What’s keeping the radio bosses up at night?

The most recent radio ratings survey is the last release of comprehensive data until at least September as COVID-19 takes its toll on the medium’s ability to measure its audiences. So with this data now the last set the networks can rely on for a while, advertising revenue tumbling, and pay cuts across the board - what is it that’s keeping content bosses up at night? And what does success look like now everything’s been turned upside down? Vivienne Kelly chats to them to find out.

There’s plenty to keep those in the media industry awake at the moment, tossing and turning as they grapple with when we will return to normal, and indeed if we even should return to normal. Was ‘normal’ even that good anyway?

Despite radio executives constantly espousing that “radio is in rude health”, this status has not given it immunity to the latest health crisis.

Audiences and engagement may be up, but the commercial dollars are simply not there to support this uptick.

Dave Cameron, Southern Cross Austereo’s (SCA) chief content officer, responsible for content across brands including 2Day FM, the Hit Network and Triple M, says the current state of play with content quality and consumption versus commercial support is increasingly frustrating.

“I mean, it’s irony at its best with audiences never having been higher, and revenue really down significantly, and the fact we aren’t able to trade as much as we would on our newfound success, I guess,” he tells Mumbrella following the release of the survey results.

Cameron: Isn’t it ironic?

“It’s increasingly frustrating, but it would be more frustrating if we weren’t seeing the kind of data that we’re seeing from audiences at the moment, but we’re seeing radio come through as a companion to the crisis, better than we could have expected.”

Australian Radio Network’s (ARN) Duncan Campbell, who oversees the likes of Kiis FM, WS FM and Gold, concurs that it’s strange to have so much success, and not see it pay dividends.

“It’s a very strange time in that respect. We’ve done a lot of work as a network to get to where we are, and of course we’re enjoying this ratings success. We’re six in a row at number one, and of course the coronavirus hits just when we should be reaping the revenue rewards of that,” he says.

“So it’s frustrating to be honest, but it is what it is. But I think it’s up to us to obviously ensure that audiences are maintained as we head towards the end of the year and the recommencements of surveys for survey six.”

Staring into the dark

So with revenue down, audiences up, pay and hour reductions across the networks and a pause in comprehensive industry-wide data, which factor is taking up the most brain space? Which particular part of the industry or the crisis is keeping these men awake after dark?

Nova Entertainment’s chief programming and marketing officer Paul Jackson, who oversees Nova and Smooth, notes there is far more going on in the world than radio’s struggles.

Jackson: Worried about the economy

“Oh there’s so many things that are so much more important than work and radio and everything just now,” he says in response to the question. “But if really anything, we just worry about the economy and what it means for life and many of our colleagues. People that we know in this industry and beyond that have lost their jobs and what it’s going to mean for life getting back to normal. I think that’s really what probably worries all of us at this stage, and concern for family members that are affected by it as well.

“A lot of people very close to me, their worlds have just changed overnight. And we hope that that gets back to some sort of normality quite soon. None of us have any visibility of understanding what comes next.”

ARN’s Campbell is watching the market closely, and observing shifts in consumer preferences. Occupying his mind is if, and when, these shifts will revert to normal, and how his stations are faring in light of a changing world.

“In terms of what’s concerning me, not concerning, but we’re still working hard on Kiis 101.1 in Melbourne,” he says.

The station had a 5.9% share in the most recent survey, down 0.5 points from the prior survey. This placed it below ARN stablemate Gold 104.3’s 10.7% share (down 0.1), as well as Nova Entertainment’s Smooth 91.5’s 9.7% (up 0.1) and Nova 100’s 7.2% (down 1.1). SCA’s Fox 101.9 had 8.1% (down 0.3), but Kiis was above Triple M’s 5.0% (down 0.5).

The station slipped in all segments, except weekday evenings, 7pm to 12am when it was stable on 6.6%.

“Someone asked me ‘Aren’t you going to give up on that yet?’ And I said ‘No, because the cume [cumulative audience] remains very strong’. It’s nearly 1m cume – 913,000. So it’s a very strong cume. We’re just not getting conversion of that cume into longer listening.

