Tone your radio down

Comment from Peter Saxon

It’s been some time since Kyle Sandilands has caused enough controversy to trouble the radio regulator (the ACMA) or make front/home page news. 
Since he and co-host Jackie “O” Henderson moved to KIIS 106.5 six years ago, he’s kept his bad-boy profile simmering nicely in the entertainment and gossip pages – eagerly consumed by his target audience – but leaving 2GB’s Alan Jones and Ray Hadley to do most of the heavy lifting, in terms of generating outrage in the broader community. 

Last week, however, Kyle’s comments about the Virgin Mary, describing her as “a liar who was knocked up behind a camel shed,” hit the headlines which sparked an unprecedented demonstration outside the KIIS FM Sydney studios, attended by around 50 outraged Christians and some Muslims too. 

Kyle’s career as a “shock jock” (a technical term that applies more to him and Howard Stern than it does Alan Jones) could have ended before it began in 2000 when he first joined Jackie O to co-host the Hot30 on the Today (now HIT) Network after the departure of her ex-co-host-and-husband Ugly Phil O’Neil.

In an episode of Game Changers:Radio, Kyle recalls that he was given some final advice before getting behind the mic by then SCA content supremo, Jeff Allis

“He said to me: ‘Just don’t say fuck and you’ll be right.’
“Jackie comes on … and she introduced me and I just said (live on air): ‘Look, I’ve spoken to the boss and apparently if I don’t say fuck everything will be fine’.”

Another content supremo might have fired him on the spot for wilful insubordination but not Jeff Allis who, like the trainer that first set eyes on Winx, understood the potential of the raw talent he was working with.
Around the same time that Kyle’s career was starting to blossom, the legendary Clive Robertson’s was in slow decline. He was at 2UE or 2GB at the time when I was at content syndicator Radiowise and we were sounding him out through his minder Mike Jeffries about hosting a weekly comedy program of stand-up routines. Jeffries conifided that to get the best out of Clive you need to put him in a box with sides made of strict rules. He’ll soon start breaking out of the box and that’s when great radio happens.
Robertson who was never as “bankable” as Kyle Sandilands or Alan Jones was dogged by a reputation for being “difficult talent” which is fine when you’re on top of the ratings tree and the goose that lays golden eggs. Not so good if you are just another expense. At 73, Clive’s no longer working in radio.
On the other hand, at 78, 2GB’s Alan Jones still rules the roost on Sydney Breakfast Radio and seems more resistant to management directives than ever. 
A couple of weeks ago, following the unprecedented exodus of major advertisers which is putting serious pressure on revenue, chairman Russell Tate was forced to personally write to each of them. In an effort to lure the advertisers back, Mr Tate promised to conduct a review of all 2GB/4BC Breakfast content. In the letter, he said Macquarie stations and presenters will continue to initiate and encourage debate on important issues but “must do so in language and tone that all of contemporary Australia finds acceptable.” 
As I wrote just the other week: Those carefully chosen words spell out exactly where Jones’ problems lie.

Kyle’s too. They both seem to be tone-deaf as to what all of contemporary Australia – not just their own listeners – finds acceptable. That’s partly because they have, for decades lived in a bubble inhabited by a loyal and adoring coterie of fans – station management included. In essence, management encouraged their talent to create that bubble of exclusive, rusted on listeners that advertisers could only reach through their station.
Both Sandilands and Jones have been wildly successful at fulfilling that brief, enriching themselves as they enriched their employers. 

In the most recent GfK Survey (a new one’s out tomorrow), Jones had the number one Breakfast show by a country mile in Sydney with an astonishing 17.1 percent share of available audience while Kyle & Jackie O came in number one FM (third overall, behind ABC) with an 11.0 share. 
So, why should they care what non-listeners think of their shows?

As good as a 17.1 share sounds for Jones, it means that 82.9 percent of total breakfast radio listening is not to Alan Jones. That doesn’t mean that  all who are not listening all hate him, but they certainly can’t be classified as rusted on fans either. For K & J on 11.0, it means that 89 percent of breakfast radio listening on Sydney is not to K&J.
The yawning gap in audience share between Jones and the K & J show is reversed when counting the number of actual listeners, as the cumulative chart below shows. 
Kyle and Jack attract 605,000 listeners each week, placing them at number one to Jones’ 425,000 which ranks him in fifth place behind Nova’s Fitzy & Wippa with 568,000; smoothfm’s Bogart Torelli & Glenn Daniel 449,000 and WSFM’s Jonesy & Amanda on 427,000. 
With a total of 3,349,000 people over 10 years of age in Sydney listening to breakfast radio each week, it means that despite his prodigious shares, almost 3 million Sydneysiders that tune in to other stations at Breakfast time aren’t necessarily Jones’ friends. For Kyle & Jack, the numbers are only slightly better. 2.744 million listeners in Sydney aren’t fans.

