ARN’s sexy little secret

Peter Saxon gets close to The Edge

The station’s positioning statement, LIVE SEXY, stood all around me, in the tallest of heals and the shortest of skirts, as I queued on the red carpet waiting my turn at the velvet rope to gain entrance to the up market club in Sydney’s swank Eastern Suburbs. Strange place to hold a listener promotion for a station that is licensed to serve the Western Suburbs.

But The Edge, with its Urban, Hip-Hop format is unlike any other commercial radio station in Australia. It is licensed to serve a metro market, Sydney, but only Nielsen regions 4 & 5 which cover that city’s western suburbs – which, with around 1.4 million inhabitants, is bigger than  Adelaide.

It’s studios are in North Ryde nestled in the ARN complex among those used by WS-FM and Mix 106.5.

Although its signal is heard in, and virtually all its income is derived from, a metro market, it is classed as a provincial station.  If it weren’t, ARN would be in breach of the broadcast licence laws that restrict owners to just two stations in the same market. Yet, on the digital band as well as online, where it is known as 96.1 The Edge, it is on equal footing with every other metro station not only in Sydney, but nationally.

However, The Edge harbours a sexy little secret, one that other Sydney stations would rather not confront and that ARN itself is reticent, if not hamstrung, to exploit. And that is, that the station, if it were able to participate in surveys, would probably rate at between 4% and 6% of the Sydney market – or about half of the ratings share traditionally attributed to “other FM.”

charliefox_101Program Director, Charlie Fox, who in his ‘spare time’ moonlights as WS-FM’s PD, is in no doubt as to who his competitors are. “We’re up against two metro powerhouses, 2Day and Nova, with nowhere near the budget. But we are competing for listeners in the same space.”

According to Charlie, back in 2006, when they were scratching their heads about what direction to take the station, the only thing they knew was that it had to be different. So they asked their listeners to fill in an online poll  “It may seem like an old radio trick, because radio does these things and then does exactly what they were planning to do in the first place. We literally didn’t know what to do.”

The result was that an overwhelming 87% of the station’s audience opted for Hip-Hop and R & B. “We had an idea it would be big. We didn’t know it would be that big,” says Charlie.

Perhaps Charlie was channeling the late Keith Graham who founded WS-FM (2WS) 35 years ago on the premise that, if you champion the Western Suburbs which was often maligned by the rest of Sydney, you would build a different kind of bond with your audience to other stations.

Although the demographics have changed since then, Charlie’s formula is remarkably similar, “The western suburbs does have quite a large ethnic audience – and a lot of these people feel disenfranchised with what’s happening on the mainstream pop stations.

“I wouldn’t say that The Edge goes out of its way to cater to them on the air, we’re probably the only station that’s ever had a Lebanese Drive announcer, an Indian newsreader, Chinese on air. So, we have a very multi-cultural station at any given time which we believe reflects the western Sydney area really, really well.”

Having said that, Charlie is quick to emphasise that it’s not like SBS which goes out to cater for an ethnic audience, it’s just that they relate to Urban music and culture which is the backbone of The Edge format.

Warming to his subject, Charlie describes the scene, “This music has become mainstream now. I’m talking about Rhianna and Chris Brown. The old timers like 50 cent are having a hard time now, they’re struggling to get through. Rap is actually gone. You’ve got people like Snoop Dog teaming up with David Guetta and putting out Dance songs. The Rappers have sort of melded into the Dance acts now and you’ve got this Dance/Rap thing happening. But I think even that now is wearing off and I feel a change in the air at the moment. I don’t know what it is, but I think maybe Pop’s making a bit of a comeback… not sure, it’s strange because the charts are still full of Urban or Urban/Pop. But there is a change going on.”

There’s no doubt that Charlie, veteran programmer that he is, derives immense enjoyment out of working with The Edge. While WS-FM is his main concern, taking up around 90% of his time, it is also “a very serious business” with its attendant pressures. Compared to that, The Edge, “Is fun,” says Charlie, “I can try things, I can take risks on the radio station because we don’t have ratings.”

Would he like the station to be rated in Sydney? He answers with an enthusiastic “Yes” but refuses to be drawn on what he thinks  the figures might be. “It could be anything, I don’t know.”

After some goading he says, “We did our own Nielsen Survey a couple of years ago. We were only allowed to do it in areas 4 & 5 – the Western Suburbs. It came out with a cume of 315,000 and we kicked the other stations’ butts in teens and 18-24’s. If you extrapolated from that and broke it down to 100 or something (average) per (region) it’s probably got a cume of five or six hundred thousand, would probably get you 5 or 6% I suppose.”

But those estimates don’t demonstrate the loyalty that The Edge has earned from its listeners. Without major promotion or incentive , the station has amassed near on 70,000 likes on facebook, putting it right up there with it’s fully resourced competitors who are giving away major prizes to elicit likes.

If The Edge was rated in Sydney what would Charlie change or tweak with the extra resources he’d be given by ARN? “I wouldn’t change the format. Not the production. I’m very happy with the production which is Dave Foxx out of Z100 in New York.

“Love the breakfast team which is one of the best young teams, bar nobody, in the country. I’m surprised that somebody hasn’t stolen them.

“But to answer your question, all I’d do is have more announcers, because at the moment, all I have is three. Two of those do breakfast. One is also the Music Director. The other, the Breakfast Producer. And the third one is the Drive announcer. The rest is automated.”

Read part two as we go into the studio with Mike E & Emma