A tale of two cities: Why smoothfm is soaring in Sydney but coasting in Melbourne

Former Editor & Content Director
Robbie Williams

The most recent radio ratings gave NOVA Entertainment a mixed report card for its smoothfm brand. Here, chief programming and marketing officer Paul Jackson admits he might need to look at how he programs the station in Melbourne and explores why a brand which is so strong in Sydney isn’t making its mark down south. 

NOVA Entertainment’s smoothfm in Sydney is radio’s little station that could.

Against a highly competitive backdrop, it’s now in a position where it’s within spitting distance of Sydney’s market leader 2GB in terms of share, with people speculating it could be the station to remove its long-held crown.

It’s also often cited when people ponder what on Earth to do with Sydney’s 2DayFM. You can’t just kill a station and start again, can you?

But this is exactly what NOVA Entertainment did back in 2012 when it gave up on the Vega and Classic Rock experiment and introduced smoothfm to the market in Sydney and Melbourne.

When people say “It can’t be done”, it’s not long before another voice pops up with “But NOVA did it with smooth, and look how that turned out”.

Indeed if smooth does knock 2GB off its mantle, it will be one of the radio stories of the year.

So why then is the music-based easy-listening format so significantly shaking up the market in the New South Wales capital but plodding along with a 7.6% share in Melbourne, behind 3AW (15.6%), GOLD (11.1%), ABC (8.8%), Nova (7.8%), and Fox (7.8%)?

NOVA Entertainment’s chief programming and marketing officer, Paul Jackson, concedes the stations are operating in very different market conditions, but they are programmed the same – something he may need to address.

“We program them exactly the same, which I know competitor stations don’t do that with their equivalent brands,” he says. “So that’s something we will look at and go ‘Are we at a point where there’s enough of a difference in terms of the audience we’re targeting?’”

Jackson: smooth Melbourne’s moment will come 

He says smooth will likely need to “go a bit narrower” in Melbourne because there’s so much noise in the market and competitive stations all sitting at similar share levels.

Could it also be that GOLD, with a similar demographic appeal but the talent draw card of Christian O’Connell, is hoovering up smooth’s potential audience then?

Jackson rejects this idea, and says the market is simply more close and competitive for smooth than its Sydney equivalent.

“Would we want to be one of two [share points] higher? Of course, but I think within the dynamics of Melbourne right now, everybody’s been marketing, whether you’re Nova, or Triple M or Fox, throwing everything at it and so on. So for share of voice for smooth, it’s been harder,” he says.

In Sydney, he notes, SCA’s 2DayFM is far weaker than the Fox equivalent in Melbourne, giving smooth more room to breathe, and more audience to collect in the New South Wales capital.

He also thinks there may be less loyalty in Melbourne, with people more inclined to give various stations a go.

“Other stations are performing well… and so many factors and dynamics need to come together. If you’re lucky enough to be doing some marketing, or in a good music cycle, or the content that your presenters are doing is capturing imaginations [then you’ll go well].

“I think we’re all mindful at the moment that a lot of stations [in Melbourne] have good cumes and do around the million mark, so it’s a good thing for radio… but all the stations are looking to put their best foot forward every day because people might flick up and down the dial and decide ‘What is the best offering here? Who should I listen to today?’ Just because they were listening yesterday, doesn’t mean they’re listening all the time.

“I think there is loyalty, but I think people will circulate through a few stations too. So you have to be on your game all the time or it can change quite quickly.”

Jackson admits the different performance of smooth across the two cities has given him some “food for thought”.

“There’s nothing to be knee-jerk about, but it’s in the pack certainly, whereas in Sydney it’s not in the pack – it’s ahead of the pack. So that’s the difference and it is something we’ll look at,” he says.

The network will focus on marketing smooth in Melbourne later this year, with Jackson confident it will turn things around.

“Smooth’s moment will come…You’ll see that come back very quickly.”

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4 Jun 2021 - 1:46 pm

Melburnians detest networked radio – and that’s all you get with Smooth apart from breakfast.

