Fairfax – anyone surprised?

Staff Writer

by Brad Smart

Was anybody really surprised at the recent significant drop in profit for Fairfax Radio?

Programming 101 says, if you dramatically change programming rather than just tweaking it, typically, you’re going to lose audience share far faster than you gain it, and, advertising revenues will consequently follow.

Changing from conservative talk to progressive talk is a quantum leap, even though they are both talk formats.

In the Fairfax stable, all but 96FM in Perth, are older demographic stations.

It would be fair to say that the majority of Fairfax’s talk listeners before the format change would have been conservatives.

Just about anyone in the general radio audience in the 45+ age group, who could be classed as a ‘progressive’ and genuinely interested in talk, would have already been locked on to the ABC.

The ABC fits their values and attitudes – government funded broadcasting, subscribing to a liberal view of political independence in broadcasting, and, the key ingredient, and, the most appealing to these listeners, not being beholden to any commercial interests or advertisers.

Older ‘progressive’ listeners become so loyal to the ABC that I often describe them as being ‘welded’ onto the brand. Shaking them loose is just about an impossible task for any commercial operator.

The introduction of more progressive talk has seen many conservative listeners tuning out of Fairfax stations from almost the day the format changed.

The least conservative of them will probably have gone to the ABC.

Sure, some conservatives will have stayed to sample the new Fairfax product, but, the figures are indicating that they, too, are now leaving and not in small numbers.

The punt that Fairfax took is that people across the nation, who wanted to hear more ‘progressive’ or less conservative opinion, would be attracted by their new format in preference to the long-established ABC format.

Clearly, at this point in time, they aren’t, and, it seems a reverse migration may actually be happening.

History shows time and time again, that once you change format, the original listener base will be lost very quickly, if the new format no longer appeals to that base.

It then takes a considerable period of time, and usually a hell of lot of money in targeted promotion, to rebuild the audience figures.

Like all cycles, the audience loss should eventually go through the bottom of ‘the J curve’.

The loss of the old audience finally runs out of steam and new listeners start to be attracted, but that still doesn’t mean the audience level will come back above what it was previously.

That’s the gamble!

Another critical factor is that nobody really knows, with any degree of certainty, where the bottom of that J curve is going to be.

The Fairfax move really is a big gamble and one I don’t see being successful if it is genuinely relying on the premise of attracting ABC listeners for its turnaround, as earlier advertising suggested.

The cultures of the two broadcasters’ audiences simply don’t align.

Ideologically, ABC listeners don’t want to listen to commercials.

Rather than having to make another major format change in a year’s time, when Fairfax executives realise they have a very serious problem on their hands, it may be a good time to start making some common sense programming ‘tweaks’ right now, to try to retain what’s left of their conservative listener base.

Afterall, that’s probably the base that’s still buying their advertisers’ products.

About The Author:

Brad SMART has been a journalist, consultant, author, broadcaster, film director and was the former owner of the Smart Radio Network throughout Queensland.                                                                                                          

Brad can be contacted at [email protected]




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