Adelaide’s radio industry is missing its chance to surf a wave of renewed interest in news and information, sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar markets on Australia’s east coast and in the US show concerned citizens are tuning back in to radio, despite some disruptive impacts and changes to normal routines.

In the US, media analysts Nielsen report that 28 per cent of people are listening to more radio than they did pre-COVID. Some listen less, due to a reduction in commuting to work via car, but the overall net increase is 17 per cent.

Reports from market research company GFK show radio audiences in Sydney and Melbourne are up 150,000 and 130,000 respectively,

In Adelaide’s case, it appears to be a lack of local talent and conservative programming, especially in the Drive shift (4pm-7pm), that’s behind the failure to capitalise on a rare trend in the news cycle.

Elsewhere in the media landscape, pollsters Roy Morgan report that newspaper and digital news readerships are up and podcasts have boomed from 23 million downloads a month in early 2020 to 48 million in March this year.

There are some bright spots for radio – ABC Radio Adelaide’s breakfast show with Ali Clarke is one – but there are lessons from radio’s past successes that show a need for bold programming based on a deeper understanding of the audience.

FIVEaa and ABC Radio Adelaide have been too conservative in their approach to the opportunities this upheaval has brought.

The success stories include, firstly, legendary radio duo Barry Ion and Tony Pilkington – known as Bazz & Pilko – who re-set industry standards in the mid-1970s on Adelaide’s 5AD and dominated for two decades. In a remarkable effort, they also had a successful six-year run in Sydney, where they outperformed superstars such as Bob Rogers, John Laws, Mike Carlton and Doug Mulray. Much of what they pioneered remains standard in the commercial formats of today.

The second example is Mike Carlton, who returned from London to take on the Drive shift at the ABC’s 2BL in Sydney where I was working as evenings presenter and AFL commentator. Carlton’s arrival came after the untimely and tragic death of Andrew Olle, who had been hired to take over Frank Crook’s Drive shift.

Carlton set about restructuring Drive in a way that better reflected the audience’s interests and used many of the structures applied in breakfast shows he presented at 2GB prior to Alan Jones’s arrival, and then for London’s LBC before returning for Sydney’s Mix 106.5.

He took over a shift that had rated around six points and more than doubled it to 13 within two months. No wonder, then, that he was poached by 2UE the following year. Again, much of the Carlton format remains in the current successful ABC Radio Sydney Drive program presented by Richard Glover, who’s been in the chair since Carlton’s departure in 1998.

Mike Carlton in an image from his book On Air, published by Penguin.

These two key periods are recalled for their sheer genius and boldness backed up by their ratings success. Bazz & Pilko were number one in Adelaide’s breakfast slot for every survey from 1976 to 1984, reaching close to 40 per cent of the audience before heading to Sydney where they started out at number 10 and rocketed to number two.

There’s another successful team worth mentioning – KG Cunningham and Graham Cornes dominated Drive in Adelaide for 13 years with survey results never seen since, often passing the 20 point level.

By examining these successful periods in radio, we can see how the current line-ups are missing the chance to get listeners back on board during the COVID-fuelled resurgence in audiences wanting information blended with entertainment.

Now, next, then

Bazz & Pilko were an accidental pairing, brought together to revive 5AD’s flagging ratings as the Adelaide commercial radio market matured with new and popular formats at 5KA and 5DN. The ABC was still stuck in the 1960s, relied on news only and wouldn’t be a competitive force until the early 1990s.

5AD’s then-manager Jim Sutton gave the two presenters a brief to “break the rules” and have fun. Barry Ion told me years later that they had no idea what to do, but they were keen. They set about designing a structure for their program that would be recognisable at any point. Ion split the show into quarter-hour segments that included the basics of time, weather, station identification and a “now, next, then” discipline where the listener always knew what was happening now, what the next bit was and what could be expected the other side of the half or full hour.

The radio craft developed in this period was so refined that you knew what time it was by what was on their show.

Segments such as the Phantom Phone Call, Baby of the Day, Dial A Date, The Rumour File, cash calls and more were developed by the team and almost all are still in use today.

Pilko (left) and Bazz celebrating another ratings win in their glory days.

Bazz & Pilko had other strings to their bow: the life-like character Peter Plus, a creation of the amazing ventriloquist skills of Barry Ion, was pure entertainment done in a way that related to the everyday lives of the audience. They were tapped into the business community and interviewed anyone in the news that day, providing they had an interesting story to tell.

Both were aligned to and part of the dominant SANFL scene, with Ion having played in the VFL at Footscray and then with Woodville.

Pilko’s empathy with the nursing profession and shift workers served him well with his call-outs to people leaving work as the brekkie show started.

