‘We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?’: Russel Howcroft on his radio longevity and unexpected first survey results

In August, there was a shake up at 3AW. Renowned adman Russel Howcroft started as its latest talkback host, opposite Ross Stevenson in the breakfast slot. The switch up paid off for Nine Radio in the first survey, but Howcroft tells Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby why the result was unexpected, explains why talkback radio deserves more ad spend, and addresses whether he'll still be at 3AW in 20 years.

Russel Howcroft is in the process of converting his reputation as a most successful adman into one as a successful talkback host. It’s not exactly duplicative – although he sees no difference between speaking to the C-suite at PwC and the people of Melbourne at 3AW “because, in the end, it’s all about ideas” – but so far, it’s going well. Better than anyone – including Howcroft – expected, in fact.

To describe his first survey (and the industry’s first, since April) as John Burns’ replacement, and Ross Stevenson’s partner, is to use a cliche that has become shorthand for 2020 itself: unprecedented.

Howcroft: “What is difficult is your body clock”

While a small shuffle, perhaps a climb of a couple of percentage points, is a commonplace response to new talent, Howcroft and Stephenson’s result was anything but usual. As revealed at the end of last month, the pair skyrocketed 8.8 percentage points in Melbourne’s breakfast slot, landing on a 26.1% share.

“I certainly didn’t expect it. I don’t think anyone expected it,” Howcroft confesses on this week’s episode of the Mumbrellacast.

“Interestingly, the actual rating’s a bit better than that as well, because that number is actually up ’til 9 o’clock and our show finishes at 8:30. So I think it’s more like 27.4[%].

“All talk radio went up. So there was definitely a shift to the conversation, and I think that people were expecting that to happen. But happening to the degree that it did, yeah that was definitely a surprise.

“I did think that people would tune in. There may have been some 3AW listeners from the past that over time weren’t listening as often. And because of Gruen, I was hoping that there would also be some new listeners.”

Howcroft says that, despite the very early wake up, only made worse by the shift to daylight saving time, “making that show is a joy”. He fantasised about being on radio two decades ago, and two months in, he’s enjoying not just engaging with Victorians, who “see it as their show”, but sitting opposite “dead set radio genius” Ross Stevenson.

“It [the show] is very friendly. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it’s inviting. And the result is you get to have some really funny conversations with the public.”

The survey results, across all capital cities, revealed a reliance on talk radio during the pandemic. But is there enough media investment in the medium to show for it? Howcroft is adamant: “Well, obviously the answer is no.”

“I mean, look at the numbers. Seven minutes past 7[am] on 3AW, Monday to Friday, probably 300,000 people are listening. And your cost per thousand? Not very high,” he explains.

“And, of course, the other really good thing about talk radio is that the advertising, the advertisers, they do become part of the program. People don’t use the ads to switch. They become a part of the total package. Actually, it’s a very powerful medium for advertisers.”

Howcroft and Stevenson

As an advertising man whose job it now is to attract advertisers, rather than work for them, Howcroft hopes his familiarity with brands and agencies helps Nine Radio secure the ad spend it deserves. As he puts it, “I love having those conversations with advertisers”.

But the former chief creative officer at PwC and executive general manager at Ten claims the key – not only for Nine Radio, but for all media – is to get better at advertiser case studies.

“Yes, TV show X had a million people watching it. What’s actually interesting for the advertiser is … How many chickens did they sell?

“As a general statement, I think that all media could do a better job at actually demonstrating the client case studies, rather than just doing your reach numbers, your audience numbers. What about the sales numbers of the advertisers that are investing in your platform?”

Gruen returns tonight

While much of his career has been deep in the world of advertising, Howcroft is most widely known for his role at the intersection of ads and TV: Gruen.

The ABC’s advertising analysis program returns tonight for its 12th season, albeit with some adjustments necessitated by COVID-19: Howcroft appears via Zoom (he’s based in Melbourne, while the show films in Sydney), and, for the first time in Gruen’s history, it won’t have a live audience. Nonetheless, Howcroft hopes the season rates “tremendously”, just as his radio show has.

Which takes us back to 3AW.

Notably, there’s a precedent for the biggest and best talkback stars to sit in their seats for a long time. Alan Jones retired from 2GB earlier this year after 35 years on the air. John Burns, Howcroft’s predecessor, was in his role for more than 20 years.

Russel Howcroft is coy about whether this is where we can expect to see him for the next couple of decades.

“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.”

To hear the full interview with Russel Howcroft on tomorrow’s episode of the Mumbrellacast, subscribe through your favourite podcasting app here


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