Is Australian talk radio walking the talk ... or walking the plank?

Brad March is a former CEO of the Austereo Network

Unless you are over 60 there’s not much choice in commercial talk radio formats in Australia - there’s really only one strong commercial talk format in each metro market.

Sydney has the top rating 2GB, and Melbourne has the dominant 3AW. And in Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide, the leading commercial talk stations are beaten by the local ABC stations.

(Of course, while the local ABC stations do very well – and generally attract double-digit ratings in all metro markets – for the average listener those stations are too high-brow and not mainstream enough. Also the ABC subject matter can vary from news, current affairs, and politics on one show, to gardening and knitting on another. So it can be inconsistent and also has a tendency to get fairly boring).

Macquarie Radio’s 2GB and Fairfax’s 3AW do very well in the ratings because of the lack of strong competition. By comparison, in Sydney there are five entertainment/music (FM) breakfast shows competing aggressively with each other. However, there are only two commercial talk breakfast shows: 2GB and 2UE.

So … why don’t we have more great talk radio stations in Australia?

There are more than enough variations of talk radio, including conservative talk, hot talk, liberal talk, and sports talk. There is enough room for two competitive commercial talk stations in markets like Sydney and Melbourne - and the same goes for Brisbane and Perth, each with populations of around 2 million.

One reason – at least in Sydney and Melbourne – is that there has never been an effective, focused, committed, strategic, well-executed launch against the market leaders 2GB and 3AW.

Just one example: the 2UE re-launch

As an example – and it’s not the only example that could be used - Fairfax’s 2UE was re-launched at the start of the year, yet 8 months on it continues to struggle – the re-launch has gained no traction. Its strategy is questionable, its execution is average, the meager marketing investment has been strategically and creatively ineffective, and some talent choices have been … ‘interesting’.

The majority of 2GB’s audience is 60+, with 2UE’s audience mainly 65+. And, an analysis beyond simple demographics shows both stations appeal to a similar right-wing, conservative, psychographic profile.

45-59 is the “new” 25-39!

There’s a huge opportunity in the Sydney and Melbourne markets for well targeted, 45-59 commercial talk formats. The sweet spot opportunity is 50-59 year olds – 50+ hot talk radio!

And it’s not hard to successfully target this demographic. Swisse Vitamins have a range of multi-vitamins targeted and branded 50+. Swisse’s Ultivite successfully markets to the 50+ demographic. And there are many other examples of successful organisations targeting this demographic.

Conservative Strategies

Owners and managers can’t afford to be too conservative. They need to be entrepreneurial and they need to take some risks. Well-considered risks, but risks nonetheless – in so much as they’ll be forging a bold new path - in Australian talk radio, at least.  But it’s not an ill-considered risk, as it’s been proven to work in other international markets. Here in Australia, for an exciting new “Hot Talk” format to emerge as a ratings winner, there must be a revolution - not an evolution. And that revolution starts with hot talent.

Hot Talent

Where does the audience go after growing up from entertainment/music (FM) radio - where they grew up on a diet of Hughesy and Kate, Matt and Jo, Fitzy and Wippa or Kyle and Jackie O? They don’t suddenly have a brain snap and become right-wing conservatives - and one day wake up listening to Alan Jones!

Talk radio is completely talent driven. And there are plenty of talent options for hot talk formats.

Names such as Andrew Denton, Tony Martin, Billy Birmingham for sport, Wendy Harmer, Eddie McGuire, Charlie Pickering, Hamish McDonald, Richard Stubbs, James Brayshaw, Amanda Keller, Andrew O’Keefe, Steve Vizard, Brian 'Spoonman' Carlton, Tim 'Rosso' Ross, and on and on and on … very quickly the list of options becomes quite long.

And those are just some of the names with profile – there is also a wealth of relatively ‘unknown’ talent ready to step up and be developed into future talk stars. 

But the overall point remains this: finding the right talent for hot talk radio should not be a problem, given the training ground of the super competitive FM breakfast markets here in Australia.

“The dangerous ones are usually the most entertaining“

Famous crime writer Elmore Leonard (who recently passed away), wrote about the characters in his books: "The bad guys are the fun guys. The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound". The same applies to talk radio talent.

And dealing with talk talent is often one of the toughest challenges that managers and owners face – though that’s hardly an excuse. With few exceptions, the most talented, the most compelling, and the most magnetic are often the ones most difficult to manage, coach, or attract. They are also the ones that win over fans, create relationships, build loyalty, and get you strong ratings. These types of personalities are tough and demanding: "The dangerous ones are usually the most entertaining."

At what age do listeners switch from FM to AM? This will largely be determined by the quality of the content offered. 3AW’s average audience age is 56.4, 2GB’s average audience is 53.7, and 2UE’s average age is now 57.5*. 