Campbell isn’t giving up on Kiis 101. in Melbourne

“So if we had declining cumes, I’d be really concerned about Melbourne, but it remains a challenge, not a concern, given the cume strength.”

The other thing on Campbell’s mind is keeping 97.3 FM in Brisbane in the number one spot. This survey it tied with SCA’s Hit 105 on a 10.5% share.

Over at SCA, the network has taken some drastic measures over the past six months in a bid to ensure long-term survival.

In December, it made around 90 people redundant as it battled tough, but pre-COVID-19, market conditions.

As the economic effects of the virus have started to be felt this year, it has implemented 10% pay cuts for a six-month period and required staff to take leave.

So SCA’s Cameron says the wellbeing of his content staff is top of mind.

“What’s keeping me up at night? Making sure staff and our programming teams are getting through this period while they all continue to broadcast from home. I think it’s easy when they’re out of sight to just kind of think that everything is okay, but actually making sure that all of our 86 breakfast and national drive shows are doing okay, having to continuously bat up content, whether it be crisis-driven content or light entertainment for a bit of relief.

“That’s the thing that I think a lot about, making sure that as all of our talent work from home, making sure they’re still connected and engaged to us and to the world.”

When asked the same question at the release of survey one’s results on Tuesday 10 March – just 37 days before it was asked on survey two’s release and most people were still venturing into busy office spaces – the sentiment was somewhat different.

Cameron, for example, who is now preoccupied with working from home arrangements and staff wellbeing, was worrying about Sydney’s 2Day FM.

In survey one, on 10 March, it had climbed 1.2 points overall to a 5.3% share and edged up 0.2 points in its troubled breakfast spot to a 3.7% share.

Cameron, before COVID-19, was focused on getting 2Day FM back to its glory days.

Can 2Day FM return to its glory days?

“I spent years, seven years at 2Day FM, and it was a really exciting station at the top of its game,” he said back in March. “And it’s the one thing that I continue to mull over at any point in the day, and continue to think about the strategy of that station. But, suffice to say, I think we will see the increased growth around that station this year, in whatever way or shape or form that product looks like.”

For survey two, released on Thursday, the station slipped 0.2 points back to 5.1%, while breakfast was up 0.1 to 3.8%.

Nova’s Jackson, who now is focused on the economy, people without work and the world’s wider problems, back in March was also spending his nights thinking about the bigger picture – but just the bigger picture of radio, not the entire fate of the world.

He was looking at wider trends, increasing competition, and what a year of surveys would tell him.

“The competition is different these days,” he said at the time. “We used to kind of live in our bubble and it was us versus other radio stations. Whereas these days, I think when people are listening to Nova or Smooth and they fancy a change, they’re probably going to go and do some streaming on Spotify or something else, or maybe a podcast. So people have so much choice. You’ve got to give them a specific reason to listen to your radio station, and that would be something like Kate, Tim and Marty [Nova’s syndicated drive-time show], or we re-present our music and we now present it as ‘Fresh hits and throwbacks’, and [we promote] different features to people.

Nova’s Kate, Tim and Marty have been on air together since 2014

“So I think that’s something that should be keeping everybody up at night, is really the game has changed and the competition has changed, and it tends to be less of a ‘The next radio station on the dial’, versus the other choices beyond radio that people have.”

Campbell was concerned with two things in March: Kiis 101.1 and the big-budget alluring marketing campaigns of rival networks, which could tempt listeners away from his network.

“We always factor in the marketing campaigns that other stations do, because we know that marketing does impact books for diary keepers, because it lifts top-of-mind awareness of the stations,” he said in March. “And depending on the strength of the station, that’s either short-lived or it sort of embeds itself a bit.”

In March, Campbell noted that ARN had just extended the contracts of Kiis 101.’s breakfast hosts Jase Hawkins and Polly ‘PJ’ Harding, who form the Jase & PJ show. He was banking on his belief and investment in them paying off.

