Will lifestyle breathe new life into Radio 2UE?

Comment from Peter Saxon

It warms my heart how people in radio and the media industry, in general, are happy to dispense free advice to their rivals whether asked for or not.

Much the same people who seem to relish 2Day’s low ratings fearlessly predicted that Hamish and Andy’s return to Drive would fail. Yet, the duo have been a huge success nationally. Parent company SCA, which had been pronounced moribund by some, last month announced a substantial jump in revenue and a 19% lift in profit. 

Now the naysayers have weighed in on Talking Lifestyle, 2UE’s revamp from a conservative talk station which didn’t work, to a sponsored lifestyle format that just might.

Notably Paul Barry tsk, tsk’d his way through a recent segment on the ABC’s Media Watch entitled “From commercial radio to just commercials.” That title, in itself, is a gross misrepresentation of what 2UE is doing.

Barry’s first example was: 

LUKE BONA: Now, here is a quiz. What are the five healthy, good groups, food groups? If you said hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza, kebabs and pies, no, you’re wrong … but look, here is Jeff Cook, to tell us how to get healthy, with Nature Bee, it’s the substance that’s been keeping my family going for 16 years, g’day Cookie! 

JEFF COOK: G’day, it’s a hand grenade of goodness, Luke … 

LUKE BONA: Isn’t it?

JEFF COOK: … and the key to good health is fairly simple, natural foods will feed your body with important nutrients, heal you and give you energy and make you feel as, as if you can take on the world.

— 2UE, Mornings, 31 August, 2016

The example above is an ad. Pure and simple. It’s not masquerading as a program segment with impartial expert advice. Everyone knows it’s an ad, done in an interview style with the client who, as clients invariably do, waxes lyrical about the benefits of their product. What would you expect him to say?

This interview style of live advertising is almost as old as radio itself. From Toyota to product placement of “icy cold cans of Coke,” and from Terry Dear to John Laws, products have been sold this way on radio for yonks. 2UE has been doing ads like this way before it was contemplating a switch to their new Talking Lifestyle format. So, why the fuss?

Later on Media Watch gave us some different examples, including this one:

CLINTON MAYNARD: 13 13 32 is our number, it’s time for our Health Check segment with the Sydney Adventist Hospital, proud sponsors of this program, and each week we talk to one of the specialists from the SAN Hospital. Today we’re going to have a look at breast cancer. 

— 2UE, Health Check, 27 August, 2016

This time, the example above, is a proper program segment that leaves listeners in no doubt that it is sponsored by the Sydney Adventist Hospital. But that doesn’t detract from the program’s content. And just because the medical specialist that Clinton will be speaking to works at SAN, there’s no reason to suspect that the good doctor’s advice on breast cancer isn’t sound or any less valid than if he was speaking on the ABC – which would give the hospital he works at a plug anyway… and for free.

Finally, Mr Barry stumbles upon an actual elephant in the room when he says, “And the real problem is, will anyone listen?” Good question which we’ll address in a minute. But if listeners aren’t being hoodwinked into dodgy deals and there’s no hint of “cash for comment,” why is 2UE’s reach and commercial success of any concern to Media Watch? Why would their viewers care?

Where is it written that a commercial station must appeal to a broad audience while ABC stations such as RN, News Radio and ABC FM (which all rate lower than 2UE) must remain esoteric?

There is, however, an unwritten law, as incontrovertible as the law of gravity, that a commercial station must make a profit or perish.

Finally, to ensure that the Media Watch segment meets the eloquence quotient required of the public broadcaster, Barry wheels in former 2UE presenter and Fairfax columnist Mike Carlton to put the boot in: 

MIKE CARLTON: 2UE was a great Australian radio station and the outfit that introduced that top 40 news, weather and sport format to Australia, it was pioneering stuff and it was an absolute goldmine for the Lamb family for decades, but it’s been running itself into the ground ever since. 

— Mike Carlton, Former 2UE Presenter, Statement to Media Watch, 2 September, 2016

PAUL BARRY: But 2UE’s problem—according to Carlton—is it’s number 3 in the Sydney talkback market, which only has room for two. 

So its owners don’t know what else to do with it. 

MIKE CARLTON: Obviously Fairfax can’t find anyone willing to buy 2UE, and why would you, so it’s trying anything to generate at least some revenue by switching to this advertorial format. But audiences drive advertisers. And for all intents and purposes, 2UE is dead. Radio rigor mortis. It will just be noise.

