SCA’s Grant Blackley on new shows during COVID, regional radio’s strength and what LiSTNR offers advertisers

Following the release of SCA's latest financials, Mumbrella's Zanda Wilson hears from CEO Grant Blackley about how the company turned a profit in H1 FY21 and how growth in digital audio led to the launch of its new LiSTNR offering.

“[There was] the opportunity for SCA to lead the industry out of COVID with [an] exciting and fresh new product when audiences are also going through their own lifestyle and habitual changes – and [it] was a good moment in time to seize this opportunity.”

Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) chief executive Grant Blackley is reflecting back on the decision to launch or revamp no fewer than six metro radio breakfast shows off the back of a COVID-impacted 2020.

SCA re-launched breakfast shows on 2Day FM in Sydney, Fox FM and Triple M in Melbourne, as well as Triple M in Brisbane. Plus, as part of a massive shakeup which included axing the ailing Hit 92.9, there are new shows on Mix94.5 and the newly launched Triple M station in Perth.

But Blackley denies it was risky to make such sweeping changes all at once. “The changes we made were all of a timely importance, and all made in order to strengthen our product in these key markets and slots for the long term,” he tells Mumbrella.

SCA chief executive officer, Grant Blackley

So far it seems that SCA made such decisions about its metro talent lineups from a relative position of financial strength. In its results for H1 of FY21, SCA reported a 59.3% rise in profit to $32.5 million.

And despite a fall in revenue of 15.9% to $259.2 million, SCA managed to reduce its debt pile by half to reach a new ‘historic’ low of $66.4 million. Even Blackley admits the company is performing “above our expectations”.

“While no one could have predicted last year, SCA took the opportunity to reshape the business. We moved quickly and decisively to a leaner operating model that would assist in the short term and benefit the long term and in the last six months we reimagined where SCA should be,” he says.

“LiSTNR was three years in development which underpins the implementation of our new digital-first operating model across all our SCA operations. So last year allowed us to transition to where we want to be.”

Regional radio remains an area of strength for SCA, with the network’s assets actually growing their revenue by 6.8% in H1 despite the pandemic. Blackley points to the ongoing Boomtown initiative, of which SCA plays a significant role, and which continues to educate the market “about the long term under investment in regional markets from national advertisers.

“Boomtown has been key in changing perceptions and making advertisers reappraise the great opportunities in regional Australia. We expect Boomtown to have another strong year and positive effect on regional ad revenue, and also expect to see some industry-leading initiatives from Boomtown in the months ahead.”

But that doesn’t mean SCA will be reinstating the 19 Hit Network breakfast shows it chose to axe in 2020 to cut costs and the weather COVID-19 storm.

Blackley said localism remains a priority for the network, and can be seen through the local shows across its regional Triple M network, as well as a commitment to localised workdays across most Hit regional stations.

“Investment in regional areas is dear to our hearts and it’s important to note that Triple M is at the centre of that, with its live and local focus. We networked certain shows on the Hit Network and we have seen an improvement in content for these shows, importantly, whilst still maintaining exactly the same amount of locally delivered hours each day with our new commitment to localised workdays in most of these markets.”

SCA revived ‘The Morning Crew’ with Ed Kavalee, Dave Hughes and Erin Molan

Looking at the new metro shows on offer for 2021, media attention has predictably turned to the latest iteration of breakfast on 2Day FM in the form of The Morning Crew with Hughesy, Ed and Erin.

But Blackley is well aware that, despite implanting the core DNA of the show from the former Hughesy and Ed Hit Network drive show, gaining attribution and traction in a market as settled as Sydney won’t ever be easy, and that there is no quick-fix solution for the embattled station.

“By design we chose a strategy that delivered well-known and loved talent already familiar to the 2Day audience with established chemistry in Hughsey and Ed in order to hit the ground running on-air, and then added Erin, who we knew was a rising star in Sydney. They have really gelled well on air from day one and are having a huge amount of fun,” he says.

He reiterates what chief content officer Dave Cameron has previously told me, that SCA won’t be repeating past mistakes of ditching shows quickly in Sydney. Hughesy, Ed and Erin will be given multiple years to bed in.

“We know very well that new shows take a while to build momentum and gain cut through and traction particularly in a radio market that is very settled such as Sydney, and we are committed to this show and watching it grow its audience over the next several years.”

As always, launching new shows meant saying goodbye to others. Getting ahold of one-third of Australia’s most successful commercial network drive show over the past five-plus years, Marty Sheargold, was a significant coup for SCA, even if it meant ending heritage Melbourne offering The Hot Breakfast.

“The Hot Breakfast was a fantastic success story for Triple M across 11 very successful years,” Blackley admits.

“With Eddie deciding to hang up the microphone for now it provided SCA the opportunity to bring a new entertainment-based show to Triple M and we are delighted that Marty was keen to step into that role and wake up Melbourne every morning with his unique brand of comedy.

“Marty was previously fantastic Triple M talent, and to have him choose to come home is very exciting for SCA.”

That wasn’t the only significant talent SCA was able to lure over from another network, with Perth Lord Mayor Basil Zempilas jumping over from Nine Radio’s 6PR for Triple M Perth.

“We realised that Perth was missing out by being the only metro city to not have a Triple M station and that the start of 2021 was the perfect opportunity to bring Triple M’s unique mix of rock, sport and comedy to our Perth listeners,” Blackley says.

“We have a fantastic breakfast show in Basil, Xav and Jenna that is pure Perth and we are delighted with the start the station has made.

“The launch of Triple M Perth to complete the Triple M network also gave us the perfect opportunity at the same time to realign Mix 94.5 to the Hit network where its format and audience were already complementary to the network’s strategy.”

Blackley says LiSTNR will simplify opportunities for advertisers

The launch of the aforementioned LiSTNR app, three years in making, came off the back of 59% growth in digital revenues compared to the prior corresponding period.

Blackley says that the key to the future success of the app, which will house all of SCA’s digital audio content, is that it will not only simplify the offering for listeners but also provide a more simplistic solution for advertisers.

“The surge in the consumption of digital audio in 2020 was influenced by COVID-19 but we’ve spent three years working on the best way to scale our digital offering – and in LiSTNR we have brought together all our existing digital content – whilst providing a platform to expand and deepen our offering across our four key pillars of live streamed radio, podcasting, music and news and information services.

Along with growth in consumption, the demand for digital audio solutions from advertisers is also growing rapidly and LiSTNR will provide a scaled but simplistic offering for our advertisers.

“LiSTNR underpins the implementation of our new digital first operating model at SCA. With a mandatory sign in, SCA will have access to known users and a real time deep understanding of our audiences to deliver targeted audiences at scale for advertisers,” he says.

“I think revenue will continue to accelerate as there continues to be a high appetite for digital content. It’s a scaled solution that allows us to expand our discussion more aggressively with digital investors. “


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