“We have confidence in that show. We’re investing in them, and I always believed that show will work. It’s just taking longer than we anticipated, but I think that’s just part of how it is these days, because people’s lives are so busy, they just take longer to lock into something, particularly in a market where there’s strong breakfast shows around them, as in Fox and Nova, so they’ve got a real battle.”’

In survey one, the Jase & PJ show had climbed 0.7 points to 7.1%, overtaking Triple M’s Hot Breakfast with Eddie McGuire (down 1.2 points in survey one to 5.8%), but remaining behind its other commercial rivals.

In survey two, it was back 0.3 points to 6.8%, but held onto its lead over Triple M, which slipped 0.6 points further to 5.2%.

Marketing radio in the age of COVID-19

ARN’s Campbell, however, may not need to worry about competitive marketing campaigns, with Nova’s Jackson conceding his network won’t be doing any bold activity any time soon.

On Valentine’s Day, Smooth did launch its new marketing push, fronted by Robbie Williams, which Jackson says was a “stunning success” but the world has now changed.

“I think Smooth would have done even better had the world not changed on its axis as much as it has. So I think, even within that, it has done extremely well. And it’s something that will be with us long-term. We’ve had one burst of that for a few weeks at this moment in time. There will be plenty of people that it did connect with, and there will be others that haven’t seen it yet. And you know in life we have to have a few runs at these things.”

Perhaps, he says, in less tumultuous times, the campaign evolve and be rolled out further.

“At some point much further down the track, we will continue to explore marketing for Smooth with Robbie Williams,” he says.

For now though, Nova Entertainment is hitting pause.

“Going forward over the next few months, we won’t actually be doing any marketing. We’re lucky that we had just done the Robbie Williams campaign that we’d obviously been building up to for quite a while. And for Nova, we’ve been marketing the station over the back end of last year, through summer in a light way, and then back on quite heavy at the start of January into February, before we moved into Smooth. So both networks have had some sort of marketing in recent times,” he says.

“I think everything is obviously just so different now, it would be fruitless to want to be marketing the product. Especially since all the Novas have number one cumes, bar Sydney where we’re number two, because Smooth is number one. Nova 100 in Melbourne had its highest cume ever. And it’s pretty much reflected at all Novas all around the country.”

The only marketing activity Jackson is considering is talking directly to consumers via smart speakers, which are “flying off the shelves” as the virus rolls on.

“The marketing has got to be straight through the speakers to our audience, actually understanding them, connecting with them, giving them what they want – so whether that’s lots of music and countdowns and throwbacks and feel goods and escapism, or whatever that is. At Nova, we’re trying to get our heads around ‘Is isolation about to be lifted and the kids going back to school and people want much more news?’ And so on. We’re trying to read the sentiment and the tone of our audience and get that right, reflect that properly.”

Cameron concedes COVID-19 has shifted a lot of his plans, while Campbell suspects everyone will be more prudent with what they spend on luring listeners.

ARN’s Campbell concedes competition budgets won’t be what they once were

“I suspect there will be less contesting and stuff done across stations,” he says. “There will still be breakfast benchmarks and some workday contesting, but given the fact we are in this period with no surveys, there will be some modifications of plans going forward.”

The changing definition of ‘success’

With COVID-19 shifting the anxieties of the radio execs, and almost forcing the abolishment of marketing plans, success in 2020 could look a whole lot different.

After survey one, it was all about the bigger picture across the eight surveys. Now, they won’t have eight surveys, and the commercial support will likely be even worse than it would have been otherwise.

Back in March after survey one, Jackson was all about looking at the year’s impending eight surveys – now likely down to five – and defining success from the trends.

“You’re looking for the trend across the whole year to have been one where you’re at least steady, if not growing,” he said of how he’d define the year’s success.

“With the Nova stations, we’ve got so many shows that have been on air for 10 or more years, most of them a significant number of time, and we’ve had record cumes again to date. We’ve got more people listening than we’ve ever had before. So really each kind of moment in time for us is about super-serving the audience, understanding the audience, making sure we’re giving them the right music dressed up in the right way, and that the shows are doing what people expect of them.

