“…never say never”: Grant Blackley talks talent, 2DayFM and more

Former Features Editor

Off the back of Southern Cross Austereo‘s financial results announcement yesterday, we sat down with CEO Grant Blackley to discuss the company’s strategy for the next 12 months, and why he’s looking forward to taking a break over Christmas.

The SCA boss remained tight-lipped around talent-based questions like Mick Molloy’s replacement on The Hot Breakfast, Carrie Bickmore and the drive timeslot and plans for Hit 92.9’s Heidi, Will and Woody now that two-thirds of the team are all but confirmed to be on the move.

But Blackley did have a lot to say about the progress 2DayFM is making, as well as the role digital radio has to play in the SCA ecosystem and why he never says never when it comes to talent leaving and then returning to the company.

It’s reported that the SCA group maintains a “risk-based approach to unearthing and developing new talent”. How important do you see investing in existing talent and developing new talent?

I think it’s vital. And we’ve been saying this for a couple years now, that the talent we enjoy here at SCA is not only substantial, but they are excellent talent and performers. How we market them, how we promote them, how we extend them across into digital assets is vital to our business.

But without resting on our laurels, we’re spending a lot of time looking at how we actually bring new talent into our ecosystem. We’re doing a lot of work on a talent development programme to identify new and emerging talent as well, so that we have the best of both worlds.

Talent is critical to where we’re at because that’s basically the strength of radio, and seeing that we’re sitting in 84 different markets, fundamentally we have to talk to local communities with local talent, about local issues. There’s always a place for national conversation, but most importantly radio’s connecting on a local level. And I think we, more than anyone in the marketplace, know that. And we’re investing in that.

Do you think being in those 84 markets gives you the pulling power to attract talent from other networks?

I think so. I think the depth of our assets and licences is always attractive to those outside the company. But, again, we don’t always go looking for that. Sometimes it presents itself to us at odd times. And we look and we evaluate that. But to be fair, we have a very strong, loyal base of talent on our network, and we want to actually nurture and improve that performance. And at the same time we want to unearth new talent.

This is not about directly competing for talent across networks, which I think is really something that has occurred in the past, but I think will occur less in the future if we start to develop grass roots talent and nurture and mentor that group. And we’re talking about a group, not a number of individuals. I think it’ll benefit the network enormously for the future.

Are you happy with how 2DayFM breakfast is performing? And do you think there are any changes likely there?

No, I don’t see any changes. I think there’s a million small changes that happen every day as you know, in trying to improve the format and how we present the programme to market. I think Em and Harley are doing a great job. As I said earlier, we have put a substantial amount of marketing behind them to improve awareness and reach, and hopefully trial. And we’d be hopeful that their performance will slowly grow over time, as any new format does when it’s introduced into a market. And effectively we’re very comfortable. We’ll continue to push it. We’ll try to improve it, and hopefully we’ll see some ratings improvements in due course.

And effectively we’re very comfortable. We’ll continue to push it. We’ll try to improve it, and hopefully we’ll see some ratings improvements in due course.

2DayFM breakfast is obviously a format that you backing, given that you’ve given it a national syndication now. Is that an indication of what might be happening in the future in terms of your further support of it?

Oh, no question! That’s just broadening the reach that allows people, in that time slot where we re-broadcast it on a truncated basis, to sample the programme. And if they sample it, and they like it, maybe they’ll just join us in breakfast. So, that’s just part of our entire marketing effort.

Now we’ve got four books ahead of us still. What are the expectations for 2DayFM by the end of the year?

Without putting a number on it, I hope it’s more. And that’s our desire. So, we don’t necessarily set targets in terms of absolute numbers. What we want to see is steady, but sustained, growth. And we want to actually perform within the demographic that we choose to perform within. If we can do all of that, and see some improvement between now and Christmas, we’ll be very happy people.

How important is the 2DayFM ratings to the turnaround for SCA as a whole?

