Return to radio ratings: ARN’s Ciaran Davis on lockdowns, stand downs and trusting in audio

With GfK radio ratings paused during COVID-19 and reporting set to return at the end of September, the industry has faced a rare period without constant reporting. Is that a chance to take the foot off the pedal, make big changes or continue with business as normal? Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston spoke with ARN CEO Ciaran Davis to find out.

It’s August when I speak to Australian Radio Network’s CEO Ciaran Davis, and we’ve currently been through six months of restrictions and lockdowns relating to COVID-19. As well as the impacts of the virus pushing the country into its first recession in nearly 30 years, the media industry has also been devastated by the pandemic.

But things are set to return to normal, or closer to normal, soon for the radio industry. Australian Radio Network (ARN) CEO Ciaran Davis spies green shoots on the horizon, although they had to follow ‘intense cancellations’, and the GfK radio ratings reporting is set to return at the end of this month.

ARN, which features both the Kiis network and Gold FM, planned for the return with a marketing push across its network, focusing on talent, which is something incredibly important to the network, says Davis. While talent is obviously a vital part of good radio in all cases, ARN has made its commitment clear with long contracts that lock in its key people like Kyle Sandilands, Jackie ‘O’ Henderson and Christian O’Connell.

Nothing is certain, says Davis, but there’s reason to be positive

“We’ve always put a lot of strength behind our talent strategy and the importance of talent. It’s our talent and local content that is the differentiating factor between ourselves and the digital operators,” Davis tells Mumbrella.

“The fact that radio listening, overall, has increased shows people actually want some form of normality, they want a sense of community and connection and you can only get that from radio. So having that great stock of talent across the country and very engaged audiences is an important part of the story we are telling during COVID-19.”

Although the industry had to suffer through ad cancellations, the data the industry did have access to during COVID-19 saw listening rise across the board, although consumers are now listening in different ways than they were and at different times. But unfortunately, those numbers haven’t correlated to ad spend, which saw its worst result in living memory in June. Radio has seen similar falls as other sectors – TV, digital and newspapers – but fared better than sectors like outdoor and cinema.

But the industry knew that was going to happen, says Davis. They knew, following the cancellations, that it would take time for ad spend to recover and that it would take work to convince brands and agencies that radio was a safe medium even though listeners weren’t going to work each day in the same way they had been before.

“As an industry, I think we did a very good job quickly convincing ad agencies and advertisers that this is where radio thrives. We can give that connection, that information, news updates. We’re a trusted medium.”

Kyle and Jackie O are two of ARN’s biggest stars

But it wasn’t just about giving advertisers a gentle nudge. Davis is open about some of the tough decisions ARN had to make, as many other media businesses did also. The company saw an 82% fall in profits at its FY20 results and the business stood down a number of staff at the beginning of the pandemic. The company also rolled out cost cutting measures, including six-month salary reductions for executive management and the board, reduced work hours and a freeze on marketing, travel, entertainment and discretionary costs.

“We had to make some tough decisions on costs, which included some stand downs, which was hard to do, but it was necessary. We cut all costs as much as we could and very quickly adapted to a virtual environment. Our sales teams are probably working harder than ever, because over the last 12 to 18 months we’ve been going to market with a strong commercial strategy – mixing the strength of radio, it’s immediacy, it’s effectiveness, it’s ROI from a retail perspective, with our IHeartRadio platform.”

ARN regularly tops the Australian Podcast Ranker and is a dominant player in the digital audio space thanks to IHeartRadio and the IHeartPodcast network. Its catch-up titles often top the Australian Top 100, and it regularly adds new content to its library. A round of promotions last month also saw Lauren Joyce promoted to the newly created role of chief strategy and connections officer, leading ARN’s commercial and content offering in the relationships between brands and audiences.

“As a business, we’re building our core as much as we can in a challenging environment, looking to the future and investing in our data capabilities to make sure we’re ready for the digital audio future when it arrives in full,” says Davis.

“We’re all waking up each morning to see what the news of the day is, but the comforting thing is that when Melbourne went into lockdown at the beginning of August we didn’t see the same level of cancellations coming through [as the beginning of the pandemic]. Our Melbourne revenue is actually doing quite well at the moment. So if things can stabilise, we’re seeing now businesses looking towards Christmas and 2021.

“But as I said, we still just wake up each morning wondering what’s going to happen.”

This story is the second in the Return to Ratings series. The first , featuring Southern Cross Austereo’s Dave Cameron and Nikki Clarkson, can be read here. 


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