Jones – 1: Abbott – 0: Radio – Who knows?

Comment from Peter Saxon

In a seemingly rare display of contrition, Alan Jones called a media conference to apologise for his off-the-cuff remarks at a Young Liberals dinner suggesting that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s late father died of “shame” because of his daughter’s lies to the Australian public.

As an entertainer rather than a journalist like a Neil Mitchell or a Steve Price, Mr Jones is not bound by that profession’s codes of fairness or factual reporting. He is, however, accountable to the more general commercial broadcasting codes administered by ACMA.

Historically, public outrage over such remarks, when trickled down to ACMA as a formal complaint, have been good for ratings. Jones remains entrenched in the number one spot in Sydney with a 16.8 share. Kyle Sandilands who is also a household name in the halls of the regulator, holds the number one FM spot, enjoying the highest ratings of his 2Day career on a 12.7 – despite the best efforts of his ‘Sack Vile Kyle’ detractors who have only served to bolster his bad boy image which is a magnet to his target audience.

But happily for Jones, this time he’s managed to garner all this public outrage without the threat of another tedious ACMA inquiry, because when he made those reprehensible remarks, he wasn’t entertaining his 2GB audience, but a young crowd of die-hard Liberals who would boo The Wiggles if it was thought they voted Labor.

It is not my intention to agonise over the morality of what Alan Jones says and does to attract an audience. You can draw your own conclusions. Or you can find plenty of righteous indignation from other publications in our Hot Off The Net section.

The question for us is how well he succeeds and who wins and loses out of all of this?

Firstly, Alan Jones is the big winner.

He calls a media conference in order to make a personal apology but turns it into a branding exercise for himself. The apology isn’t totally sincere and heartfelt. It can’t be. If it were, he would risk disappointing some of his audience who, like football fans, expect their side to keep racking up points against their opponent without mercy.

In fact, it may have come off as a genuine heartfelt apology, if he’d stopped talking after about three minutes. Instead he uses his next 40 minutes with the nationwide media present to strengthen his ‘brand’ in front of both loyal listeners and prospective ones by reconfirming all the reasons why people should really hate this PM.

Watch (below) as the master, at about 4:20 into the video of the full event, seamlessly segues from eulogising Ms Gillard’s parents to suggesting that the statement about her father dying of shame, was made, “Out of a sense of frustration about the problem that people are facing out there when they see the kind of things the government says and the public are concerned with.”

It’s a theme he returns to and expands upon at every opportunity to ram home his points from the carbon tax to border protection to the four dead in the pink batts debacle. He misses nothing.

By the end, with the artistry and skill of a matador in control of the bull, some listeners will be left with the impression that in the context of the picture he’s painted, what he said was just an unfortunate faux pas. Because, although he agrees he shouldn’t have said it…

  • He was secretly recorded without his knowledge
  • This type of statement is out of character for Mr Jones, he is only ever concerned with policy, not personal attack.
  • It wasn’t his own statement anyway, but something earnestly told to him by a citizen, genuinely concerned with Ms Gillard and Labor destroying our country.
  • He and Tony Abbott are constantly vilified on Twitter and aren’t affected by it – but the media doesn’t get upset on their behalf.

Thus, what might for others, have been a press conference that was nothing more than an embarrassing apology, is turned into a PR triumph by Mr Jones. Bravo!

He even drew a similarity between himself and US Presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, who, like him, was outed making statements he thought were to a private audience of like-minded fans.

But for Romney, who suggested to a group of billionaires that 47% of Americans would not take responsibility for their own lives and expected the government to support them, the fallout has been disastrous.

Unlike Romney, who needs to win over around 50% of his potential market to succeed, Jones is content with anything over 15% .

But that’s also a similarity between Romney and Tony Abbott

As Romney is discovering, a proportion of genuine swinging voters tend to judge a candidate and their party by their supporters. In short, the hard right Tea Party is scaring away the moderate could-be Republicans.

Sadly for Abbott, Jones and his listeners are seen in the wider community as anything but moderate.  And Abbott, like Romney, needs to appeal to a much broader audience than Jones.

For Abbott, who is fighting a battle on two fronts, Julia Gillard and increasingly Malcolm Turnbull, the events of the last 48 hours have been counter-productive. Through no fault of his own, he’s found himself caught up in Jones’ maelstrom and has become collateral damage adding to the momentum that Labor has polled in recent weeks.

So far, so good for Jones. Up until now, true to character, he has stuck by the audience that has stuck by him. And he may even gain some new listeners. Who cares what non-listeners think of him or his station?

Had he paid closer attention to the ramifications of the Kyle Sandilands case from last November, he may have noticed that when enough non-listeners get together via social media and threaten to boycott advertisers, suddenly they can have more sway over your immediate future than actual listeners.

SCA has been cagey about what that episode cost them in lost earnings. However CEO, Rhys Holleran when announcing SCA’s profit a few months ago, admitted that there was some impact, and stated, “The revenue decline is particularly related to a ratings decline in the drive time shift (referring to the loss of Hamish and Andy) and some ‘local issues’ around the 2Day FM brand.”

Although, there seems to be no shortage of advertisers in the Kyle and Jackie O breakfast show 10 months on, the cancellation of schedules by some 60 advertisers is estimated to have, in the short term, cost SCA around $10 million. And while that represents a relatively small blip within its giant network of both radio and television assets, a similar hit on Alan Jones’ breakfast show could impact the tiny Macquarie Radio Network more than the entire failed MTR venture in Melbourne.

According to Fairfax media, “As of 6pm, major advertisers Coles, Woolworths, Dilmah (tea), ING Direct (banking), Bing Lee (electrical retailer), Freedom furniture, Lite ‘n’ Easy (diet foods), Mercedes-Benz, the Australian International Motor Show and Challenger (financial services) had publicly announced they were ending or suspending their relationships with either the Alan Jones program or 2GB.”

When Fairfax asked for his response to the desertion of advertisers and sponsors from the station, Russell Tate, the chief executive of 2GB’s owner MRN, said: “When there’s a response it will be between me and my sales team and our individual advertisers. The relationship with advertisers is a private one and a commercial one. There won’t be a response, there isn’t one and that’s the end of it.”

Given that the Alan Jones breakfast show was already far and away number one in Sydney, it hardly seems likely that whatever this episode may cost 2GB in the short term can be recouped in the long term even if the result is a significant audience increase as it has been the case at 2Day.

Finally, is all this good for commercial radio as a whole? Only time will tell. But if too many advertisers are forced to disassociate themselves from too many top rating programs on radio – and it is the controversial ones that tend to rate the highest – they may look to other media altogether.





 Peter Saxon