‘You can’t keep changing it’: Why the radio bosses are hoping for fewer talent shifts in 2019

The radio programmers are closing in on the end of the year, and yet there has been very few announcements of change. So what will the programmers be focusing on in 2019, Mumbrella's Zoe Samios asks?

To hear each radio programmer give the same response on a ratings day is rare, but more uncommon is hearing the same ‘no’ response to the question: can I expect changes to your lineup for 2019?

2DayFM breakfast will be one of just a few changes next year

The question may have been a little premature, but it was October last year when both ARN and Southern Cross Austereo announced three new drive lineups before quickly turning their attention to breakfast.

In the last two surveys, four of five programmers have confirmed there will be no changes, with the exception of Sydney’s 2DayFM, to any programs.

Unfortunately the ‘tweaks’ are not over for 2DayFM, which has struggled to keep talent on board for more than a year.

With just two weeks to go in the sixth survey, breakfast radio host Em Rusciano decided to quit, turning her focus to family and the upcoming arrival of her new child. 2DayFM is almost back to square one (again) and it begs the question: what does it need to do to bring in listeners? Is it another breakfast tweak? More changes to music format? A complete overhaul of the 2DayFM brand?

The 2DayFM brand has struggled for years

“She’s obviously really excited and is welcoming a new little one into the world and I couldn’t go back at her on that,” Hit Network’s head of content, Gemma Fordham, explains.

“I’m a mum and I get it and that’s a choice that every woman has to make. Some women choose to take some time off for a while, some choose not to and you have to do what is right for you and your family.

“Of course there was a part of me that thought ‘oh god, are we doing this?’, but at the same time, as a career woman and mother I absolutely understand how tough that decision is and I said to her ‘you have my full support’.”

The gradual decline of 2DayFM began well before Fordham’s arrival to the network in 2016. Prior to the programming boss’ arrival at the station, there had been three changes to the breakfast show, and it hasn’t stopped since. But she’s feeling up for the challenge of another “round”, hoping that audiences will bear with the network.

“Hopefully the audience will trust us and come along on the journey with us and whatever we put in we’re going to put in something that we are really excited about. Ash, Ed and Grant are doing a tremendous job at the moment,” she says.

“I’m sure it’ll shake it up a bit but whether or not that’s a positive or negative thing, time will tell. I certainly think and we hope that it would be a positive thing.”

Fordham assures the network is looking at various options and is already testing people for the new year, while in the interim, Rusciano has been replaced by night-time host, Ash London.

Remaining permanently is a real possibility for the radio star, who Fordham describes as a “top contender”.

Fordham says Ash London is a top contender for next year’s 2dayFM breakfast

“She’s doing a terrific job and she’s a star for the network. Her night time show has been a real strength for us. She’s really got a point of difference so she’s definitely a top contender. We are looking at Ash and some other people and seeing where it all lands,” she says.

2DayFM’s show, which was with Rusciano, Ed Kavalee and Grant Denyer, before Rusciano was replaced by London, finished with a 3.6% share for the survey.

By comparison, Kiis FM’s Kyle Sandilands and Jackie ‘O’ Henderson returned to the FM crown with a 10.2% share, up 0.9 points from last survey. WSFM’s Brendan ‘Jonesy’ Jones and Amanda Keller, fell a full ratings point to a 9.3% share, while Nova FM’s Ryan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald and Michael ‘Wippa’ Wipfli tied with Smooth FM’s Bogart Torelli and Glenn Daniel, on a 7.1% share.

SCA’s other station, Triple M, gained traction in breakfast with The Grill Team with Gus Worland, Matthew Johns, Chris Page and Emma Freedman climbing 0.5 points to a 6% share. Macquarie Media’s 2GB led breakfast, with Alan Jones pulling a whopping 19% share.

2DayFM breakfast is broadcast from Melbourne and Bathurst at the moment, a symptom of the struggle to find a high rating Sydney breakfast show. Fordham admits she’s thought about changing to a music-style breakfast slot, but says it’s never been the “right direction”.

“What we’re doing at the moment is a hybrid of that. If you listen to 2Day breakfast now, we are playing way more hits than any of the other breakfast shows and that’s obviously on purpose. So we’re not a fully fledged music shift but we’re not only playing four songs an hour,” she adds.

