Where have all the great FM Nights shows gone?
Nights radio isn’t what is used to be, with the timeslot transforming significantly in the last couple of decades.
In the 80s and 90s – through to the the late 2000s, Nights programming on Aussie FM radio was dominated by hosts with a penchant for pranks and controversy; Phil O’Neil, Kyle and Jackie O, John Peters, David Rymer and Malcolm Paul held loyal audiences.
Talking to Radio Today, former 2DayFM PD Eriks Celmins reflects on the days of Malcolm Paul, and why he was so successful in targeting the youth market with CHR music. “[There] had to be a sense of you never knew what would happen next – risk-taking and danger within the countdown structure,” he tells Radio Today.
“Like a creative tension between the structure and the wild content.”
Craig Bruce believes that Jackie O’s continued presence at the forefront of Australian radio (and the ratings) is proof that she was one of the best Nights presenters we’ve had. “It would be a tie between Ugly Phil’s Hot30 and Kyle and Jackie O,” he says.
“Both shows featured Jackie, which says a lot about her staying power. She was as brilliant with Phil as she is with Kyle.”
Nova Network’s Kent ‘Smallzy’ Small is one of a few current jocks to have proven his originality and staying power. “As for modelling myself on anyone I can’t say I really have, I do know though – I’ve always admired those hosts who do a show on their own versus teams,” he tells Radio Today.
So what’s changed?
While many point to the infamous Royal prank in 2012 as a tipping point for Nights radio that pushed the boundaries, it’s no secret that lines had been crossed before then.
O’Neil was well known for stunts and prank calls during his time hosting the Hot 30. One well-known stunt included a prank call to service stations using a Chinese accent, to accost the attendant about eating dogs.
Craig ‘Lowie’ Low was another who was known for pranks that crossed the line, with one such live stunt revealing him in bed with Lisa Origliasso from The Veronicas.
His time on the Hot 30 came to an end shortly after, following rumours of strained relations with management.
“Shocking is too closely linked to offensive these days and the audience are much more conservative than they were even when I started out,” adds Smallzy.
“I still like to push the boundaries and dance on the line,” says the Nova host. “But you don’t have to look too far back to find a long list of what happens when night shows go too far and have to deal with unintended consequences.”
The move towards a different type of nights show is also intertwined with a dramatic change in how popular music is crafted and distributed, and with those changes, audience expectations have too evolved over the last few decades.
This means the level of engagement which Nights shows were able to generate in a largely pre-social media and streaming world is simply not attainable today. As a result, Nights shows are simply not given the same budget as 20 years ago.
Music has always been a big part of Nights programming, with many of the great shows being Top 30 and Top 40-style shows.
Smallzy is the frontrunner in premiering and championing new music by international and local artists, and also has his Top 9 at 9. His show competes with Hit Network’s Ash London, who sits even further towards the Aussie side of the new music spectrum, and there’s no doubt that these shows have an important place in radio.
“Getting the music right is the key to any successful FM format, regardless of the daypart,” says Bruce.
“I think the best Nights announcers – Zane Lowe, Ash London, Ugly Phil, Jackie O have all connected with the music in a way that is not just a transactional approach that most workday announcers take.”
But it’s certainly clear that Nights is less of a priority for content directors. We’ve seen the end of local metro Nights programming in favour of national shows, and the rise of streaming services has seen a drop off in listenership from the younger demographic who were previously heavily relied upon for ratings.
“With so much focus on the Breakfast show and the meeting madness that content directors have to deal with, leaves them little time to think strategically about Nights,” says SCA founding group program director Greg Smith.
“In the 80’s and 90’s when music was scarce you’d have to wait for the radio to play your favourite song, now you can just open your laptop and fire up your favourite playlist on Spotify,” adds Bruce.
“These two factors meant that Nights radio played a small, but important role in driving the overall share of Top 40 stations like 2Day and Fox and therefore the resources – be it marketing, contesting and production which supported those shows, reflected that share impact.”
John Peters agrees that an audience that is now spoiled for choice by streaming options and alternatives to radio is now much less engaged in countdown-style radio.
“When I started doing Nights on EON FM in 1985 I started he Top 8 at 8,” he says. “Vote for your favourite song from 6 and then count down the most the 8 most voted for at 8 o’clock.
“We used to get so many votes it was crazy. I remember lots of Top 8’s started up across the country.”
Quality music programming was an absolute necessity, reflects Celmins. “You had to keep the music hot, breaking new-releases, lots of listener interaction, and the content entertainment-value high-energy and ‘out-there’ to stop them channel-surfing.”
On that note, Smallzy believes “everything is relative to the time the show was on air. Shows pre-internet are different to shows post internet, and shows pre social media are different to those that exist now.
“I would argue that stations should have a full time talent scout scouring the country looking for the next ratings sensation,” contests Smith.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Craig Bruce sees plenty of positives in the state of Nights radio today.
“Everything looks better than it actually was when you’re looking in the rearview mirror,” he says.
“We still have great presenters like Smallzy, who has remained a dominant force for over a decade now, a testament to his longevity and skill as a presenter.
“Talent costs, production support and contesting budgets for Nights shows would be significantly smaller than 20 years ago, which makes the work of Ash and Nova’s Smallzy even more impressive.
“Smallzy and Ash are connecting with their audiences in ways that Phil and Kyle could only have dreamed of.”
So who is waiting in the wings? Where is the next great Nights show coming from?
There’s no shortage of young hosts around the usual plots, but who, if anyone, would be suitable for the slot.
The Hit Network’s London and Triple M’s Tom and Olly are on the up, and either show could go on to really establish itself in the slot, but another potential Nights host whose name has been doing the rounds is Danny Lakey.
Lakey is originally from WA and started out doing casual music shifts at Hit90.9 Sea FM Gold Coast and has also worked at Hit 92.9 Perth and the breakfast shift at Star 106.3 in Townsville.
Bruce agrees that he could do well on Nights. “I’m well aware of how good he might become,” he says.
“He reminds me of a young Tim Ross in his delivery. He could be anything. SCA have done well to give him a platform to refine his undoubted abilities.”
Who else could be the next great Nights host? Let us know in the comments.