Uncle Doug’s plan for Sydney radio.

It’s been a while since Doug Mulray has been on radio ‘proper.’ For the last four years he and long time friend and business associate, Hamish Cameron, have been conducting a bold new (and expensive) experiment on behalf of Telstra called thebasement.com.au.

Mulray agrees: “It was an idea ahead of its time. And we’ve survived [the dotcom crash] because we’re the best demonstration that exists on what can be achieved with broadband.”

From a high-tech bunker in the heart of Sydney emanates an eclectic mix of music, pictures and chat that is streamed out over the web to anyone who cares to log on from anywhere on the planet.

According to Mulray about 800,000 people care to do just that every month. Impressive for a dotcom, may be. But it’s nothing compared to the million or so cume that he once commanded on a weekly basis with a 19.6% breakfast share from the top of the Triple M Tower in Bondi Junction.

Uncle Doug and the landmark Triple M sign have long since disappeared from the building and according to the latest Nielsen Survey, so has much of the audience.

radioinfo: Do you miss it?

Mulray: No because I’m doing it!

radioinfo: What I meant was the size of the audience and…

Mulray: But your assumption is that it’s ego driven. You see I actually physically enjoy the act of broadcasting. I don’t need to walk down the street and be clapped on the back for whatever it is I’ve said that day. Would it be good to do it to a bigger audience? Sure!

radioinfo: Do you really want the hassle of all the competition and all those surveys?

Mulray: The eight higher school certificates a year? I haven’t missed that. People come up to me and say, did you hear what happened to Triple M in the survey and I say noooo, I haven’t. It’s nice to be free of all that.

Yet Mulray and Cameron want back in. And not just as the hired help. They’ve got a plan to get a piece of the upcoming Sydney auction.

Mulray: One of the reasons we’re interested in the new FM licence is because in my estimation 35 pluses are seriously under-serviced in this market. You’ve got a whole bunch of people who’ve decided that their future depends on the very fickle 10 – 24 demographics. In the meantime there’s only one station that genuinely serves 35 pluses and that’s ABC 702.

If you made what 702’s doing happen on a commercial FM station with a little more music and a whole lot of information, because the demo we’re talking about is information hungry, you could probably run a very successful operation. I’m not talking about world domination. I’m talking about 8, 9, 10 very saleable percent and a target demo that’s got a lot of readies.

I find it astonishing that the advertising industry’s completely focused on 18-24s in a city with a greying population of baby boomers with fists full of money who are buying convertibles and apartments at Walsh Bay. Nothing really is targeted at…’us’. I find that amazing.

I think that an FM radio station with a very carefully contrived line-up and format would probably make a motza in this city.

radioinfo: What would that format be?

Mulray: Well one doesn’t want to show one’s hand early. But basically it would be what the radio world recognises as Triple A. I think while everybody I’m reading about is talking about a slight female skew, I think probably with MIX and WS in the market, I’d give it a bit of a male skew. And I’d be information focused. There’d be lots of information.

The music would be quality music. And it wouldn’t be classic hits. It wouldn’t even be classic rock. It would be about intelligent music for intelligent people. There’ll be some new music. The assumption that people turn 40 and don’t ever want to know about a new act is ludicrous.

We process new acts through here [at thebasement] every day and I thought we’d run out in six months. We’ve been going four years plus and it still astonishes me that fabulous people walk through that door every day and they’re looking for a bit of love. You hear a lot of them on 702…God bless 702 and Roger Summerill and Angela, in particular.

radioinfo: Sounds terrific, but first you need to get your hands on that Sydney licence. Can you to tell me exactly how you’re going to do that?

Mulray: No I’m not in a position to do that. But, look, there are two entry levels. One is that what we’ve created here at thebasement.com could be regarded as a turnkey solution for the winner of the auction whether it be dmg or RG or Hot Tomato or whoever it is – we’ve got a pretty good line-up of people right here, as well as others who haven’t said so publicly but have told us privately that they’d like to come and play with us.

Here we have an extraordinary facility which allows you to broadcast on radio, on broadband and on cable television in the new digital era. In fact we’re confident of obtaining a licence from FOXTEL to broadcast thebasement or whatever it will become on the digital platform.

And we can, as long as we’re associated with Telstra, deliver broadband as an un-metered service, which nobody else can do. It’s kind of expensive to consume thebasement or Nova or Triple M if you’re paying for the stream. If you’re not paying for the stream it’s a fantastic adjunct to your radio package.