All eyes will be on Fordham as she attempts to revive the station. Paul Jackson, Nova’s group program director, says that whatever 2DayFM does, it needs to be in the form of a long-term contract.

Paul Jackson says 2DayFM will need a long term contract

“Whoever you get, the bottom line or the starting premise will have to be that they are signing a five year deal or being there for the long-term.

“You need someone who is dying to do breakfast radio and wants to be doing it for many years to come. It’s safe to say you can’t change again and think it will be better. It takes years to get traction and breakthrough in breakfast shows. It takes years to get people’s attention,” he says.

“We don’t like to make too much change either. Every time you start again in the world and marketplace that’s so busy and crowded, it gets harder and harder to get traction.

“If Ash London wants to do that show and that’s her dream and is in for the next decade, then give it a go, but if not, you can’t keep changing it.”

ARN’s national program director, Duncan Campbell, has been quite vocal about the 2DayFM breakfast show. And with the departure of Rusciano, he doesn’t hesitate to describe the station as “broken”.

“There is no one in the studios in Sydney. You have landlines coming in from Melbourne and Bathurst and you can’t do that. You have to reflect the Sydney you broadcast into and you can’t do that when you spend your whole life in another city. That’s one aspect to it,” Campbell says.

Duncan Campbell is done with changes to lineups

“We know from research that audiences want to know their breakfast show is part of the city they live in and this reflects that.

“That station is broken in my view. And they have a big job ahead of them. I wish all them all the best.”

Campbell’s Kiis FM breakfast show starring Sandilands and Henderson was the last truly successful Sydney-based show for 2DayFM, before the duo moved networks in 2013.

And as if to prove that a long-standing local breakfast show works, this survey the pair returned to the FM breakfast lead on KIIS 106.5 with a 10.2% share, just beating WSFM’s established show with Brendan ‘Jonesy’ Jones and Amanda Keller.

While they were well ahead of Nova rivals Ryan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald and Michael ‘Wippa’ Wipfli in share, from a cumulative audience perspective they were neck and neck.

“We have never achieved that before. Then we have great strength in Kate, Tim and Marty doing some of their best numbers. The workday with the greatest hits has been stronger overall. The sum of the parts of the radio station have come together nicely,” Jackson says.

For ARN’s Campbell, it all comes down to share. He’s not concerned with the closeness of the two shows from a cumulative audience perspective.

“Its share is pretty impressive anyway, I don’t think we have any issues there at all. People always underestimate Kyle and Jackie O and almost question whether they’ll come back or bounce back. They always come back at the end of the day.”

It would be hypocritical of Campbell to share thoughts about other stations without reflecting on his own efforts, more specifically in Melbourne, Perth and in drive time nationally.

In Melbourne, Campbell’s Gold FM lost traction again, falling from a 7.4% share to 6.7%. Despite its ratings drop, Gold FM still managed to beat Kiis FM’s Jase Hawkins and Polly ‘PJ’ Harding’s 5.9% share.

Fox FM took another hit as it fell 0.7 ratings points to a share of 9.6%, but still came out on top. For the second time, Smooth FM came in second place with an 8.2% share.
Following Smooth FM was Nova, which saw a 0.1 point growth as its radio hosts Chrissie Swan, Sam Pang and Jonathan Brown managed a 7.8% share. Triple M grew 0.7 points to a 7.7% breakfast share.

Campbell believes there has been a softening of a number of his breakfast shows which he says affects drive. But he’s backing all of them. And while Will & Woody also dropped off in every market across Australia, he’s committed to “continual improvement” and building the show.

Will & Woody content is ‘improving’ says Campbell

Looking to drive across the country, and Campbell’s drive show with Will McMahon and Woody Whitelaw suffered in every market. The duo pulled a 6.9% share in Sydney, a 6.1% in Melbourne, a 10.7% share in Brisbane, and shares of 13.5% and 6.4% in Adelaide and Perth.

By comparison, Nova’s Katie Ritchie, Tim Blackwell and Marty Sheargold had a Sydney drive time share of 12.8%, a Melbourne share of 7.1%, and a lead in Brisbane with a 15.7% share. Adelaide and Perth’s shares were 11.7% and 15.2%.

Hit Network’s Carrie Bickmore, Tommy Little, Kate Langbroek and Dave ‘Hughesy’ Hughes had a share of 5.9% in Sydney, 10.5% in Melbourne, 12.5% in Brisbane, 9.3% in Adelaide and 11.3% in Perth.

