressed it immediately the next morning before they went on air and then they addressed it on air, and that’s brought them closer and created a more trusting relationship as a result.”

Triple M’s Hot breakfast show, with Eddie McGuire, Wil Anderson and Luke Darcy, improved 0.8 points this survey, achieving a 7.7% share. Smooth FM’s Jennifer Hanson and Mike Perso tied with the show, also achieving a 7.7% share.

Melbourne FM breakfast was led by Fox FM’s Fifi Box, Brendan Fevola and Byron Cooke, which held their place with a 9.4% share. Gold FM – which had been running music breakfast throughout the survey – finished with an 8% share in breakfast, up a full ratings point.

Nova 100 came in fourth place as Chrissie Swan, Sam Pang and Jonathan Brown saw a loss of 1.6 ratings points from an 8% share to 6.4%.

Melbourne Cumulative Audience. Survey Three 2018. Source: GfK (Click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, Kiis FM’s Polly ‘PJ’ Harding and Jase Hawkins once again trailed behind with a 4.8% share.

But once again Melbourne’s 3AW breakfast won the ratings, with Ross Stevenson and John Burns climbed one point to a 20% share.

Fordham was incredibly pleased with the results, describing the 1.2m in cumulative audience for drive as phenomenal. She attributes the success to “great, brilliant, local broadcasters” who believe in Melbourne.

For others, the Melbourne breakfast result wasn’t as positive. Jackson’s Nova breakfast show, with Swan, Pang and Brown dipped by 1.6 points to a 6.4% share.

The result is definitely something to work on, he says.

“We had a disappointing number with Chrissie, Sam and Browny. Going into it we were number one, coming out of it we are definitely not.

Jackson is pleased with his results across the country, but says there’s some work to be done after the decline in Melbourne breakfast

“The devil is always in the detail and we’ve just got to get back to basics on everything we do.”

What Jackson has preached for a long time is consistency of schedule, but Fordham explains it’s not just about the line up.

“Consistency isn’t just about having a consistent line up or great show. The show has to deliver compelling content and talkability and be the heartbeat of the city,” she says.

Regardless, Jackson is pleased with yesterday’s result.

“The net overall position is exactly as it was the last time. Overall for the network, there’s a few ups and downs. I’m broadly happy with everything.”

“For Nova, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth did very well and the first time in history in the Perth market that any station has had over 600,000 listeners. That’s a hell of a number for a marketplace under 2m.”

Perth cumulative audience. Survey Three 2018. Source: GfK (Click to enlarge)

However consistency isn’t the only thing on the programming bosses’ minds. A point of difference is fundamental for Macquarie Media’s Lang, ARN’s Campbell and even Triple M’s Fitzpatrick, with new stations and shows respectively.

Despite Triple M’s sports focus and Sky Sports Radio already in market, Lang is confident his new stations, which launched on April 4, have something new to give to listeners.

“The Sky Sports Radio has got a breakfast show, a sports breakfast show, and then it has to become a racing station, that’s really its remit for the rest of the day.

“In terms of Triple M, it is geared to a different audience, as they say it’s geared to men only and it’s very focused on NRL in the winter. Sports Radio is sports all the time,” he says.

“Ultimately it comes down to how good the presenters and producers are at creating a great show.”

Fitzpatrick – who recently announced Triple M had resigned the Cricket Australia radio rights – is focused on other areas of his programming.

He admits to Mumbrella the time taken to make a decision by Cricket Australia gave the network time to look at the results of the rights. It wasn’t worth the commercial return, he explains.

“We were really keen to renew the Cricket Australia contract back in January. We went forward and wanted to do it there and then and Cricket Australia weren’t ready and wanted to get the TV deal out of the way,” he says.

“And by the time the radio tender process came around, we had a look at the contracts and realised the commercials weren’t going to work for us.”

Fitzpatrick’s focus going into the next survey is building on that brand new drive time slot, with Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy. The duo, who hadn’t worked together in 20 years, launched a national drive time show earlier this year.

Kennedy Molloy has a lot left in the tank

“It’s up against a couple of heritage brands in Kate, Tim and Marty and Hughesy & Kate, but Mick and Jane are a new show. And people are still getting to know it, and people are still getting to know Jane again in some markets and people are still falling in love with the show”, he says.

“The early signs for us are really strong. It’s 16 weeks old.”

He’s not concerned about incoming Gold FM breakfast host and former UK radio star Christian O’Connell, despite the show bearing the most similarities to Triple M in Melbourne.

“Gold is probably Triple M’s biggest competitor. I’d imagine they were happy with that over that today, with an 8% share in breakfast playing 10 songs an hour.”

Jackson agrees: “They’ve gone really well playing back to back music effectively for five or six months and with Christian, they’ve got a big personality, less about the music and him and the act. Very different proposition, I’m curious to see how that goes.

For Campbell, who remains committed to his new show with Jase & PJ despite a slight dip in the ratings, consistency in strong content will also be crucial. By the end of the year, he tells Mumbrella, he’s hoping for a 7% share.

“There was always a small risk with bringing a show into a market that wasn’t known and we always knew it would take time for the audience to become familiar with that show and grow to like it. We remain absolutely on strategy with that show and station. The ingredient you can’t buy with talent is chemistry, and that show has it in spades.