“So there is no real end point even though we stop a survey at the end of the year – it’s kind of frustrating because people are still listening beyond that. So that’s kind of the way we look at it across the year.”

This time around, Jackson doesn’t want to get bogged down in the COVID-19 shifts and changes. The bigger survey picture is now out of focus.

“In terms of assessing these numbers overall, my view is all the networks have done pretty well. They’re all on par with where they were before. We can fall back on the previous trends as well. So, it’s hard for me to put anything out,” he now says of the new reality.

“Most stations during the work day for music shows predominantly have gone backwards a bit, maybe the older end less so, Smooth hasn’t. But I think probably if I’m honest, some of the Smooth marketing would play into supporting that as well.

“And then, you’ll see the talk stations scoring very well. We can see it with our own one FiveAA [in Adelaide], thanks to some superb numbers too.

“But that’s the moment in time that we’re in, really.

“So me and my team, it’s not worth overanalysing it, because we could probably get a bit lost in it and go ‘Why is this bit up? And why is that bit down?’ From the start of the period to the end of it, the world looked very, very different.”

What a difference one survey makes, hey?

Back in survey one, ARN’s Campbell was all about rankings across the various metro markets.

He wanted to maintain the network’s number one position. In Melbourne it was about keeping Christian O’Connell’s Gold breakfast program at number one, and improving Jase & PJ’s ranking. He wanted the number one and two (Kiis and WS FM) FM stations in Sydney, “Brisbane stronger, Adelaide the same, and Perth to be number one”.

O’Connell with sidekick Jack Post

Simple. “A dream result for us at the end of the year”.

Now, revenue and working with his commercial colleagues to ensure survival is a huge factor in defining success.

“Well obviously a maintaining of the ratings once survey six recommences and we finish the year hopefully as strong as we are now,” he says echoing his sentiment back in March.

“But also, we are linked with our commercial colleagues. We can’t live without them and they can’t live without us. So success for me would be maintaining of the ratings success we’re currently enjoying, and a return of the revenue which has been lost as a result of this virus. And it’s not going to bounce back, obviously, but at least showing a stronger pipeline into the future would help us as well.”

In March, SCA’s Cameron was nothing if not ambitious.

“I would love to have number one and two stations in every market we operate in,” he said – bearing in mind in survey one SCA’s 2Day FM was fifth in FM on 5.3% behind WS FM (8.4%), Kiis (8.1%), Smooth (also 8.1%) and Nova (7.7%), and Triple M was behind even that on 4.9%.

By survey two, Triple M’s 5.4% means it has overtaken its SCA counterpart 2Day (5.1%), but both networks still sit below the others.

Cameron, however, was philosophical about how his stations might get there.

“I would love to make sure that our content teams and our shows are at the forefront of creativity to be brutally honest. I think creativity will lead to success. It always has in the past, whenever I was programming, that was always a part of our driving strategy towards ratings. And I would like to think that creativity can be redefined with both of our networks to a greater success this year, so it’s certainly a driving force for me across our content teams,” he said in March.

In a COVID-19 world, however, Cameron is far more focused on digital.

“Well success will continue to be I think our data around streaming and catch-up and podcasts. I think as we continue to see that rise, we will continue to see that radio’s very clear somewhat unfair advantage is its companionship. And I think the other thing around success for 2020 will look like, when we come out the back of this, will our audiences have discovered that they still enjoy listening to our shows, but they can now get it either live or will catch-up become more of a thing that they may move to? It’s hard to know how much new habits will be formed in the six months.”

How much will radio consumption habits change during COVID-19? (Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash)

Despite the shift in sentiment, back in March, Cameron – perhaps in some way foreshadowing what was to come – always knew 2020 would be a challenging one for radio, and the wider media industry.

At the time, he observed: “The world just feels like it’s gone berserk… I don’t think this is the year for calm, quite frankly.”


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