Its sudden axing has many wondering whether the station will prove to be a canary in the coalmine, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.
The post-mortems begin
In an alternate timeline, Tova O’Brien would be cracking into her Today FM breakfast show right now. Instead, following the unceremonious closure of the station on Thursday, she’s most likely having a well-deserved lie in. What went wrong at Today FM? Matt Mollgaard, a former broadcaster now at AUT, thinks audience size and revenue were only part of the problem. “In the end … the owners of the company want to sell it,” he tells RNZ’s Mediawatch, referring to the US and Australian private equity investors that jointly own Mediaworks. “And they don’t want on their books a radio station that’s losing money.” With the departure of the two executives most passionate about the station, it had no one left fighting its corner, writes Today FM host Rachel Smalley in the NBR (paywalled). “The two men who had promised everything had suddenly both resigned,” she says. “The board’s investors went back to what they knew best. The books.”
Was the Today FM approach the right one?
The problems with Today FM went beyond the merely financial, writes Shayne Currie in the NZ Herald (paywalled). From the start, Today FM’s marketing emphasised moderation and balance. But is that what listeners wanted? Currie isn’t sure. “Talkback audiences thrive on friction and conflict,” he says. Veteran broadcaster Mitch Harris tells Stuff he “didn’t think that lineup would ever succeed”. “To compete in talkback radio you have to have older people that are real heavyweights… you gotta have people who can relate to blue-collared, conservative, working-class people,” he says. But, he adds, “Just going right wing doesn’t work either.”
Mediaworks ‘marooned in the past’
Today FM’s disappearance from the airwaves will have far-reaching impacts for its parent company, writes The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive. “There were no guarantees with Today – but at least it was a big swing to build a bridge to the future. Its summary execution leaves Mediaworks marooned in the past.” Currie agrees: “While it might have stemmed some of the red ink for now, it may have also killed any hopes of an enduring digital revenue stream… The company now runs the risk of too much reliance on its terrestrial music radio brands, with limited growth opportunities.” The axing was also a “missed opportunity” to take on Newstalk ZB and its aging listenership, says AUT’s Mollgard – “and it really does need competition because it keeps everybody honest, including RNZ”. Another significant loss: the station’s website, social media and archives. They were scrubbed from the internet on Friday – a year’s work “seemingly lost to the digital void”, writes The Spinoff’s Stewart Sowman-Lund.
A canary in the coalmine for media – and the economy more broadly?
The closure comes in the midst of an industry-wide belt-tightening for the media. Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne argues Today FM’s staff “weren’t really done over by management – they were done over by a fast-declining consumer economy. Retail and hospitality are the first sectors to feel the downturn; radio is where these sectors place many of their advertising dollars.” Sky TV, meanwhile, last week confirmed it plans to axe 170 jobs in New Zealand (Businessdesk, paywalled) and outsource many of its roles overseas. Among the retail advertisers that Today FM once relied on is The Warehouse Group, which has announced it is cutting 340 jobs. The pessimism in the retail sector is widespread, Retail NZ’s Greg Harford told Milne. “Half of all retailers are not expecting to meet sales targets in the current quarter, and 30% are not confident their business will survive the next 12 months.”