In a very competitive market it would be a fantastic asset for an established player to go out with their sales team and say, okay you can buy radio spots for $350 on Triple M, Nova, Mix or whatever it is, but we’ll also provide televisual material for an additional $50 or $100 which will give you exposure on broadband, as that audience grows, and indeed on cable television on a dedicated channel. I mean it’s a very sexy way of pushing radio into the new millennium.

There’s no doubt new technology is very sexy with young people and indeed as we’ve discovered with 35 pluses who’ve got the money to buy it. Look at the success of iTunes in the States. The people downloading all the music aren’t 10-17 year olds they’re 35 pluses. The biggest selling album on iTunes during the first three months of operation was the new Fleetwood Mac album. Go figure. Don’t talk to me about 10-17s. I’m saying that the people our age have got the money for the technology and a thirst for it. You take radio and hitch to that thirst and tie it into cable television which is looking for a megaphone like commercial radio, and you’ve got a marriage made in heaven.

radioinfo: What’s plan B ?

Mulray: On the other hand we might step back and say forget about our aspirations demographically or what it is that Doug Mulray does or Hamish Cameron does, we’ll just become facilitators who will deliver a relationship with Telstra. We’ll be the interface that allows you to have these new technologies and make them work hand in glove with the Telstra Corporation. Truth of the matter is that, if I ended up as just a facilitator and administrator…if I end up just making sure that Mick Malloy’s program runs out of that studio or Merrick and Rosso’s program runs out of that studio, I’d be fine with that.

radioinfo: You seem to have mentioned everyone as a possible partner, so far, except Virgin.

Mulray:Virgin’s out there beating a drum. We know they’re interested. Thus far, internationally, they’ve been bottom feeders who come in and buy radio networks that have failed and then built them up. That’s Mr Branson’s modus operandi. But regardless, he’s an interested player, we come and say Richard, Ziggy – Ziggy Richard here’s the mechanism that will allow you to marry your to brands and deliver a convergence. In a very real way, we’ve already made it happen.

radioinfo: Would you be looking for an on air role?

Mulray: In model one, yes. We already have a lot of people who are already very enthusiastic about the freedoms we enjoy and I’d bring some of those key people who I know resonate with this market and put them in that seat and make it interesting radio, interesting television and interesting broadband content. In that I’d play. In fact, if we did that, I’d do breakfast, perhaps with some of the people I’ve mentioned in this interview. There’s no doubt there’s an appetite for that.

radioinfo: How do you feel about your old station, Triple M’s performance?

Mulray: I think it’s sad. I spent a lot of years and a lot of energy investing in that brand. My brother in-law (Rod Muir) invented it. Hamish, my CEO, was the manager. I was the breakfast announcer for 12 years its very sad to see it slip so low.

radioinfo: What advice have you got for them?

Mulray: Oh God, I don’t think I’d take the risk given that I’m presently negotiating with them. Suffice to say I think it’s sad.

I suspect that it’s very difficult to broadcast a breakfast program nationally and I find it amazing that the company who discovered how hard it is with Richard Stubbs – who is an excellent broadcaster but couldn’t cut it in more than one market – should go and try to do it again. I mean they’re the model of why you shouldn’t go and do it. And they’re doing it again. It’s not just sad for the brand its sad for the individuals. All those people like Peter Berner are actually very good people – very bright, and I have great respect for what they do. But I don’t think that you can overlook the parochial needs of a city this size and say, boys we’re streaming it out of Brisbane or Melbourne or Adelaide. This city will never buy a networked service in breakfast.

While he was in the mood for handing out advice, here’s what Doug has to say about the industry as a whole…

“Radio has been cannibalising itself for as long as I can remember. I mean look at these idiots. Every article you read about the big radio corporations is about how one hates the other, we’re going to sue them for stealing our format in Adelaide or whatever. It’s ludicrous. I mean you’ve got a revenue pie of between $180 and $200 million, depending on who you believe in this market for radio and $1.4 billion for television. The truth of the matter is radio should be hitching its wagon to these new technologies and pitching it to some of the market share that television currently enjoys.”

With four years in thebasement, Mulray believes that he has a better understanding and connection to his smallish audience of 800,000 a month than he ever did at heavily researched commercial stations.

“That’s the joy of the internet, says Mulray, “you can get a serious picture of your audience. And in radio, ultimately, given the survey technology, which is so antiquated, you’ll always be guessing.”

radioinfo: What can you tell me about your audience?

Mulray: They’re completely bored with ’25 past 5 and fine and mild in this city, with another block of non-stop rock’. They’re deeply suspicious of Clear Channel, Austereo and every conglomerate you can think of. They don’t want to be sold the same old tunes over and over. They don’t want to be treated with scant regard as a number.