“I’ve not said this about many of our new shows previously, but this one, it will get the time it needs because it’s a good show and I’m getting no negative feedback about the show.”

It would be “naive and premature” to make a call and axe a show so early on, he adds.

Making noise – such as the stunt on the Yarra River on the first day of winter – is part of the strategy to draw attention, but Campbell explains making a personal connection is necessary.

“The positive is that they are both radio people, so they understand what they need to do and as long as they’re consistent with it – which they are – then over time, the audience will get to know them better and convert those secondary listeners into primary listeners. I thought it might turn around this survey, that’s not the case. But that doesn’t change our view of the show.”

But his Gold FM station is in different position. What is most interesting about the Gold FM breakfast slot is that it is actually helping the station to a Melbourne win. And that’s without a host for its show. Campbell says it couldn’t be sustained without the entrance of O’Connell. And now that O’Connell’s on air until 10am, he believes that will help the show sustain numbers.

“Gold is an exceptional radio station. It’s the first time it’s had cume over a million. It’s its best audience ever in terms of cume and it’s gone up 10+ and breakfast has gone up a whole point.

ARN’s Campbell says Christian O’Connell has walked into a very strong station

“We are handing Christian a strong radio station really – no pressure there,” he jokes.

“I don’t believe that in the case of the more music argument, that would’ve been sustainable. Over time, the most successful stations – unless you have a unique point of difference – are those with a strong mix of music and a strong personality-based breakfast show.

“I will say with anything though there is change, there is some degree of churn.”

Up in Brisbane, one of the most consistent parts of 97.3FM’s breakfast is Terry Hansen. But Hansen – who has been with 97.3FM since 2003 – announced he would depart the station yesterday. Campbell says while change in audience is “inevitable”, it won’t be the same as Robin Bailey’s departure.

Hansen’s show finished with a breakfast show share of 12.3%, just losing to Nova’s Ash Bradnam, Kip Wightman and David ‘Luttsy’ Lutteral and Hit 105’s Abby Coleman, Stav Davidson and Matty Acton. The two shows had shares of 12.6% and 12.5% in the breakfast slot. Triple M breakfast with Greg Martin, Robin Bailey and Lawrence Mooney had a 10.4% share, dipping 0.6 points from last survey.

Macquarie Media’s 4BC finished with a 5.6% share in breakfast.

Brisbane Cumulative Audience. Survey Three 2018.

“He loved the job he loved the station and it would be unfair of us to stand in the way of someone’s personal health,” Campbell says.

“When there is change, there is always an impact. The impact of Terry leaving will be very different to when Robin left, because it’s Terry’s decision to go. We have been talking to local people and we’ve got some fairly good candidates that will be able to slip into those shoes fairly well – they won’t be Terry – but it’ll be a local Brisbane personality.”

But Jackson isn’t convinced it will have a huge effect: “I don’t know that it will have any sort of overall impact really and people are probably loyal to the station that they’re on.

Hansen (L) has been a co-host of the breakfast show since 2003

“He is leaving through his own choice, not like previously when they had a change.

“If you are a core listener, you still the breakfast show and you’d look around and go ‘what else would you change to?’ so I don’t think there’s a reason you’d switch stations in this instance.”

Fordham disagrees, arguing it will impact the show based on its format.

“Those type of formats tend to be quite safe and familiar,” she says. “They’ve already have one change in the last year. All of a sudden there’s two new players and the show is going to be quite different.”

And while recruitment for a replacement is well underway, one of Campbell’s focuses is his new drive show with McMahon and Whitelaw.

The duo snatched another win across Sydney drive with a 9.9% share, but lost out in other markters. Nova’s Kate, Tim & Marty led in Adelaide and Brisbane, with shares of 13.6% and 15.8% respectively. The drive time slot in Perth was won my Mix 94.5, which had a 16% share. Mix 94.5 broadcasts The Rush Hour with Lisa and Pete (featuring Lisa Shaw and Pete Curulli) from 3pm to 5pm, followed by Kennedy Molloy (featuring Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy) from 5pm to 7pm.

Melbourne was won by Fox FM’s extended drive time format, with Carrie Bickmore and Tommy Little until 4:30pm, and Hughesy & Kate until 6:30pm, with a 13.3% share.

While the marketing push will run in the second half of the year, he commends the efforts of chief marketing officer Anthony Xydis, who is marketing all of the new shows.

“We still think that we are getting better and better every week on the air. We respected their creative space they wanted and they work within our parameters and the enthusiasm and energy is still there,” he says.

Adelaide Cumulative Audience. Survey Three 2018.

“Anthony Xydis has done an extraordinary job with marketing all our shows. The emphasis has been on breakfast, so the second half of the year we’ll see more Will & Woody advertising than H1 that will help more.”

Another company which could be commended for their efforts is SCA, with the newly extended drive time slot with Carrie Bickmore and Tommy Little, as well as Dave ‘Hughesy’ Hughes and Kate Langbroek, growing for the fourth consecutive survey.

Fordham is happy to be back in the game.

“The dual drive show strategy was based on insights around audience behaviours changing in drive and the drive period is now lasting for four hours, our strategy to put in two shows was to cater to the growing demands of our audience and our clients,” she says.

“Carrie and Tommy have yet again come in at number one in their time slot and subsequently given a great lead in to Hughesy & Kate who have also today had their fourth survey of growth in a row and are almost number one nationally.”


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