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MediaWorks crushes again in the radio ratings – where to next for NZME?

The just-released commercial radio ratings show a continuation of the long-running swing to MediaWorks. Tim Murphy assesses the disturbing implications for a pre-merger NZME.

Today is a day when careers are made and ended. At radio stations around the country, star presenters and executives have been waiting by their mobiles to confirm if they are No. 1 – or nowhere – in the audience ratings.

The GfK commercial radio ratings have just been released and while usually it’s a case of ‘Everyone’s a Winner Baby’ – there’ll only be one survey party truly pumping today. MediaWorks radio, which includes big brands like The Edge, More FM and Mai FM, has comprehensively won the important battle for music audience nationally and in Auckland.

NZME, which owns NewstalkZB, always wins the talk radio market and usually scores in music with its low-cost, oldies brand, Coast. Mike Hosking kept the machine humming, dominating breakfast in Auckland but today even Coast has dipped to sixth nationally and third in Auckland.

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Today’s survey is a hard one to spin. Newstalk ZB is the biggest station, at 11.7 share nationally for those aged 10 plus, but The Edge second on 8.3 and More on 8.2, The Sound is fourth on 7.6 and The Breeze fifth on 7.5. Four of the top five stations are MediaWorks. The best NZME music brands of Coast, The Hits and ZM, come sixth, eighth and 10th, separated  by The Rock and Mai FM.

The top four of the leading five stations in the advertising targeted 25-54 age group are MediaWorks stations, thought to be a first.

Put together, they have cemented MediaWorks’ place as the dominant radio player – its overall market audience maintaining a big lead over the NZME stable – 51.6 share to 38.3. (In the major cities survey released in May, the figure was 50.2 to 39.6, although they are not strictly comparable).

Last year, MediaWorks issued a graphic it called the ‘Jaws of Death’ to show the widening gap between the two.  The change of survey methodology means that graphic can’t be updated on a like-for-like basis – but it isn’t pretty this afternoon.


Auckland survey highlights (10+)

Auckland #1:  NewstalkZB  14.0, Mai 8.3, Breeze 7.7, Coast 7.4

Breakfast Auckland: ZB  17.9, Mai  9.8,  [Radio Live, with Paul Henry, is down slightly, at 5.6]


The audience bragging rights translate to more dollars in the door.  Even before today’s repeat strong-showing, MediaWorks reported its radio revenues up 6 per cent for the 15 months to December last year.  That would have come almost completely from NZME – which reported anaemic radio results in its last market announcement under previous owner APN. And those kinds of percentages represent millions of dollars in revenues.

Today’s ratings, the second under a new industry-wide system but the first to cover the whole country, are more important than ever for two reasons:

First, NZME radio is part of a company just listed on the NZX, needing to prop up an uncertain share price of around 73 cents – and hoping to argue top dollar value for its assets as it plans a merger with Fairfax NZ.  As the newspaper business led by the Herald struggles in an historic industry upheaval, it needs its ‘growth medium’, radio, to perform in ratings and revenues.

Second, MediaWorks radio has been the industry’s success story, and its owner, the US vulture fund Oaktree Capital, still hopes to cut a deal to sell the business. It has an investment bank advising it on options and the radio division is the profit centre; MediaWorks TV loses millions. Right now, it needs its radio arm to be riding high in the market.

Publicly-owned RNZ is also in the ratings survey but the findings for the whole market, including RNZ, are not due until next week.

NZME took some big bets in recent years on radio talent, shifting Pauline Gillespie and Grant Kereama off ZM to the new station called The Hits and bringing in The Edge’s star drive time team of Fletch, Vaughan and Megan to try to make them ZM’s answer to The Edge’s morning team of Jay Jay and Dom (plus one). A revitalised Radio Hauraki was pushed hard but still languishes.

While there have been patches of progress, the overall results showing audiences and revenues stressed will mean the board directors of newly-listed NZME will be looking hard at the strategic calls and why NZME radio’s music offering is not succeeding.

In May when the ‘major markets’ survey was released, NZME was able to celebrate Newstalk ZB’s ‘continuing’ success but spent much of its press release lauding digital listenership on its iHeart platform, and even mentioned some deal with a niche Chinese radio station.

MediaWorks focused its celebration on being the number one company across the country.

NZME’s radio chief, Dean Buchanan, is one of the friendliest guys you’d meet – an old radio hand who was a colleague of Mike Hosking at a Christchurch station years ago. He has a talent handling business in Australia on the side and would have been expected to deliver on big star signings.

The revenue trials at NZME occurred in spite of – perhaps because of – its integration into the publishing business, a shotgun marriage led by former radio chief Jane Hastings when she became CEO of the parent company for a short time.

NZME’s raison d’etre under Hastings was to be Number One in News, Sport and Entertainment. In talk it can claim the first. In sport it has no competition. Now, with Coast bombing, it cannot plausibly claim ‘Entertainment’. In the overall music market that most important victory is eluding it – and so are the advertising dollars.

For MediaWorks, today’s ratings are a strong ‘hold’ of the industry crown – gains in total audience and strong showings by a clutch of music brands. It retains its significant lead at a time of profound media change.

Audiences are listening – or not. And investors and potential buyers are watching.

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