No loyalty in Radio or Politics. Only numbers count

Opinion from Peter Saxon

Exactly two weeks ago in this column I wrote: If a radio station had had 30 consecutive surveys as poor as the federal Coalition has had News Polls, by now they would have changed the breakfast show, if not the whole format.

Given the events that have since taken place, I could claim that the Liberal party reads radioinfo and has taken my advice seriously. I could say that, but I won’t, in case someone actually does take me seriously and accuses me of being an arrogant egotist driven by self interest – which is, of course, partly true. Still, worse is being said of Australia’s latest Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Why are people so unkind? 

To an objective observer, all that happened was that the Liberal Party made, on the face of it so far, a good business decision much like ARN did when they hired Kyle and Jackie O. Like the Liberal party, ARN had a problem. Their Sydney station, MIX 106.5 had been languishing in the Sydney market for years with little prospect of improvement unless something drastic was done. Drastic they did and, for them, it paid off.

Anyone in radio with a basic understanding of surveys could have looked at the leadership polls and interpreted them this way: Our station is way behind our competitor and our breakfast show continues to rate poorly.  Despite an undertaking from the talent to lift his game within six months, time’s now up and nothing has changed. Barring a miracle, there’s no reason to believe anything will improve by survey time next year – which will remain current for the next three years.

There is, however, more than a glimmer of hope. 

The opposition’s breakfast show rates as poorly as our’s so there’s an enormous opportunity for us to get back on top if we can only find a good replacement.

Unlike ARN, the Liberal Party had an outstanding candidate in their midst in Malcolm Turnbull who’d proven to be popular with voters, poll after poll. And you can bet that the Libs did some private research on him too.

As much as he polarises the party and is hated by its hard right faction, that faction is clearly not enough to win an election – Mal’s popularity with swinging voters, those in the centre, is. 

Although it sounds like a logical argument, it is still risky – just as hiring Kyle and Jack was for ARN. But doing nothing was no longer an option.

That was the central argument that convinced enough Liberal MPs to vote for Turnbull to replace Abbott as PM. It’s that same pragmatism that has convinced those such as Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and Mathias Corman, who voted to keep Abbott, to declare their allegiance for the new leader, now that the tribe has spoken.

Yet, the the traditional conservative core of Coalition voters are incandescent with the kind of rage usually reserved for a cheating spouse. The “true blues” have inundated their favourite talk radio haunts to vow that they will never vote Liberal again. They are so determined to avenge Abbott and punish Turnbull together with the party they see as having betrayed their life-time of unflinching support that even the spectre of helping to install a Shorten led Labor into office fails to cool their ire.

You would think, though, that seasoned radio presenters who, like politicians, live and die by the ratings would know better. They’d know that while quaint notions of “loyalty” and “staying the course” are fine when following a footy team, the focus in realpolitik right now must be on winning the next election and keeping government out of Labor’s clutches.

Not so.

Rather than rally their listeners behind the new leader, they’re fanning the flames of their discontent. Columnist, TV host and regular guest on 2GB, Andrew Bolt explained it best in his blog for the Herald Sun: 

“I won’t ‘rally behind’ Turnbull, either. My loyalty is not to the Liberals but to my audience and to my principles. Sorry to sound pompous about it, but I will fight for my ideas, even when I know I am in the small minority. And I will praise Labor and even the Greens if they back those ideas, too,” writes Bolt.

Then a reader embellished his quote in the Oz adding:

“My loyalty is to my family and my antecedents. The collectivists in LNP at the moment are not individualists. They are Labor infiltration.” 

Not quite the Shakespearian call to arms of Henry V but stirring nonetheless. If you agree with the argument that both radio and politics are about numbers not sentiment, it seems brave of Bolt to stick to his guns when, as he says, “I know I am in the small minority.”

In reality, it has little to do with bravado. Bolt is making the right call in shoring up his own numbers.

There’s a vast difference between the numbers required to succeed in politics and those required by a radio shift.

A talk show host in a major surveyed market only needs a 12 or so share to be successful. Rarely do they rate much more than low 20s. But for Liberal or Labor to succeed, they need a whopping 51% (after preferences) to win government. And unlike radio, there’s no honour or profit in second place. 

The bottom line: Andrew Bolt, Ray Hadley et al, can afford to entertain a niche segment of the audience. The Coalition can’t.

As any station that makes a drastic change to format knows, there’s a good chance that the numbers will go down before they go up because whatever audience you currently have will desert you before you catch the ones you are chasing.

Happily for the Coalition, federal politics works faster than that. On the one hand, they’ve seemingly abandoned a relatively small but nonetheless significant and vocal part of their voting core. On the other – according to the latest opinion polls and the result in the Canning by election – they have already picked up enough votes from those in the middle ground for an election winning lead.

While that augers well for the Turnbull government, it leaves the disenfranchised rudderless and leaderless with no place to park their vote. This is why they need Talk Radio in their lives more than ever.


Peter Saxon

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