4 Jun 2021 - 8:24 pm

@Jamie – to be fair, you also get that with Nova 100, Fox and Triple M after 3pm; which probably explains why Gold does so well.

Maybe smooth’s difficulties also lie in its FM frequency location? If people are sampling and scrolling along the dial as suggested, 91.5 is a long way away from 100.3, 101.1, 101.9, 104.3 and 105.1.

Rob Scott
4 Jun 2021 - 9:32 pm

Add a little mainstream instrumental jazz by such smoothies as Stan Getz and Scott Hamilton.

That could just be the icing on the cake “Smooth”needs to quantify its uniqueness.

5 Jun 2021 - 7:54 pm

The answer is deceptively simple.

Sydney and Melbourne are two totally different markets. The difference in performance between Smooth in the two cities is a perfect demonstration of that reality.

Network management across the board would do well to learn from this lesson. It has been known for years, despite many choosing to ignore it. The rule hasn’t changed, regardless of changing times and eras.

Who in Melbourne wants to listen to programs networked from Sydney?

Same applies in the other capital cities.

5 Jun 2021 - 9:42 pm

I agree with Jamie, but with one extension. Melburians don’t like networked radio from Sydney.

Three or four years ago smooth was doing very well in Melbourne too. However I do think a lot a their audience moved back to Gold and stuck there.

7 Jun 2021 - 1:31 pm

Rob Scott, that’s hilarious.
Jazz on a station playing hits that’s so succcesful

12 Jun 2021 - 1:54 pm

They’re all different markets.
Why do you think 9’s 4bh fails.
Each city votes different and lives different.

You can not East seaboard same format.
Smooth, stop chasing cars and let what runs run.
Take over Brisbane’s 882 4bh and keep it’s name.

9 keeps messing with 882 and it needs to be taken back pre magic and left alone.

Sometimes a format won’t win but will succeed if you let it grow organically and stop chasing the instant win

12 Jun 2021 - 2:01 pm

Maybe grant needs to take on 882 4bh again like River (then star 106.9) did in the late 90s.

Just let it be independent enough to grow naturally and not change everything

River has grown organically to be the biggest station not surveyed in its region.
4bh should be able to get there itself with the right owner.
My dab radio has 4bh as a preset and I check it out every month and its position keeps shifting.

Leave it easy not a 4kq copy

18 Jun 2021 - 10:08 am

It’s not networking from Sydney or anything like that.

Soft AC has always had more appeal in Sydney than the Melbourne Market.

Remember ARN had more success with Mix 106.5 when it was a softer sound, whilst not working in Melbourne (other factors played a big part there to be fair)

Smooths success was doing the soft AC true justice (ARN programmed in a way to try and stay out of Classic Hits – NOVA entertainment did not and does not have this problem to worry about). That’s a key reason why Smooth grew strongly for a few years in both markets (Soft AC format was pure – not compromised)

Smooth had to evolve – otherwise it gets stale – so no criticism there. But I worry about Smooths format now – very different as opposed to a couple of years ago – it’s more AC with pace – this is one of the reasons why Sydney and Melbourne are now performing differently in terms of share.

So direction needs a re-think (eg re-centre the format) and maybe split programming is part of that solution to hit the sweet spot of the brand/format precisely to the 2 markets.

Bill Frost
23 Jun 2021 - 11:37 pm

PJ is right ! Its just that Fox is a stronger brand and DC has cleverely shifted it to a more 25-54 focus

Rob Buckingham
27 Feb 2022 - 2:41 pm

Soft AC does really well in Melbourne. I worked on air at 3MP through the 90s and we were consistently number one. But MMM learned years ago that music that works in Sydney doesn’t work in Melbourne. Research is the answer for Smooth, not just promotion. What songs does a Melbourne audience want to listen to? And then stick to that. Also, some short lifestyle spots would add some flavour – food and wine, travel, gardening, finance etc, all tied back to the website. There’s so much potential for Smooth in Melbourne. It should easily be the number one rating FM station in this market.


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