Post-pandemic, “those gains have declined and settled mostly at the pre-pandemic level and, in some cases, above pre-pandemic levels,” he said.
So is the ABC just short of those aberrant COVID highs?
Not quite. During the six years prior to the pandemic (2014-19), ABC Melbourne averaged 9.7% audience share over seven days, and ABC Sydney 9%. The 7.1 per cent reported last week was the lowest result recorded in ABC Melbourne’s five poll (since 2014, which is as far as Commercial Radio Australia’s Radio Alive database goes), while 8 per cent in Sydney was the lowest since 2018.
What about commercial radio?
Nine stations also saw growth during the pandemic and have seen a drop this year, but the variations are much smaller. The year-over-year drop in average audience is around 11% in Melbourne and 9% in Sydney; for ABC it is 47 per cent less in Melbourne and 32 per cent in Sydney.
Do ratings really matter to ABC?
Yes and no. Ratings exist to help commercial radio stations price advertising on their platforms. ABC, of course, doesn’t sell advertising, so the system’s rationale is irrelevant to its operations.
“Commercial radio and public broadcasting don’t have much in common except technology,” observes Jon Faine, who presented the morning show at ABC Melbourne for more than 20 years before retiring at the end of 2019. “When a commercial measure is used to evaluate a public broadcaster is like applying the rules of cricket to football.”
Ratings help ABC management gauge how well its radio content is connecting with audiences, but only to a point. “Radio ratings are only part of the listening picture,” says Whelan. “ABC is delivering audio content where the public is looking for it, and that less and less on traditional radio delivery platforms. This means that we are devoting more and more resources to the content of the digital pages and social media accounts of our radio network.”
How do the ratings work?
The rating agency GfK uses a sample of 60,000 people in the five capitals of the continent and asks them to record their listening habits manually for one week out of six or more in each survey period. To count as a “listen,” they must have been tuned in for eight minutes within a 15-minute period, and must remember and record where they listened (at work, at home, in the car) and to what. device (radio, computer, app, with or without headphones).
That’s a lot to ask, and that’s why there is pressure to move to an automated system less reliant on subjective recall. To that end, Commercial Radio Australia announced last October that electronic clock meters would be rolled out from this year, for a panel of 2,000 people. That process began in March. Its new Radio360 system will also do more to capture streaming audiences.
“There are seismic shifts taking place in the world of audio that help provide context to the shifting metropolitan radio audience,” says Chris Walton, managing director (Sydney) of media buying agency Nunn Media. “Audio audiences in general are on the rise, but with an explosion in available content and many different ways to listen to audio, some of this audience is turning away from traditional listening methods.
“Digital stations, streaming services, podcasts and alternative in-vehicle systems take a bite out of traditional radio cake.”
Who really listens to the radio?
If you use the cumulative audience measure, which counts as a listener anyone who has tuned in for at least eight minutes in any 15-minute period at any time during the week, the answer is almost everyone. In Melbourne, 4.633 million people passed that threshold in the most recent survey. In Sydney, it was 4.569 million.
ABC’s stations have often outperformed their commercial rivals on this measure (although not in the latest survey), and even its teen network Triple J looks strong on this measure, despite its continued loss of young listeners; its average audience of 22,000 in Sydney, for example, translates to a cumulative audience, or “cume”, of 588,000 listeners for the week.
“All media owners everywhere would prefer to speak cume, as it is a larger number and sounds more impressive,” says Walton. But, he adds, “fine-tuning who is listening at any given moment and how this is tracked over time provides a lot more insight.”
A large discrepancy between the average and the cumulative suggests that many people listen for short periods of time. The higher averages during the lockdown probably point to more people having the radio on at home for longer; the smaller averages for ABC now could be explained by a partial return to the office, less hunger for continuous updates (and perhaps fatigue with a sense of crisis), and a reduction in travel (car listening accounts for a large part of the radio market).
Demographics are also a big factor in ABC’s audiences. Nearly two-thirds of its Melbourne audience is over 65 (during the pandemic, it was around half). To be sure, Nine’s talk stations face similar problems, with 3AW’s 57 percent and 2GB’s 62 percent being over 65.
At the same time, Triple J is losing share in the crucial 18-24 segment to the commercial networks (and especially, it seems, to Smooth). In 2017, the 18-24 age youth station share was 13.3 per cent in both Sydney and Melbourne; in the most recent poll it was 9.6 per cent in Sydney (a big uptick from 4.4 per cent in the previous poll) and 4.6 per cent in Melbourne.
Meanwhile, the increasingly important DAB+ spectrum, some 60 percent of whose listeners are under 40, is dominated by easy-listening nostalgic rock. However, the national broadcaster’s six measured stations (Jazz, Sport, Kids, Country, Double J and Triple J Unearthed) account for around 30 per cent of DAB+ listeners in Melbourne and 40 per cent in Sydney.
So where does all this leave ABC?
Radio is no longer just radio. Indeed, as consultancy PWC put it in its most recent Australian Media and Entertainment Outlook, “2021 was the year that what was traditionally referred to as ‘radio’ became ‘audio'”.
Viewed in that context, Whelan insists that ABC is getting it right. “Listeners accessing our digital content have nearly doubled in the last two years, from 1.9 million in 2020 to nearly 4 million in 2021,” he says. Pageviews for articles produced by ABC Radio Melbourne increased by 22 per cent year on year. Social media followers are way up. Triple J reaches “nearly 3.2 million people every week in metropolitan and regional Australia on linear radio, plus millions more with daily and weekly social content.”
However, while the numbers don’t show the whole picture, they do tell part of it. Chris Walton says it should aim to be “in the top three or four broadcasters in each market, as this would reflect that they are achieving relevance and engagement with their local audience while also appreciating that they are not for everyone”. In Sydney, it is currently at number four. In Melbourne, this poll has him at number seven.
Jon Faine admits that this was not a good poll. “But the worst thing to do is panic. If you need to change the way some people do their shows, there are plenty of talented people who can do it.”
Furthermore, he adds, “the fortunes of talk radio stations fluctuate wildly, sometimes for no obvious reason. There were times when we knew we were doing a pretty good job and then the ratings survey came out and you were like, ‘Well, what happened?’
“You always have to question what you do and be your biggest critic,” he adds. “And I’m sure they are.”
What if you had some advice? “Take more risk.”