Nova’s Paul Jackson chats strong cumes despite share dip, hints at the future of Ben & Liam

Nova Entertainment programming chief Paul Jackson admits that Australian talk radio stations do it as well as anywhere in the world, but he won't be changing content strategy to try and compete. Instead, Nova and Smoothfm will stay true to what they do best, and will wait for listening habits to return when lockdowns end, Jackson says in this interview with Mumbrella's Zanda Wilson.

Nova Entertainment’s FM radio stations generally took a hit in listening during the fifth GfK radio ratings survey, as lockdowns impacted the East Coast of Australia and drove ears towards news and talkback radio.

There are a couple of immediate takeaways for Nova Entertainment chief programming and marketing officer, Paul Jackson. Firstly, Australian talk radio is simply very strong, and secondly, Nova may have lost listening, but not listeners.

“Talkback radio in Australia is very strong. We see that in our drive shows in Australia across all the networks, and there’s a lot more talk on breakfast on FM, compared to other places around the world,” he says.

“Stations like 3AW and 2GB are very strong on a global scale, FIVEaa as well. They are very trusted. I think we are all going to 2GB for news, when you have a COVID moment that we are having.”

Smoothfm has lost “listening” but not “listeners”, Jackson says

Looking at Smooth 95.3 for example, share is still very strong after midday, once Sydneysiders have finished listening to news talk at breakfast and a daily press conference from the Premier at 11am.

“Smooth share at breakfast time is the lowest in years, and [the same] in the morning. But by lunchtime, the numbers are up. If you started measuring from midday onwards, you’d have a nine-and-a-half or higher share with million cume, which is pretty much what Smooth does every [survey]. The audience is not there in the morning, they are probably listening to 2GB or the ABC, or watching Gladys [Berejiklian] on the TV.”

His point on listeners remaining with FM radio, just listening less, is one that ARN’s Duncan Campbell also noted in our chat this week. Effectively, while listening share is down across FM in the mornings and on breakfast, that total listeners, measured by cume, hasn’t dropped off.

“I’m pleasantly surprised with all [our] stations across the board most holding their usual cume. So the audience is still coming in, but not in their traditional routines. So a bit less listening at breakfast but still there in other day parts.

“Share is slightly depressed, but certainly not as bad as I thought we might see it. If you think back to Melbourne a year ago, it’s different. For us now, we know where we stand with the [changes in listening around COVID]. We know the numbers will go up but it probably won’t change for another six weeks when we hit the 70-80% vaccination numbers.

“I might even expect to see in the next survey a slightly increased share for a lot of the FM stations.”

Of course, it’s always worth considering whether to tweak programming, but Jackson says that while there’s “no material problem” with any of his stations, the best tactic is to wait for normal routines to return in those locked down cities.

“What can you do? Do you throw on Gladys [Berejiklian] on live, like talkback stations do at 11am? It might please some people, but it might polarise people who are trying to escape with the music. So you’ve got to decide ultimately to stay true to our core state, true to our path.

“You look at the cume and we haven’t lost any listeners,” he reiterates. “You’ve got to stay the course… We need to help people escape. We haven’t lost listeners but we have lost listening.”

There was less movement in Melbourne, where Smoothfm actually gained 0.1 point overall and Nova 100 remained flat. When you see most other FM stations dipping, Jackson is taking that result as a win.

“The first thing I thought when I saw [Melbourne] results was ‘this is looking really good’. The market hasn’t really moved, and all the cumes are about where they were, so that’s really pleasing across the board.

“We were doing record numbers on Nova in Melbourne earlier in the year, and then everything [with COVID] happened. The underlying trend is that there’s no problem on the radio station.”

Ben and Liam will be on Nova “for decades”

But Jackson hasn’t been sitting still. He recently put Ben and Liam into Sydney and Melbourne 12pm for lunch after throwing in ‘Nova Boy Jams’ at 11am, and Nova has also been broadcasting drive show Kate, Tim and Joel on weekends throughout August across markets in lockdown.

“We looked at areas where we could materially make a difference, give the audience something more, but we appreciate at breakfast time, it is what it is,” he says.

Speaking of Ben and Liam, I ask Jackson what listener feedback Nova has received since putting them into markets outside of Adelaide for an hour each weekday.

“They’re going extremely well, both from our own ears, and from the listener feedback that we monitor weekly. The overwhelming majority [of feedback] is either ‘I like it’ or ‘I love it’. In terms of my listening, it’s exceeded my expectations of how well [the show] flows at lunchtime.

“We’ll certainly keep it going at least through until the rest of the year with that show.”

Ben and Liam are doing well in Adelaide too, remaining in double digits with a 10.1% share despite a slight dip. The golden boys of Nova, having come across from Triple J in 2020, will be a key part of the Nova Network for “decades to come,” Jackson says.

So is the testing across other markets a way of Nova seeing whether Ben and Liam might be the next Nova breakfast show in Melbourne or Sydney? Jackson insists there are no immediate plans to move Ben and Liam from Adelaide, but admits that Nova could do much worse than installing them in a bigger market, should the need ever arise.

“We like to build our own talents within our own business, rather than going out and hiring shows [from other commercial networks]. We’ve got a great history of that,” he says.

“In Melbourne, we started with Sam Pang and built that show and we’ve developed it over a number of years now, and in Sydney, Fitzy and Wippa are celebrating ten years on breakfast.

“So I can assure you there is no need [currently]… but come the moment, one day, Ben and Liam have put themselves in a fantastic position. They’re young guys still and we see them on the network for decades to come. They’ve got an exceptionally bright future and we see them as national talent for the network overall.”

Ash, Kip and Luttsy with Susie O’Neill are still #1

Nova lost its outright lead in Brisbane, having to settle for equal #1 on a 10.2% share, dropping back 0.6 percentage points. Nova’s breakfast show, Ash, Kip and Luttsy with Susie O’Neill, held onto top spot despite falling 0.5 points.

Jackson admits he’s never seen a three-way tie for first in a metro market, but is confident Nova will regain the outright lead next survey. “I had to read it twice,” he chuckles. “But Brisbane is a market where we often see it very tight, and whenever that happens Nova tends to pull away again.

“Everyone now and then it gets neck-and-neck, and we take nothing for granted. Susie [O’Neill] was away [at the Olympics] and dialling into the breakfast show, so we were possibly expecting worse overall.”

It was a similar story in Perth, where Nova also surrendered the overall lead to Southern Cross Austereo’s Mix 94.5. Jackson expects the battle between that station and Nova 106.9 to be tight for the rest of the year, and breakfast show Nathan, Nat and Shaun remains top of its slot.

“It wasn’t so long ago that I remember Mix winning 100 books in a row, and we thought we might never get past them. So we’ve had a great run and it will continue to move between these two stations. Triple M has fallen back a bit as well.

“It comes back to listening hours again, and we are clearly ahead in cume. When you look at the 50+ listening, that’s their strength. Being part of the Hit Network, I would think that has helped them, yes. But the way I look at it, it doesn’t really affect us.”


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