The Past

In the past we had talent like John Laws who was phenomenally successful. We have Alan Jones on GB. Jones is a brilliant orator and broadcaster, though very right wing (and hardly contemporary). Alan is Australia’s answer to US talk radio star Rush Limbaugh. Neil Mitchell on 3AW - whilst referred to as a ‘shock jock‘ - is at least somewhat enlightened and contemporary, even being quite outspoken about the issues of suicide, and bullying in the gay and lesbian community. Ray Hadley’s show on 2GB has been described as ‘a temple of hatred‘.

The Future

One shining light, one of the new generation of great talk personalities, is Paul Murray(right) on 2UE. Paul is exceptional, a great example of the future of hot talk stars. A real radio superstar! And remember his background: he spent a long time at Nova 969 and Triple M, doing everything from entertainment to talk-back to hard journalism to surreal sketch comedy.

Add strong talk personalities to strong news credibility and a few other key perceptions, and you have a powerful combination. In this regard, Fairfax should be seeing 2UE as a great opportunity.

The Cost of Failure

Macquarie and Fairfax recently released their annual results. Macquarie, with just 2 stations - 2GB and 2CH - had revenues of $60.8 million and a profit (ebitda) of $14.2 million. Fairfax, with 7 capital city stations including talk formats 3AW, 2UE, 4BC and 6PR, had an improved result with revenue of $105.1 million -  yet a profit only marginally greater than Macquarie’s: $15.5 million. That’s a low profit result for a network of 7 stations. Winning talk formats are expensive to do – but not nearly as expensive as losing money!

The Benefits of Taking the Measured Risk

We should have talk radio that reflects and challenges the views, hearts and minds of 45-59 year old Australians.

All of which fits with the key issue facing talk broadcasters now - attracting the right audience for advertisers, which means younger listeners than its current 60+ demographic. And not just younger, but those consumers with the spending power that advertisers want to reach.

60 is now called the start of old age. ‘Hot Talk‘ radio needs to talk to a younger audience - under 60 year olds. Once again: 45-59 is the “new” 25-39.


Brad March is a former CEO of the Austereo Network and is Managing Director of Marchmedia.


Thanks to Scott Muller at MBOS for his input into this article.


Scott Muller is Director of mbos consulting group, a creative strategy consulting firm. He can be contacted in complete confidence here.



* Source: Nielsen

Goldie(19:47 26 Aug 2013)
Some words of wisdom here
How long will they continue with UE as it is ? Maybe time to change the model and do an automated low cost music format like Cruise in Adelaide
GS(20:38 26 Aug 2013)
I think what Brad is talking about is what 2UE are trying to do, but just not getting it right so far. Time will tell.
Anonymous(22:13 26 Aug 2013)
"Also the ABC subject matter can vary from news, current affairs, and politics on one show, to gardening and knitting on another. So it can be inconsistent and also has a tendency to get fairly boring"

Really Brad?? Gardening & Knitting?

You've got to be kidding....what about the fact that 3AW a few years back cut their Saturday Morning sport show for a gardening program.

The same applies to the commercial stations but I think your stereotype of ABC local radio is old & totally undfounded
Anonymous(22:27 26 Aug 2013)
I don't know if I agree that ABC local radio is too 'highbrow', Radio National for sure, but Local Radio? I'm 41 and I love listening to Red Symonds in the morning and Richard Stubs in the afternoon on 774 as well as James Valentine and Richard Glover on 702. If ABC Melbourne didn't play 45 minutes on news from 7.45 to 8.30 I'm sure Red would rate through the roof. Although, point taken, the shows aren't punchy enough to catch the commercial FM audiences as they get older.

Anecdotally, walk past any building site in Melbourne and you're just as likely to hear Jon Faine as you are Triple M.
GR(22:38 26 Aug 2013)
Love the Elmore leonard quote
" The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types "
Wendy(22:46 26 Aug 2013)
Read this, this morning ! Fantastic piece Brad! Well said
Up in Brisbane(22:49 26 Aug 2013)
Very comprehensive analysis Brad, not that we expect anything less!

Brad, what are your thoughts on why the talkback format has failed to fire for commercial radio in Brisbane?

ABC Local Radio Brisbane dominates with talkback between 5:30 - 9am but commercial talkback has never been a huge success in Brisbane.

It was tried by various Brisbane stations in the 80's, only for 4BC to emerge as a constant talkback format with the Lamb family's purchase of the station in the early 90's. But sadly, neither the Lambs, SCB or Fairfax have been able to make commercial talkback a success in Brisbane. Why is that Brad?
Anonymous(22:59 26 Aug 2013)
I'm sure if ABC Melbourne didn't run news from 7:45am to 8:30am Red Symonds would rate through the roof in the demo you talk about
Will(23:17 26 Aug 2013)
Great article Thanks for your thoughts and insight
WB(23:28 26 Aug 2013)
I like the idea of a ' hot talk ' format Would be the talk equivalent of the hot a/c format
Nice idea
Trevor(23:36 26 Aug 2013)
Andrew Denton and Tony Martin now there's a hot duo for radio
Anonymous(23:41 26 Aug 2013)
Pretty good. Great thoughts. Agree with your thoughts on Paul Murray.
Anonymous(0:21 27 Aug 2013)
Would Ross and John (3AW Breakfast) almost be considered Hot Talk?