I think we underestimate the performance that the Hit Network has across the board. It is a very strong network. It is performing exceptionally well across its 40 stations across Australia. But within our five key markets of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, we’re delighted with its performance. It’s naturally important to SCA, but no less or no more than our Triple M brand, which continues to perform week in, week out, once again within our chosen profile. And it’s really the combination of those two assets that makes SCA. And I think I’d take them in equal measure.

Will The Chaser be returning to Triple M Sydney?

I think you’ll see them transition across to podcasting. It’s a world they thoroughly enjoy and are good at. And they’ll already in that marketplace.

We never say never. I think they made a very good contribution to the network, so, never say never, but at the moment they’re strictly focused on the podcast market.

Fitzy and Wippa’s contract is up at Nova. Do you think there’s any chance we might find them somewhere within SCA in 2018?

I think Wippa used to be at SCA many years ago, so he knows our shopfront. And Fitzy I’ve actually known for many years. He was in Big Brother when I was at Network 10 funnily enough, in one of his earlier incarnations. Once again, I think they’re great talent. I’m not here to talk necessarily about them, or their contract. I think that’s business between themselves and Nova. And probably not much more to be said on that front.

Life’s a long time. And we’ve trained many people, and we’ve enjoyed the benefit of many people who’ve gone on to other networks. And we expect in the future that it’ll be vice versa. So, no we never say never. But we have a very clear strategy. We’re very disciplined in the way we manage that strategy. And as I said before, we just want to nurture the talent we have, bring new talent into the marketplace.

Occasionally, there will be a case where talent might want to rejoin us or join us, and they haven’t been with us before and we’ll evaluate it at that point in time. But at the moment, I think we do enjoy a very stable radio market. We enjoy a market that’s competitively robust. And I think we’re all doing whatever we can to drive a positive influence for radio. And I think all networks are doing a very good job in that regard. And I think that helps the tide rise.

In terms of PodcastOne, there have been lots of announcements there. While it falls under the strategic objective of “optimising key audio assets”, when do you expect it to pay dividends?

I actually think it’s already paying dividends in an overarching approach. We are an entertainment company at heart. We want to be a preeminent and sizeable contributor to podcasting, so I think podcasting has to go through a few phases. At the moment it’s not as organised as it could be. We need to educate consumers very broadly across Australia, how to actually download and get involved with podcasting. I think that’s happening at an accelerating rate. And I think we can play a role in, not only educating, but actually bringing local content to market. And on that basis, I actually think there’s a very bright future for podcasting at a content level, and also at a commercial level. And I think it can be a sizeable marketplace.

By way of reference, in the US we’ve seen that market move effectively from nothing four years ago to what is now forecast to be a $550 million market by 2020. In Australia last year the numbers were circa 17 -20%, and they’re accelerating at very strong double digits. So, we are following the US in terms of its migration and acceptance. We’re buoyed by the fact that the US is reaching those sorts of levels, and continuing to grow. No different to a video on demand style of product. This is audio on demand. It is tracking very similar to video on demand. So it’s migration and its maturity is strong. And what we need to do is accelerate that. And I think we’ve got an asset base that can inform, entertain and accelerate all of those measures.

So podcasting is important. It is in adjacency to our existing radio assets. Inherently we have studios, we have ingest playout and distribution platforms, and we have a monetisation route. Pleasingly with Podcast One, not only do they bring us a brand, they bring us data analytics, but they also bring us a substantial library of content, to actually support the base of that business. So that’s really important. But most importantly is creating original podcasts in Australia that will resonate with local audiences.

With that adjacency between podcast and radio, as well as a focus on local content, is SCA developing any new radio formats for the next year?

We’re always looking at new formats. So the answer would be yes. Nothing to talk about today. Obviously we’ve talked about the out of home, more media market. So that is a new format, in principally a video capacity. But in digital we’ve also talked about our digital radio brands that have now been formally aligned with the Hit and Triple M families. So we’re bringing those to bear. They are substantial in their own right. It is accelerating. We have measurement in digital radio. We have brands. And soon you’ll hear our commercial strategy for that as well. But the alignment of those brands, into our broader audio set of assets or repertoire, I think is really important. And the fact that SCA owns broadly 50% of the commercial spectrum, moving forward, I think puts us in a very unique position to actually mine that spectrum with great brands, strong

But the alignment of those brands, into our broader audio set of assets or repertoire, I think is really important. And the fact that SCA owns broadly 50% of the commercial spectrum, moving forward, I think puts us in a very unique position to actually mine that spectrum with great brands, strong monetisation with new formats that will actually bring in new audiences, both to radio and probably in terms of share, to our networks.