— Mike Carlton, Former 2UE Presenter, Statement to Media Watch, 2 September, 2016

It’s not that some of what Carlton says isn’t true, it’s just that much of it isn’t and there’s an agenda that pervades his every word. Just like the guy from Nature Bee who can be relied upon to talk up his product, you can bet on Carlton to talk down his previous employer. It’s a shame that Media Watch gives him a platform from which to do it.

That aside, let’s look at what is true: “its owners don’t know what else to do with it.”  Strictly speaking, that statement is self-evident. But it would be equally true to say, “it’s the best solution to a complex problem that could, if well executed, return the station to profit.”  But then, who’d be interested in hearing that on Media Watch?

In any case, apart from hiring Carlton back at some outrageous sum, which all, except perhaps Carlton, would condemn as a preposterous idea, what better ideas would anyone care to suggest – given the realities of available talent, formats and funds?

Carlton’s also right when he says there isn’t room for three talkback stations in Sydney – or Melbourne, for that matter. Before the merger, Macquarie gave it a red hot try with MTR – Steve Price and Steve Vizard among the talent. They couldn’t lay a glove on 3AW.

In Sydney, with no lesser lights than Jason Morrison and Paul Murray on board, 2UE tried to compete with 2GB. That didn’t work either. Obviously, only something different to what’s already on offer has any chance of success.

But now, since the Macquarie, Fairfax merger, the game has changed. No longer are 2UE and 2GB bitter rivals, the two stations are on the same side. So the strategy is no longer to compete but to complement. 

As Carlton says 2UE is, “trying anything to generate at least some revenue by switching to this advertorial format. But audiences drive advertisers.”

He’s right again… to a point. It’s true that the biggest audiences tend to attract more advertisers and the biggest ad budgets. But in the post terrestrial media world, advertisers increasingly tend to focus on “engagement.”

Sure, It’s unlikely that Chris Bowen and The Duck who present The Great Escape in Drive (2UE’s lifestyle program for the 4WD caravan and camping set) are going to put much pressure on KIIS FM’s Hughesy and Kate or 2GB’s Ben Fordham for first place in the ratings. Yet, reagrdless of listener numbers, one can assume that they’re deeply into stuff like four wheel drives, caravans and camping. Otherwise why on earth would they listen? It means that they are likely to be not just casual listeners but fans – the type that might sign up to regular newsletters from sponsors.

Add to that podcasts and a raft of social media with all the data that it can generate, then provided 2UE prices the entire package correctly, there’s every opportunity for advertisers to realise a healthy return on investment (ROI) from a finely targeted, hyper-engaged audience.

Ratings are important but ultimately, for commercial radio, success is measured by profit. That profit is driven by ROI on advertiser funds – how many dollars they get back in sales of their product for every dollar they spend on the station. 

I get what Carlton and his coterie are saying: there’s a kind of “Catch 22” danger that 2UE’S audience numbers will fall so low that advertisers won’t realise the ROI they were expecting. Of course, that’s true of almost every ad campaign that’s booked on any commercial outlet. 

2UE management are acutely aware of the issue and have calculated it into their planning. Advertisers are no fools either. They know that wall to wall product endorsement might drive away the very audience they’re trying to attract. In this day and age they have a range of sophisticated tools for measuring the effectiveness of their campaigns and will soon let the station know if it’s working or not.

There’s absolutely no reason why well produced, long form programs with credible presenters such as David Koch on finance or Catriona Rowntree on travel won’t pull a marketable share of audience. After all, the Nine Network’s Getaway, which is heavily influenced by its sponsors in plain sight, manages to be both informative and entertaining for its audience who don’t seem perturbed about “commercialistaion”.

Will 2UE’s new format succeed ?  I don’t know. I hope so. Because I’m for radio. I want every station, every show and every network, ARN, SCA, MML, NovaEnt, ABC, Grant and everyone else to succeed. Whether that success is measured by having the biggest audience or the most switched on audience in a niche, there’s room for everyone to succeed in their own lane.

Clearly, since the defection of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley to 2GB, whatever 2UE has done has not succeeded. Talking Lifestyle just might. It’s worth a go. 

As they say in basketball, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”



Peter Saxon




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