The pairing split in 1997, with Pilko linking up with Mornings host Leigh McCluskey and Bazza taking a break. The magic run had ended and times had changed, but the essence of what they did – a disciplined structure built to house the interests of the audience – is an enduring legacy.

Grabbing an audience for Aunty

Mike Carlton’s return to Sydney at the non-commercial ABC Sydney station 2BL had been preceded by some significant changes and events at the ABC. The local radio network had been revamped in 1991, when nine “metro stations” were created in each of the state and territory capital cities, along with Newcastle.

Each station had the same format: breakfast from 6-7.45am, news at 7.45, national current affairs show AM from 8 and a local current affairs program from 8.30 to 10. Another show started at 10, a mid-afternoon one at 1pm and Drive at 4pm till 6pm, followed by more national current affairs via “PM” and then an evening program before they switched to a nationally networked format overnight.

The format changes were an improvement, but the ABC was still held back by its incapacity to grab a broader audience.

Enter Mike Carlton, hired by entrepreneurial station manager Peter Wall. He started his shift at 3pm and ran till 6. News reporters who were filing short pieces for news bulletins suddenly found themselves on air talking to Mike and providing more colour and background to the day’s events. The biggest story of the day was covered at five o clock, the second biggest at four o’clock.

So, what would work for the ABC? The clue here is in the success of Ali Clarke.

Backbench state Members of Parliament who had barely been heard of became regular participants on rotating panels each Wednesday. Each day had its panel, from arts to sport to all those elements that fill our lives outside work. The key to making all this tick was Carlton’s enormous intellect and capacity to make people laugh, cry or just enjoy his wit. Friday afternoon on his Drive shift felt like a Friday should.

A couple of years later I unashamedly borrowed some of the Carlton segments while presenting Drive in Adelaide. While we rebuilt the show’s flagging ratings, the regular Monday and Thursday segments with the Melbourne Age’s chief football writer Caroline Wilson were the most popular. She knew footy and knew how to talk about it. Also well-received was Friday’s panel of comedians and raconteurs called “Thank God It’s Friday” that used the star power of Charlie Pickering and Wil Anderson while also unearthing local talents such as opera singer Michelle Nightingale, media academic Collette Snowden and the surprise packet, Advertiser journalist Bronwyn Hurrell.

It’s never escaped me that the most successful parts of that program – where we rose from a show that was rating in the threes, to more than double figures – were female voices. Nightingale, Hurrell and Snowden all knew how to tell a story in a way that connected with the listener. They also had another common feature: they were smart, well-read and well informed. Caroline Wilson was the best AFL journo in the land and delivered content that no local footy writer was able to match.

Who’s going to drive us home?

Sport content is crucial in the Adelaide market, which is why I mentioned earlier the remarkable ratings success of KG and Cornesy.

Their 13-year program had been borne out of the earlier success of KG and Hookesy, which ran on 5DN until cricket star David Hookes moved to Melbourne.

The format was simple: they would set up each program by taking conflicting positions on the biggest issue of the day, thereby causing the listeners to take a side and engage with the program. The other key feature was that KG’s passion for sport was perfectly matched with Graham Cornes’ more pragmatic and informed view. They brought in top-line talent and were usually first with any breaking stories on the sporting front.

Graham Cornes (left) and Ken “KG” Cunningham are still on FIVEaa on Saturdays. Photo: FIVEaa

Which brings us to the current line-ups on Adelaide’s Drive shifts: the market is stagnant, adding just 1000 listeners from December 2019 to December 2020. In an overall audience of 788,000, that’s minuscule and compares poorly to reported increases in newspapers, digital news products, television, podcasts and breakfast radio.

Commercial FM stations have almost no interest in the local market, opting for networked programs such as Triple M’s Mick Molloy out of Melbourne; Mix 102.3’s Will and Woody is also out of Melbourne, as is SAFM’s Carrie and Tommy. Triple M goes local for an hour at 6pm with ex-footballers Bernie Vince and Andrew Jarman linking up with former cricketer Greg Blewett for the oddly named “The Rush Hour” – surely not a reference to Adelaide traffic at that time.

Given our focus on news/talk formats, the key stations are ABC Adelaide, FIVEaa and Triple M.

Triple M flicked the switch to a local talk format in 2011 when they hired former sports stars Mark Ricciuto and Chris Dittmar to do a Drive show. It worked so well that in 2014 they moved them to breakfast, where they have garnered a strong share of that market. Triple M wasn’t able to find a replacement team for Drive that matched the duo and tried a few things before deciding to take comic duo Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy out of Melbourne. Kennedy has since left and Molloy continues to roll out old jokes, beer brand promotions and the occasional attempt at interviewing someone on a current issue. If you didn’t hear the program, you didn’t miss anything.