Is SCA’s out-of-home deal announcement an indication that SCA is moving towards the digital video space?

I wouldn’t necessarily take it as that. What we have is that we’re trying to serve a community in regional Australia that doesn’t necessarily have local video content being served, and never has to my knowledge, in terms of more media.

I think this is a new element that is quite exciting in that marketplace. And video naturally needed to pushed onto those large format digital sides. So we’re in it for that reason. But I don’t think that you should see that we’re going to be a new digital video publisher, more so that what we’re doing today. And what we’re doing today is quite substantial. In alignment with our brands across websites and related social assets. So we’ll continue to let that breathe and mature, but I don’t think you’ll see a substantial difference in the change of our strategy.

Are you happy with SCA’s digital radio strategy?

We are. You know we’ve been trialling with digital radio for a number of years. There was no measurement in the marketplace. So the fact that we’ve now got the measurement, we’ve rebranded our stations as of July 1, that actually gives the meaning and purpose. And on that basis when we announce our commercial strategy I’m sure that all the ducks will fall in a line. And everyone will see that we have a scaled simplistic model that we can apply to digital radio. And I actually think it’s quite exciting: the potential of what they can bring.

Speaking of purpose, what purpose does digital radio serve in terms of the SCA ecosystem?

What it does is it actually allows consumers who are interacting with our brands of Hit and Triple M, for those aspects of Hit and Triple M that they really love, they can actually mine that even further in a more granular manner through our three aligned Hit brands, and our three aligned Triple M brands. So, there is a segmentation, you might say, of the audience that allows you, if you do like R&B you can actually follow that, and listen to that more often with a digital station. Or if you’re after modern rock, the Triple M, you can actually not only continue to listen to Triple M, but arguably you can listen to more modern rock more often through that digital radio asset.

How would you summarise overall morale at SCA as of today?

I would like to think morale is high. I would like to think we have a wonderful culture that breeds commitment, innovation, fun. And I think we have that. And I think we’re improving on that through a lot of the values that we put into the marketplace. We are risk-takers within the marketplace. We are becoming an entertainment company that we want to be: the preferred entertainment company in Australia.

So we have a vision, we have a purpose, we have a strategy that we’re going to employ to achieve those goals. And we lean on all of our people at SCA, over two and a half thousand people to actually make a contribution in their own right to that strategy. And I think that gives a sense of purpose and empowerment that I think is very healthy for the business. And we are consistently talking to all of our people, and telling them what’s going on in the company, and how they can play a role. So it’s quite exciting in that regard. So we do enjoy a very good culture and I hope that we can further improve that over the next few years.

Now what is the one thing that you’re most looking forward to between these financial results and next year’s financial results?

Ah! Christmas! Having a break at Christmas! It can’t come soon enough!

But, what we’re looking for, we’re looking for just sustained, but continued growth across the company that continues to reward our shareholders. It rewards our people at SCA, and it gives us a reason to strive to do better. And I think that sense of achievement and fulfilment is wonderful. And to that end, then we can all take a break at Christmas and all celebrate and come back refreshed for the New Year.

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25 Aug 2017 - 1:00 pm

SCA let go some amazing talent awhile ago. I’m talking about Dan & Maz. They filed in the shoes of Hamish & Andy amazingly well but as soon as the pair wanted a return to radio D&M were kicked out and moved to a shift already struggling and were expected to improve things overnight. End of the day it’s not the talent that’s lacking it’s the format of breakfast that hasn’t changed and that’s why people are listening to K&J. It’s full of buzz and excitement.


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