Teller of stories, singer of songs: iHeartCountry Australia’s rise to the top

iHeartCountry Australia was the winner of Radio Today’s Internet Station of the Year. In this series, Vivienne Kelly will speak to all winners to find out what it is that sets them apart. Here, Viv and iHeart’s Brett ‘Nozz’ Nossiter explore how adding an Australian twist to the iHeartCountry brand helped build a whole new offering. 

It’s become a bit of a feature of imported media brands and products to tack ‘Australia’ onto an established name – think The Bachelorette Australia, Australian Ninja Warrior, Love Island Australia, The Voice Australia, and even Andy Lee’s upcoming game show The Cube Australia.

The name not only signals its locational difference, but can also enable the newer, local product to stand apart, and set its own tone and trajectory.

So when Australian Radio Network’s (ARN) iHeartRadio Australia was looking to put its own stamp and style onto the international iHeartCountry brand, it had to do more than just recycle the international format and architecture. It had to do something different. Something distinct. Something Australian.

“I wanted a station that really leaned in hard on Australian artists, because all those country US stations [in the existing iHeart network] didn’t really reflect any Australian artists, and I think as a genre it probably hasn’t got as much media support or attention as other genres, even though it’s a hugely popular genre of music. It’s massive, but it’s probably a bit under-serviced for country music fans,” iHeartRadio’s local content director Brett ‘Nozz’ Nossiter tells me following iHeartCountry Australia’s win in the Internet Category of Radio Today and RCS’ Station of the Year Awards.

“So I wanted to build one that was for Australian audiences, which is why we deliberately called it iHeartCountry Australia, leaning into Australian music for Australian audiences. And so we’d be close to 50% Australian music on the country station, and it’s deliberately so to talk to Australian country music fans.”

The station may be based online – helping it overcome some of the structural and infrastructure issues which hit other radio formats when the pandemic started sweeping the country – but COVID-19 had implications and inconveniences instore for iHeartCountry Australia as well.

Much of how the brand gets its name out there, reaches new audiences and engages with artists is via live events, in particular large-scale festivals. And that, as we all know, was not on the cards this year.

It’s pretty hard to conduct backstage interviews when there’s no stage to be at the back of; nigh impossible to have a presence ‘on the ground’ when the grounds are deserted; and no sponsorships to activate when there’s no action or activity.

And yet, there were positives for iHeartCountry this year.

With no festivals and touring, it seems the ever-industrious country artists got down to business and started pumping out track after track after track.

“They’re so industrious,” Nozz says of country artists. “I don’t know if it’s a mentality just with country music, but if they’re not doing something like touring, they were really proactive looking at ways to connect with their audience, probably faster than some of the other pop kind of acts. I think it’s just the nature of the way they work… I think for them it’s just how they keep the metre ticking over, how they keep connecting with those fans.

“They’re not lazy – that’s for sure.”

It’s at the point now where it’s “almost intimidating” how much new country music is being presented to Nozz each week, he says.

iHeartCountry Australia in 2020 (post continues below audio): 

This intimidating, industrious industry is also year-round. Unlike iHeartRadio’s Elf Radio, which took out DAB+ Station of the Year and only runs for the tail end of each calendar year, country music is prevalent and relevant all the time.

This means that there’s not a key event – like say, Christmas, for Elf Radio – on which to hinge iHeartCountry Australia’s message and marketing.

And this is where the country artists come in – perhaps even more generous and industrious than Santa’s elves themselves.

The country artists are masters of cross-promotion and letting their fans know exactly when and where they can be heard. Simply having an artist interviewed on iHeartCountry Australia can be enough because the artists themselves “are really good at getting the message out”, Nozz says.

“So it’s less about an above-the-line marketing campaign – a lot of what we do, and I hate using this word, but that organic marketing directly through fans, through the artist fan bases and through their labels etc. as well.

“And that’s where I think you get a nice genuine connection too, because it’s not just an ad saying ‘Hey, listen to me’. It’s the artist effectively just saying ‘I’m on the station’, and the fact that they’re tweeting about it or posting something I guess gives it a level of endorsement or an approval,” Nozz explains.

So it’s got the approval, it’s got the artists, and now it has an award, what next for the local iteration of the station? More promotions, (hopefully) an increased presence at live gigs, and more opportunities to engage with artists and fans, it seems.

Nozz (far right) with iHeartRadio Australia’s former COO Geraint Davies (centre)

“Well obviously our key driver with all iHeart stations is going to be about increased usage. So we want to see our number of hours increase,” Nozz says.

“I’m hoping we’re going to get back to a level where the music industry can get back into more live events, and I’d like us to be a bit more present at some country festivals… And we’ll probably, as part of a broader strategy, I think we’ll be doing a bit more marketing of iHeart overall.

“So that’s the main thing will be increased usage and increased awareness and that’s still, for me, the most important part of that will be those partnerships and leveraging them even further…

Plus, next year there’s a couple of other initiatives in the works which, according to Nozz, “will give us another reason to be talking about iHeartCountry” – but he won’t be drawn on those just yet.

He will, however, be drawn on one more thing which makes the station so special.

“It’s a really fun station to pull together and I’d like to continue to build that out even further.”

Read about Elf Radio, and why it won DAB+ Station of the year here

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