As it Stands: Radio in Australia
I thought it might be fun to unpack some Media Business as it stands in Australia. To begin with, I thought we could look at radio. The purpose of this article is not to assess how valid the radio industry is, but to look at it as it stands and question whether existing companies in the space will be the ones to successfully transition into the new phase required for their survival.
I have a soft spot for radio. Up until recently, my boyfriend was an Audio Producer for a commercial station here in Melbourne. Much of our conversations were about what was going on in the business (him), what this meant for the industry (both of us) and in turn how this impacted media as a whole (me).
First up, I will be using the phrase terrestrial radio. And by this I am referring to classic FM and AM stations. No streaming, no anything else. My radio knowledge is also Melbourne based, just to be super clear.
It is hard to talk about the most popular radio stations in the country, because I am not very good at reading graphs, so I don’t really know how to read the ratings. Essentially, we have a handful of big players some commercials, others Government owned and some who receive funding from multiple sources.
In Australia Governments radio players are ABC, which are known to the audience as Triple J (and all its subsidiaries) and its many ABC branded stations such as ABC Radio National and ABC Classic. Community radio stations, Triple R, PBS and SYN FM (student youth network) have a cult like following. The former two rely on sponsorships as well as subscriber-thons to keep afloat. SYN is an RMIT offshoot and relies on government funding as well as philanthropy. SBS Radio is another station that relies on a mix of government funding and commercials, much like its complimenting TV stations. These stations are seen to have strong cultural value and provide a service to the Australian media landscape. As a result they have quite a big buffer mainly based on Government funding and the aforementioned contribution to Australian content.
When it comes to commercial stations, there are four main players SCA, Nova Entertainment, ARN and Nine Radio. Here’s where the mess begins. These stations rely on commercials for funding, whether these are through ad breaks, sponsorships of shows or traffic and news.
The majority of these stations follow the Breakfast and Drive show formula. These shows act as jewels in the crown and where majority of promotions go. You probably know the names of these personalities, more than you know which stations they come from.
These stations use these shows as their biggest calling cards. One of Smooth FM’s (a station that sits a part of Nova Entertainment group) biggest draw cards is their roster of celebrity guests such as Robbie Williams or Michael Buble. Further to this, many commercial stations play the same Top 40 hits so the only thing that sets them apart is their personalities. Although some also include music and competitions as a part of their positioners. For example, they may play a certain amount of music ad free or capitalise on a theme, (like the hugely successful RnB Fridays or Nova’s Red Room) as a part of their strategy.
Other stations pride themselves on their news and current affairs. Examples of these are Radio National and 3AW which have a very strong talkback radio vibe. I don’t know anyone who calls into talkback radio but clearly there are a lot of people out there who do.
Lastly, some stations rely on their community feel, music tastes and knowledge. Triple J presenters lack the energy of those on their commercial stations but the focus on a feature album, support of live music and the connection brought about by their Hottest 100 has built a strong following.
So there is our context, but first let’s consider radio as a business.
Every so often I read the industry website Radio Today. This article claims that radio helps people find music. I tried to find this research but didn’t have much luck. All I could find is that Luminate used to go by the name P-MRC and there’s a high chance the data has very little to do with what is happening in Australia.
Closer to home, PWC’s Media Outlook for 2019-2023 predicts steady spending on radio advertising and growth in both terrestrial radio and streaming services. The report also states a need for strong personalities on radio to be the main driver why people choose the radio over a podcast or music. I find this interesting because, for the most part, it contradicts my main experience of people listening to radio. I only know one person who will listen to a show for the presenter. And that’s my sister who listens to Pat Karvelas on Radio National. So, not even a commercial station.
Radio has become increasingly reactive. Now many of the songs heard on the radio are already popular on TikTok or have gained traction on Triple J or somewhere similar. Likewise, the roster of talent seems to be recycled. The decline in revenue has seen these stations consolidate shows and regions which means there is less room and money to develop talent. Stations expect shows to be Hamish and Andy dismissing the time it took for them to grow. Some radio listeners would be familiar with the rotating roster of people who probably all sound the same. Or maybe people don’t notice at all. Which is maybe even more depressing.