Sounds like they focus on being entertaining rather than being angry like many other shows on AM stations.
Hot Talk(0:41 27 Aug 2013)
Hot Talk would be a great format in the Australian radio landscape.

What is needed is a hot talk format targeted at an under 50's age demo.

Create compelling, talk based radio that is an alternative to the wall to wall music choices.

There are younger people in their 20/30's that listen to existing talk radio as they seek an alternative to music formats, plenty more would tune in if the format was crafted successfully.

A specific hot talk format for under 40's would be great, under 40's matters, first home buying, first investment home buying, general matters, no skew to left wing topics, keep well away from that, leave it for JJJ on the fringes.

Hot Talk targeted to under 50's is a format desperately missing from Australian radio.
Anonymous(1:24 27 Aug 2013)
Brad referring to one of your previous articles, a new format can take up to 2 years to bed in. Wouldnt this be the case with 2UE ?
Radio Fanatic(1:48 27 Aug 2013)
2ue relaunched in 2011 with a new lineup. Then decided to move presenters around over the last 2 years.
Breakfast is the only new show.
And I'm sure Paul Murray is a great guy, but its a stretch to call him 'a radio superstar' given he's rating 3's.
Anonymous(1:56 27 Aug 2013)
The ABC is very mainstream these days which explains their strength in the markets. You could easily put together an extensive list of ABC presenters who are all ex mainstream radio and television people, if the ABC is highbrow I'd like to know what your comparing it too!!
I totally agree that another talk position is there ,although this raises deeper questions about the content , flavour and direction of the so called adult breakfast shows more than anything else. Most are still running a dreadful CHR type overly structured sound. If "Hot talk" is there , lets start by at least acknowledging it in breakfast on the music stations. Some of us want a little more that battle of the sexes or the promise of a bunch of cash.
Brad March(2:42 27 Aug 2013)
Thanks for all your comments. Keep them coming!

Yes I would consider Ross and John to be Hot Talk - and they go some way to proving the point, as they're strong and have an impressive track record.

I agree that Red Symonds, James Valentine and Richard Stubbs are great talents but, in general, I still wouldn’t consider the ABC as attracting the mainstream audience.

Compared to what rates highly on FM radio, some ABC content is quite narrow in its appeal. It’s similar to comparing the Herald Sun’s circulation of 515,000 to the Age with 197,500 or the Daily Telegraphs 310,000 to SMH’s 207,013. Perhaps my reference to the ABC being ‘highbrow‘ isn’t the best description (I should have listened to Scott when I was writing this - he said the same thing as all of you about my 'highbrow' comment). I'm looking at it from the viewpoint that due to the ABC's block programming its difficult for listeners to have it as their 'favourite' station where they listen at breakfast and all day which is the aim for programmers, and where 70% of listenership comes from. Some topics get quite 'niche' for the broader audience - but, then again, that's part of the beauty of the ABC, and why it should never, ever be privatised! Otherwise we'd lose those topics from the airwaves altogether.

So, whilst I am personally a big fan of ABC radio and TV and completely support the diversity it provides, the article is really about commercial talk radio - viewed from a commercial perspective. But getting back to the main topic...

Regarding Brisbane’s 4BC most of its audience is 65 plus and I'd suggest it lacks the star power needed to power a truly great talk format.

A Hot Talk format for Under 50’s is a great idea, though 40-49s are still fairly well served by FM radio, at least in breakfast and drive. Though most of that content is comedy driven current affairs & entertainment based, rather than subject matter like health, relationship, money etc.

Keep your feedback coming

Matthew L(3:08 27 Aug 2013)
What about the other Commercial talk breakfast show Hosted by Grant Goldman on 2SM
Anonymous(3:31 27 Aug 2013)
Given the ABC is commercial free and commercials are the biggest tune out they should be rating higher than they are.
Anonymous(3:59 27 Aug 2013)
Matthew, 2sm hasn't subscribed to the Nielsen ratings for years. When they did, most programs received a '*' - Layman terms for no one is listening. Difficult to class 2sm as a contender in the talkback war for ratings
Anonymous(4:00 27 Aug 2013)
You didn't make specific mention of Dicko & Sarah on 2UE Brad? Unless "interesting choices" was your code for them? You don't like them?

I think they are starting to show potential after a sluggish start. It's good to have a brekkie talk show that doesn't table thump or push agendas. And I don't mind the cheekiness at times.

I'm betting that like any new brekkie show there's been plenty of executive noses pressed against the studio window and a lot format tinkering. It has changed (for the better) since it started. And It just needs time to bed itself in. Let's give them a chance to find their rhythm and hopefully make a bit of noise so the audience know what the new offer is. Apart from some SMH display ads I haven't seen any off station promo for them. Has anyone else? I'm surprised they aren't spending money letting people know they exist. I doubt SMH readers are the right audience for 2UE. They'll be listening to 702! (although I get the Fairfax link).

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