Triple M’s national drive show with Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy averaged a share of 6% in Sydney, 7.1% in Melbourne, 10.8% in Brisbane, 9.6% in Adelaide and 13.4% in Perth.

“A factor about the success of drive is that it is linked to the success of breakfast. All our new shows are still in continual improvement and building mode,” Campbell says.

“We’ve got no changes planned this year. I thought: let’s get it done in one hit. There’s a commitment to these shows that we don’t deviate from because it wasn’t like putting people together and hoping they were going to work, these were shows we took a year to find and source.

“We’ll continue to invest in them in terms of marketing and familiarity and I’m excited about 2019 to be honest. This year has been about bedding the shows in and next year we’ll see the real growth and potential come through.”

He’s also confident about his changes to breakfast and drive in Perth, arguing the challenge is “dislodging habitual listening” from some of the big, heritage, radio stations.

Over in Perth, Nova 93.7 FM maintained its lead in breakfast, despite a 0.4 point drop in audience share. The station’s breakfast team of Nathan Morris, Natalie Locke and Shaun McManus finished on 14.6% audience share, ahead of rival Mix 94.5 FM’s Dean Clairs, Kymba Cahill and Matt Dyktynski, who climbed 1.3 points to 13.9%.

But 96FM’s new breakfast show with Lisa Fernandez and Paul Hogan, which is part of ARN, finished with a 6.4% share, down 0.4 points.

“It’s a challenge and I’m not happy with some other results, but I’m not happy with that in Perth and that’s not a reflection on the teams locally.

“We’ve got a good music format in place and a new breakfast show, but it’s a real challenge in Perth. Again, our philosophy has been a methodological, strategic approach.”

Over the last year, Campbell has reiterated the same point: his new talent has chemistry, something you can’t buy or replace.

It’s that chemistry that he believes makes each show different enough to establish a unique place in market.

Triple M’s head of content Mike Fitzpatrick has honed in on this idea for years. He says each radio station needs to “be able to solve a problem”, and it can’t be the same problem the likes of Spotify or that other competitors provide to consumers.

“You have to consider what it is you provide as a radio brand and what problem you solve for people. For Triple M, we solve the problem for people who want rock music, who love a laugh and who want to hear a bit of sport and depending on what state you’re in, depends on how much sports you hear,” he says.

Mike Fitzpatrick says each station needs to solve a problem for someone

“It’s no longer purely a music battle for Triple M and it hasn’t been for a while.”

“People still choose radio for music, but we play six hours of workday music a day. Is your music strategy right, are people not listening to your music at work, are you competing with Spotify?”

It’s this idea that makes Fitzpatrick believe he has the most “unique” station, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne.

“WS and Gold are jukeboxes. They are just a music brand playing songs that are 50 years old. They don’t have a lot of engaging content apart from Jonesy & Amanda, there is nothing else across the day. We can’t compete with them in that regard, so we play our own game.”

When Fitzpatrick’s “jukebox” comment is put to Campbell, he vehemently disagrees: “I’ve never heard such a flippant, vacuous statement this year. How you can possible say that Gold and WS are just jukeboxes?

Are WSFM and Gold just jukeboxes? ‘I’ve never heard such a flippant, vacuous statement this year’

“Our stations have performed exceptionally well, there’s a lot of strategic work going on behind the scenes and a lot of execution work to produce these results.

“We’ve got personality-based workday shows, presenters who are talking more and communicating more with their audiences through a higher level of interaction.”

For the record, Fitzpatrick has previously admitted he is disappointed with some of his own breakfast numbers, particularly in the last two surveys.

His new national drive show with Mick Molloy and Jane Kennedy is just eight months old, and is arguably the most successful new show on radio at the moment.

“The result I’m most happy with it is that Kennedy Molloy is finally starting to come through in their home market,” he says.

“The show as a duo is only eight months on and for them to be a seven in Melbourne is awesome. They’ve gone up again in Perth, they are number two in Perth and we just moved their times around in Adelaide and Brisbane. I’m confident in the product in Sydney and early indicators show that our listeners are loving it.

Triple M’s Kennedy Molloy still a growing show

“They are still growing as a show, they have a lot of time and a lot of opportunity to continue to grow.”