The crossover from station to station has been building over the last couple of decades. Australian comedian Wil Anderson went from Triple J to a short-lived stint on Triple M and has appeared on Fox from time to time. Matt and Alex from the Triple J Breakfast show now have a podcast which is a part of SCA stables.
Now, this takes us to podcasting. So far, there has been no clear direction from these networks to ensure their future. Nova Entertainment is a Lachlan Murdoch project so through his lineage he has the support of his dad and everything that comes with that…shares in Disney, Foxtel and Binge etc. The latter two seem to be getting their act together of late. I mean that company has so much money behind them, I’m sure they they can afford to make mistakes.
When I used to subscribe to Apple Music, when of my favourite elements were the Radio shows. The hosts are strong and came across as passionate experts. Apple seemed to have managed to do what other people are yet to, create a great synergy between shows and music, that is ad free. Spotify, however, is still beating Apple when it comes to subscriber numbers. Their attempt to mimic radio (and I say this more as a lazy descriptor than anything) is their ‘Daily Drive’ where they seem to put songs from your On Repeat playlist and place short podcasts in-between. So the podcasts vary from five to ten minutes in length. I haven’t heard of any of the podcasts on my Daily Drive before, but I am familiar with the companies behind them. And this is how current radio networks are attempting to future proof themselves, by moving from one audio form to another.
Podcasting is one of the fastest growing content mediums. It’s become comical how many people have their own podcasts. Some of my favourite tweets are about men buying microphones to set up podcasts, I particularly enjoyed this map:
Podcasting, like many other media products experiencing success these days, is a niche medium. And whilst there is probably a podcast on everything, those in the true crime genre are the most successful but there is a large amount of listenership when it comes to catch up podcasts of the shows on terrestrial radio. This is interesting because it alludes to a relationship and interest in these shows, but a desire to listen to them when the audience wants to. At the time of writing, Hamish and Andy’s podcast is number one, this sits under LiSTNR which is SCA. Second to this is Casefile True Crime by Audioboom and Schwartz Media with the 7am podcast.
Not only do these stats echo what we already know about podcasting, but perhaps show a path as to how audio companies can futureproof their companies. Interestingly my mind aligns with when a whole host of new digital TV channels came out, though you’d think that I would liken it to when streaming services first came out.
A couple of things on this. Like when digital TV channels came out, it seems that some content is being moved by terrestrial radio stations to podcast channels to gatekeep and encourage people to peruse these platforms. Like digital TV channels, podcasts are free, but you are trying to change deeply rooted habits. If a radio business is known for one thing, can they change the audience’s perception?
Like many new media established in the contemporary landscape, there is a ‘grassroots’ element to podcasting. Podcasts like many new media have low barriers to access for people in many societies with easy access to the internet etc. This makes me think of podcasts like other forms of media such as video. New media creators, who could also be called prosumers (in that they both produce and consume content) have an advantage over traditional media companies. They didn’t follow the rules and they aren’t beholden to any pre-existing structures. As industry outsiders they can do what they want without any real consequences. Established audio companies are having to take a step back regarding something they believe they are the experts in. This would be tough enough for anyone let alone the media industry which is not short of a healthy ego.
If we are to continue the podcast/YouTube comparison we can acknowledge that some pre-existing media companies have managed to experience success on a platform other than they’re on. For example, Vogue on YouTube but the difference is that content is created specifically for the platform and respects the community as it exists. Plus, they don’t really experience the same level of success that content created for the platform does.
So with that in mind, what does this mean for audio companies who are trying to jam their radio shaped audio in to podcast shaped holes?
One thing they try to do is create apps to host their podcasts on. This feels redundant when places like Apple and Spotify exist but seems to be in tune with their seeing themselves as ‘full client solutions’. This emphasises that old school structures seem to be getting in the way of making clear decisions for the future. It is very hard to blow up something to start again when putting your finger on the trigger means your own job, and everything you have been building is at risk, and these companies have a lot to lose. Though maybe not as much to lose if they don’t do anything that sits in line with how people are experiencing media.
Interestingly, the start of this year saw businessperson Abbie Chatfield sign a contract with SCA for their night show. Once upon a time this would have seemed like a huge get for someone who got their start on The Bachelor but the tables have turned and these companies need personalities more than the personalities need them.
Let’s hope they realise this, and start putting things in place.