Nine confident Ross & Russel can retain COVID listeners

Former Editor & Content Director

3AW’s historically high ratings may be viewed by some observers and radio rivals as a “moment in time”, the length of which is directly related to the duration of the COVID-19 lockdowns in the city – however Nine Radio has dismissed the notion that its ratings will topple when lockdowns ease.

The station had a 20.6% share in the most recent ratings survey, up from 16.9%, and the Breakfast slot, spearheaded by Ross Stevenson and new recruit Russel Howcroft had 28.4%, up from 26.1%.

Surely as Melbourne gets on the move again, with travel distance limits lifted, hospitality slowly creeping back and some state borders opening, pre-pandemic listening habits will start to return? People’s need for news and desire for talk radio will still be there, sure, but perhaps the mood for contemporary hit radio (CHR) will also return?

That’s the view of Australian Radio Network’s (ARN) Duncan Campbell who oversees both the FM-topping GOLD 104.3, and its leading Breakfast show fronted by Christian O’Connell, and the struggling KIIS 101.1.

“Melbourne has been an extraordinary market because of COVID down there, and you can see AW’s impact there on the landscape, the radio landscape, even with this survey and into the next survey,” he told Radio Today after the recent ratings release.

“Melbourne’s still very much COVID country so to speak, so AW’s still very, very prominent there. But once COVID passes in Melbourne and things start to return, AW’s figures won’t be sustained.”

NOVA Entertainment’s chief programming and marketing officer Paul Jackson also noted 3AW’s “fantastically high” numbers, but said when life settles back down and returns to a more normal setting over Christmas, CHR’s numbers will climb.

Nine Radio’s content director, however, questioned how long COVID could be used as a cover.

“I thought [Survey 6] was a COVID anomaly in Melbourne… I think that’s what all the experts were saying then,” Greg Byrnes said in response to the notion Survey 7 in Melbourne was not reflective of longer-term trends.

Byrnes: Nine’s approach to talk radio is working

“If you’d been listening to the [Breakfast with Ross & Russel] show, you’d realise that it sounds great, and I think it’s lifted across the whole station,” he said.

“At a time like COVID, we would expect listeners to come to 3AW, to come to a news talk format, because that’s what we do. I think we’ve had more people sample us during COVID, and they’ve enjoyed the companionship and probably been surprised by it.”

Byrnes also pointed to recent research from Nine Radio which contended 50% of talk radio listeners said it makes them happy – “and I think that came as a surprise to a lot of people”.

“They normally think of us as just hard news and hard opinion, but the companionship and getting into people’s lives and hearing how people live in our city, and the experiences they’re going through, and having an opportunity to maybe vent their frustration and have a laugh – I think that a lot more people will be staying with our formats than letting us go when things return to normal.”

He said despite the naysayers of Nine’s new approach to talk radio and its recent talent recruits, the broadcaster was “very confident” that getting back to local voices, local content and local opinion would work.

“I think we’ve managed to re-pivot and refocus on the service we provide in talk radio, and I mentioned the companionship and the putting a smile on people’s faces. We hold government to account, we hold policy leaders to account, we have strong opinion, we’re not scared, we have presenters who walk the tightrope of live radio every day, and are effectively walking that tightrope without a safety net because of the opinion that they’re expected to provide. And that’s not easy. So we will continue to do that. And our audience, the numbers show our audience is responding to it.”

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