The to and fro of those who listen to radio

We asked three wise men for guidance

As far back as I can recall, I have never seen such steep reversals in fortune for so many stations in the space of a few surveys, particularly in Sydney, as NSW goes into its 11th week of lockdown.

In Survey 4, largely conducted over a Covid-19 free period when everything was open, KIIS106.5’s Kyle and Jackie O made headlines by shooting past Ben Fordham, thus wrenching Sydney Breakfast crown from 2GB for the first time in almost 20 years and the first time ever for K&J outright.

As confidently predicted (with fingers crossed) by FM operators, with Covid all but licked, it seemed that the listeners that had abandoned them for AM news and talk were flocking back to more fun and frivolity on the stereo band. That notion was soon scotched by the arrival of the Delta variant. As a result, AM came roaring back with a vengeance.

In Melbourne, which has endured over 200 days of lockdown in the space of a year, the radio landscape is less volatile but perhaps only because Melburnians have had less time out of lockdown and the FM stations in that market have barely had any period long enough to recover. The top two AM stations, 3AW and ABC Melbourne, command a staggering 36.8 share of Breakfast between them. In Survey 4, it was “only” 33.9, leaving 14 stations to fight it out for what’s left. It has pretty much been that way since Survey 1 of 2020.

The question then is: where do all these listeners go, to and from? Surely it can’t be as simple as: a large chunk of 2GB listeners went to KIIS in Survey 4, didn’t like what they heard and went back again to 2GB for Survey 5? And, of course, it’s not.

Even more ridiculous is that smoothfm in Sydney plunged by -1.6 to land on an 8.4 share, despite gaining 7,000 listeners in cume. But that’s a fact.

You would think that Nova Entertainment’s Content and Marketing Chief, Paul Jackson, would be unhappy about that, but no.

“Generally, I'm an optimistic person, yet I would have thought, coming into today, that our cumes might be a bit lower and maybe that would have been reflected in other stations as well,” says Jackson. “But I think radio has proven, again, to be pretty resilient. I mean, people are clearly turning up and coming through the door every day to each of our stations, and most of our competitors are extremely strong too.”

Jackson, who is in lockdown himself in a "hot spot" LGA, home-schooling two young children and admits to being in the unusual position of having the radio off for large chunks of the day, explains that both Nova and smooth are family networks.

“Bearing in mind there's no school run, with school drop - off at eight o'clock in the morning, most parents are going to be hassled by their kids and trying to work out how to get them settled and into their own routine. So, the radio is probably not forefront in people's mind. Where it shows up more dramatically is in Sydney on smooth where It scored a cume of near a million. 

“We were expecting a more dramatic effect on our listening hours, especially in breakfast and into mid-morning. I think we've seen a bit on Nova and other stations, too, but not dramatically.

“But it's interesting, if you were to measure smooth from midday onwards it, it would be about 9.5 share station. It got 9.8, 9.0, 10.00 and 9.2 from lunchtime through the rest of the day and the weekend. And it's never under a 9.0. And that would be normal numbers. At 9.5 and a million or so cume, it would probably be number one.

“But a 6.2? I haven't seen that in Breakfast for years. There certainly hasn't been a 7.7 on smooth mid-morning going way back to probably 2013, 14 or something,” says Jackson.

The bottom line is that smooth’s listeners haven’t actually gone – if anything there’s more of them this survey than last when the station delivered a 10:0 share. It’s just that listening habits are different in lock down. They still listen in numbers but for less time (TSL) which is what affects its share.

Over at ARN, Duncan Campbell says, “The big difference is, if you remember, last time in Melbourne we had this dramatic cume drop. We've seen some cume loss (this time) but primarily seeing a shift in listening, which is very different. So, 2GB, and the ABC in Sydney benefited quite nicely. I think people are more used to the pandemic, if that makes any sense, this time around in Sydney particularly.”

So where is the audience flow coming from and going to?

“You have to factor in that it's not the result of a station doing something any differently. No one's put on a big contest, nor has there been a massive change in talent. It's really the result of a pandemic, which is not a normal event, and that's disrupted listening patterns, particularly in Sydney,” says Campbell.

Nine Radio’s content supremo, Greg Byrnes has no problem with any of that. 2GB’s Breakfast is back on top and the station has posted a 15.2 share overall - a figure not seen since Survey 6 of 2018. Even the once mighty 2UE, with a 2.7 share beat the once mighty 2DayFm on a 2.6.

“Well, we know that the surveys go up and down. What we are concerned about is the content. We're delivering day in, day out live, local. But we're using the power of our medium, which is talk, to make a difference in people's lives,” says Byrnes.

While there’s a reasonable chance that the pendulum could swing back again for 2GB, KIIS and smooth over the next few surveys, the longer-term prospect of “generational change” that Nine Radio was so keen to implement after the departure of Alan Jones seems to be showing some green shoots. The station gained significant ground in all demographics 25-64 while losing share in 65+.

Where have they gone? Here's a clue: 2CH, now exclusively on DAB+, has picked up 21,000 more 65+ listeners since last survey.

Peter Saxon

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