But it’s not just drive that Triple M is performing well in. In Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, the breakfast shares were 13.2%, 11.5%, and 13.9% respectively.

Fitzpatrick argues the high shares are due to less competition and smaller audiences, but it does raise questions about the type of content these metro cities enjoy.

He points to Melbourne and Adelaide as examples of tailoring content.

“AFL is a way of life in Melbourne and Adelaide and Perth to some extent. Any day you are talking about football, certainly on Triple M Adelaide and Melbourne, is a day that blokes are going to be listening to your radio station on average.

“In Sydney and Brisbane, it’s much more disparate. Whilst Rugby League is an important part of what we do, it doesn’t need to permeate every aspect of the radio station the way that AFL does in Melbourne and Adelaide.”

A couple of months ago, Hit Network’s Fordham made one more tweak to talent, which she believes aligns with the overall workday strategy.

Last month, the programmer axed Hit Adelaide’s show with Amos Gill, Cat Lynch and Angus O’Loughlin, and will replace it with local Adelaide talent Rebecca Morse and Andrew Costello. This week, the outgoing show fell 1.3 points to a 6.2% share, a “natural result”, Fordham says.

Bec and Cosi a ‘major play’ for Hit Network

“When you announce a show is leaving, which is what we did, we wanted to be transparent with the market, not only with our listeners and advertisers, but importantly with the talent itself,” she says.

“I would rather have been transparent with them and let everyone know they were leaving. But of course when you do something like that, you are going to have listeners question: ‘what am I committed to this show for?’

“What was great out of Adelaide today was our workday numbers are really strong and obviously we’ve changed the music format there a couple of months ago. We’ve seen that’s working and we are taking audiences off the other stations.

“Bec and Cosi are a major play for us. It’s an excellent show. We’ve done so many shows with them off the air now. It’s so candid, it’s family friendly, but it definitely has an edge to it,” she adds.

Fordham’s mention of the workday is intentional, and it’s the same word used frequently on every call this week. But the other word that’s used is brand.

Macquarie Media’s national executive producer, Michael Thompson, knows a thing or two about brand awareness. In the last survey, Sydney station 2GB had some of its highest shares in seven years, with Alan Jones hitting a 19% share and Ray Hadley cracking 20%.

Macquarie Media’s Michael Thompson says brand has played a key part in 2GB’s success this survey

For Thompson, one of the many factors was the political coverage Jones and Hadley are known for.

“Alan and Ray and Chris and Ben and Ross and Steve doing exactly what they do best and it’s been a huge time politically, there’s been a huge amount of news breaking and the presenters on 2GB cover it better than anybody and the results reflect that,” he says.

“2GB, 3AW, 4BC, 6PR have developed – and rightly so over a long period of time – a solid reputation for breaking news, for reporting news, for comment and unparalleled insight into anything that is politically related. When you look at the events in Canberra, I don’t think there’d be any argument that Alan and Ray and Neil Mitchell in Melbourne had extraordinary access to the people involved and really produce superior coverage of those events,” he says.

Another aspect for Thompson is the newsroom: “Our newsroom is fantastic. There aren’t that many radio newsrooms that still have so many reporters out on the road and I think that is a real strength of Macquarie Media, the fact that we have excellent journalists working for the network and they are out on the road.

“It gives you that better access. They are not reporting on what other people are reporting. They are actually seeing things first hand.”

Thompson also points to the AFL finals as a reason for the growth of his 3AW station.

But then there’s Macquarie Sports Radio. Despite its low share and cumulative audience, Thompson is adamant the station will serve an audience and is a different enough product.

“This is a brand new station, it’s only been there for six months. We changed our breakfast programs in July, August. It’s too early to tell. But you only need to listen to it to see that they are onto something.

“We’ve got to keep in mind that we are just starting on the huge summer of cricket and cricket is something that we can really say is part of the Macquarie Sports radio brand, we have a six year agreement,” he adds.

“I’m confident that we will see growth and I really do think it’s far too early to look at the survey results. It really comes down to listening to the station and you can hear this is something new and different.”

For the first time in a long time the programmers are not focused on changing talent, and the rhetoric has shifted from knee jerks and panic to building each brand in respective market.

That seems fitting in the current audio environment. After all, if you aren’t different and memorable enough, it’s only going to get more difficult to compete against those within and beyond linear radio.


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