FIVEaa, once dominant in Drive, seems stuck. When the Cornes/KG pairing showed signs of fatigue, station management axed KG and brought in Stephen Rowe to refresh Cornes’s interest. It didn’t last long and Cornes stepped back and then out. Despite some new pairing attempts, the magic didn’t return and Rowe now finds himself riding solo. He does understand radio, given that he was a producer for Bazz & Pilko in their final year, but as the ratings show, he’s not setting the world on fire, rating on average around 9 per cent despite having a seniors-aged audience that is rusted onto the station. While Cornes and KG peaked at around 22 in the mid-winter AFL period of each year, the current program achieves less than half that.

Former Advertiser reporter Tory Shepherd has dipped her toe in radio’s water with a digital offering and shows potential.

Management at FIVEaa may well be restricted by revenue falls, but they might want to start thinking about Kane Cornes who currently presents on niche station SEN. Cornes, like his father Graham, is savvy about when and how to start an argument that will get the listeners up and about. He’s got a national AFL profile and promotes his material heavily on Twitter and via podcasts. The station also needs to think about how blokey their line-up is, with male presenters on breakfast, mornings, afternoons, drive, early evenings and evenings. If they could find the right female co-presenter to go with Cornes they might be onto a winner.

The lack of local spice in the Drive market should mean that ABC Adelaide is in the best position it’s been for years to capture some of those commercial listeners. The departure of former reporter and newsreader Michael Smyth at the end of 2015 saw the arrival of Jules Schiller, despite Smyth’s success in raising the ratings back to double figures. Recent ratings for Schiller bounce around the 5-8 per cent range and late-year ratings surveys show the audience numbers towards the end of 2020 were the same as 2019 in percentage terms and in terms of total listeners. It shows how much of the COVID bounce is being missed.

The reason is Schiller’s style: it is polished, but reflects his long career in softer commercial radio formats. As per the commercial playbook, he asks his listeners to give him the information, to answer questions he’s posed or to explain certain concepts. ABC audiences are from a different demographic to those served by the commercial stations where Jules cut his teeth. Demographers classify the ABC audience as “A-B” in a system that grades audiences from A to E. They are typically people in higher and intermediate managerial roles, administrative or professional with above-average incomes and high rates of tertiary education. Dumbing down your content does not work with this audience.

The Ali Clarke clue

It won’t have escaped the attention of the ABC’s internal analysts that their Adelaide station is riding high with Breakfast presenter Ali Clarke smashing the ratings records with figures regularly in the 14-16 point range. Clarke has extensive general knowledge, is tapped into the community, connects well with guests at all levels and, most importantly, shares much of herself to the listener. Her radio craft, learned in commercial radio, has been adapted to the ABC style with great success and listener numbers have grown. They drop off, however, in later shifts and have headed elsewhere by 4pm. Other than breakfast, the Clarke effect is not being capitalised on.

So, what would work for the ABC? The clue here is in the success of Clarke.

The radio industry adage that “female voices don’t work” has been blown apart by Clarke, Leigh McClusky before her and by interstate successes such as Wendy Harmer. They should look for someone who understands news, connects with the broad interest areas of education, health, sport, money and business, and who can have a good laugh and tell a funny story.

Once they’ve settled on a presenter (or two) then the lessons of structure and format used by Bazz & Pilko and Mike Carlton and many others since, should guide them to a program structure that retains listener interest from start to finish.

Ali Clarke. Supplied image: ABC

There’s plenty of talent around, as evidenced by some of the guests on Ali Clarke’s Spin Cycle on Friday mornings. The ABC newsroom has a stack of talent, recruited under the guidance of deputy news editor Nick Harmsen.

Reporters Patrick Martin, Isabel Dayman, Stacey Lee and others have been at the forefront of some of the biggest stories in recent years. Dayman and Lee sound like they have broad skill sets and can pick a story, tell a story and add a touch of humour. Lee’s performance on the Spin Cycle suggests she has a sharp wit and can handle a political street fight. If not as presenters, then they should become major contributors to the program.

Beyond the ABC, there are plenty of experienced people left in the cold after years of redundancies in commercial media.

Former Advertiser reporter Tory Shepherd has dipped her toe in radio’s water with a digital offering and shows potential.

Time, meanwhile, is moving swiftly and the COVID period may be coming to a slow conclusion. FIVEaa and ABC Radio Adelaide have been too conservative in their approach to the opportunities this upheaval has brought.

The ABC’s acceptance of the status quo deprives its audience of much-needed oversight of the news cycle, dominated these days by political media managers and promoters.

If you want a place in the market, you have to be bold and be heard.

Kevin Naughton’s experience as a radio presenter spanned 30 years, beginning in the early 1980s. He worked in commercial radio and for the ABC, including presenting Drive in Darwin, Sydney and Adelaide. He is a former InDaily business editor.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.