Research on radio talent tends to show that they are “stickiest” when they polarise the audience to the extent that about 30 per cent of people love them and 70 per cent hate them. The worst research is when people are ambivalent or they say, ‘Kyle who?’ By that measure, clearly a lot more people hate Kyle and Alan than love them.
Of course, none of that mattered until recently. Management was only concerned with what the station’s own target audience thought of their talent with the occasional intervention by the ACMA seen as an occupational hazard. Now, the advent of social media and a myriad of technological “advances” can within days mobilise a cyber lynch mob larger than any army Genghis Kahn could have mustered. Suddenly those benign statistics that define the number of people who are not fans can be weaponised into a force that can destroy your station’s revenue base. 
So, with his network bleeding money from lost advertisers Jones, rightly, went to plead his case to where he perceives many of his critics gather, the Fairfax press, now owned by the same people that employ him, Nine. Which is not where his weekly column is published, News Corp’s The Australian whose readers are more sympatico with his views.

In a rare and exclusive interview with the SMH and The Age Jones somehow managed only to undermine the carefully prepared ‘cap in hand’ approach his boss, Mr Tate, took to persuade advertisers to return to MacRadio by, instead, attacking them by accusing them of being spineless.
Jones told the SMH and AGE, “Now, someone in the corporate world has got to develop a spine here because these are minorities … keyboard warriors.”
Major advertising buyers study the numbers like the ones I’ve presented above, plus a pile of other metrics that show them that these “keyboard warriors” represent, at the very least, a significant minority – one that is likely to be bigger in number than the “majority” that Jones imagines he represents. Put simply, his 17.1 per cent audience share, while admirable as being first past the post in a field of 15 radio stations, is a minority, nonetheless. 
What’s more, while many advertisers look to be virtue signalling in public, in the boardroom, they actually tend to be less interested in ideology than return on investment (ROI). They’ve usually done the research to discover what the mood is in the marketplace and what bandwagons they need to jump on to highlight their brand to their target market.
Nonetheless, the fact is that the Alan Jones Breakfast show remains perhaps the most effective way of reaching Sydneysiders in the 55+ age group bar none. For his loyal listeners, Jones’ “language and tone” is just fine. A fact which, no doubt, Mr Tate and the MacRadio sales team is busy trying to impress upon their 100+ departed clients. But I doubt that Jones’ attitude, insulting those advertisers by telling them to “develop a spine,” is helpful to their cause.


In the interview with the SMH and AGE Jones also said of the advertiser boycott orchestrated by Sleeping Giants Oz and Mad Fucking Witches, “Just because you have a difference of opinion that you go out and you blackmail and vandalise people. You can’t run a society like this.”
It doesn’t seem to have sunk in that it has nothing to do with a difference of opinion. It is all about the “language and tone” he used to express that opinion. He was perfectly entitled to counter-criticise the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, for criticising Australia because, in her opinion, we are not doing our share on climate change. But the language he used was beyond the pale. It was demeaning not just to her but to women in general.
Although Jones eventually offered Ms Ardern a decent written apology, which she graciously accepted, he is carrying too much baggage from past similar incidents for “all of contemporary Australia” to accept that this will be the last such incident and that he’s mended his ways.
Kyle also gave an apology, of sorts, for his intemperate remarks about Mary and those who believe in the virgin birth. He’s not the only one to use the dismissive line popular with those for whom causing offence is stock in trade, “Sorry if I offended anyone with my comments.”
Apologies are only worthwhile when they are heartfelt and unconditional. They don’t work so well when they are bordering on victim-blaming. Those who use that phrase may think they’re saying, ‘I’m sorry to have offended you,’ but what the victim is hearing is, ‘If you were offended by that then it’s really your problem that you’re so thin skinned.’
Personally, I’m not a fan of boycotts. I’m not suggesting that this one is or isn’t: but often they are organised by vigilante-like groups with an agenda that is neither fair nor just. 
Either way, this advertiser boycott is here, it’s real and biting hard on the bottom line. And, in my view, if successful, represents the new norm. Dismissing it as some tiny bunch of ratbags is only going to make the Mad Fucking Witches even madder. And insulting clients you hope to regain, as far as I am aware, has never been a successful sales strategy.
Although the shock factor that comes with rare talent such as Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands has been enormously successful for decades, it may have reached its ‘use by date,’ as a programming element. 
I totally agree with Macquarie Chairman Russell Tate that the way forward is for presenters to continue to initiate and encourage debate on important issues but “must do so in language and tone that all of contemporary Australia finds acceptable.” 
For radio professionals such as Kyle and Alan, it’s a piece of cake, surely. All they need do is to recalibrate the shock levels from 11 to maybe eight and readjust the filters to strain out the personal attacks on people. 
And if someone else comes along to try and take up where you left off on another station, let them deal with the Mad Fucking Witches and the Sleeping Giants and see how long they last. 

Peter Saxon

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