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OPINIONMediaApril 11, 2023

Blame the listeners for Today FM’s demise

driver tuning a car radio
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

Good talent, strong content – so why weren’t talkback fans tuning in?

The sad silencing of talk content on Today FM’s frequency provides an opportunity to look closely at the behaviour of talkback listeners. Had listeners been tuning in, advertisers would have known about it and would have been keen to spend. The million-dollar-or-so shortfall revealed by interim CEO Wendy Palmer may have been considerably less and the station’s backers persuaded to let the conversation continue. After all, talkback radio offers greater returns in terms of cut-through to its advertisers than music stations. Radio historian Susan Douglas says that listeners pay more attention to content on talk stations: she calls it talkback’s “foreground aspect”, while listeners to music stations are more likely to “cognitively background” advertising content. What advertiser doesn’t want their ads to be listened to more closely? If the advertisers were staying away, it’s because the listeners were too.

Why? Was this because they didn’t like what they heard? Did they simply not find it on their car radios? The latter is often where listeners first discover a station, especially in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland. All that commuting. All that time, often on your own, to listen to other people’s problems or opinions and feel fortunate that you’re not them. In my doctoral study of why people listen to talkback, I rejected the misconception that listeners will only listen to hosts with whom they identify with socio-politically. While some of my listener research subjects were on side with the hosts, others gave reasons for listening such as wanting to learn how other people think. What might have happened to that caller to turn them into a disillusioned grump. Or a rabid anti-vaxxer. Or a person who lost their job in the pandemic and is now struggling to keep the whānau together. If the producer is doing their job well, every call is a story with an interesting kaupapa behind it, reality radio. So, we can rule out content. What about the hosts? Today FM offered an admirable lineup of on-air talent. Well-known names with strong opinions, ready to share intelligent argument. So, if it’s not content, and it’s not the hosts, we’re left with listener behaviour.

Experienced radio producer Jeremy Parkinson kindly allowed me to interview him for my thesis. He talked about how talkback listeners find comfort in consistency. When your radio alarm goes off in the morning, there’s a reason it is always the same station waking you up. It is comfort listening. But it is more than just hearing the same voice; it is knowing what side of the tracks the voice is going to be on, even if it is not a side you agree with. If you wake up to Mike Hosking lobbying for Jacinda Ardern to become a dame, it is discombobulating. For many years I listened to Leighton Smith (now retired) on Newstalk ZB. Our politics are poles apart so I could anticipate his views and know that I was unlikely to agree. However, other aspects kept me listening: his guests, his interest in international politics, and the callers that got put through to his talkback programme by his very good producer Caroline were often interesting. 

It takes time, though, to settle in to that sort of comfort listening. Which leads to my second point, already made by several media commentators but in particular the NZ Herald’s Shayne Currie: the Mediaworks board did not give the station time to bed in with listeners. Currie used the Newstalk ZB example where the broadcaster plummeted from #1 to #6 in the radio ratings when it took on its Newstalk branding with Paul Holmes at the breakfast helm in 1987. I was in the room with other staff on the day then manager Brent Harman broke the bad news of the ratings slide, but there was never any suggestion of abandoning ship. Lack of talent was not the problem; Holmes was arguably the most talented broadcaster that Aotearoa has ever had. The problem was audience expectations. Those expectations had been met nicely by Merv Smith for many years but then unexpectedly, Smith moved to Radio i. Barry Holland filled in for a short time on breakfast after Smith, and then one morning in March, ZB listeners woke up to Holmes. He could not have been more different from Smith. Comfort listening, which brings with it a loyal audience, takes years to develop. The Mediaworks board gave Today FM just over a year.

Another reason for lack of listeners, one that I have yet to see mentioned, is the rise of another form of talk radio that has been flying under the radar for some time. It could be another reason that listeners are going elsewhere. Spontaneous talk interaction is no longer the sole domain of talk radio stations. You will hear it on RNZ National from time to time when the sender of a particularly pertinent message or text has been rung back and persuaded to go on air. It is particularly noticeable on music stations such as my personal favourite, ZM. Listener calls now provide a lot of content in the weekday breakfast show. Call us if: you thought your partner was cheating but they weren’t. Share the most embarrassing thing your parents ever did. These are funny, light, short interactions with callers who know how to perform on air and as with talkback, they are screened. They are interactions that don’t take up too much head space, but give the opportunity for hosts to show their chops (and a bit of training for when they’re too old for music radio and a talkback host role beckons). 

I feel sorry for the Today FM staff. They are a talented bunch so hopefully they will find jobs that gives them as much satisfaction (and remuneration) as they were getting. But I also feel sorry for the Mediaworks management, which is forced to do the bidding of offshore owners. Sadly for all concerned, listeners go where they like, when they like and stay for as long or as little as they like. They are an entitled lot. 

Dr Maureen Sinton (Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki) is a former radio and television producer, TV One programmer and now lecturer at Te Ara Poutama, the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Development at AUT. Her 2021 PhD thesis “Sounding Out the Long-time Listener: A Study of the Talkback Radio Audience That Doesn’t Talk Back in Aotearoa New Zealand” looks at why listeners choose to listen to talkback radio.

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