Despite what people in the Melbourne radio market might think, Sydney is where the industry’s trends are made and unmade, just as in TV, so that’s why some of the results in the fourth survey of 2008 indicate a significant change is underway in radio.

The biggest manifestation of this is the rapid decline of Alan Jones’ dominance in Sydney breakfast: his share is down sharply in the past year, and especially since the November federal election.

In media terms, Jones is the major victim (if we have to have one) of the change in Government and the apparent changes in the Australian community that Rudd and Labor were able to successfully tap.

Some in radio are now saying that the biggest trend in radio in recent years is that the talkback formula developed by legendary Sydney producer, John Brennan at 2UE and 2GB, is dead. “Struggle street”, the John Brennan formula for talkback radio in Australia, is out, and that means the yelling and hectoring style so beloved of Al Jones, Ray Hadley, Steve Price, Mike Carlton and the departed John Laws is no longer relevant, perhaps because its practitioners failed to understand the changed mood in Australia that last November’s Federal election marked.

That means the cynical strategy of plumbing the petty jealousies of people in western Sydney towards those in the east of the city, of sensationally targeting politicians and the political and social elites, is much less effective than it once was. (Is that also why the News Ltd tabloid, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, is also doing it tough, with circulation sliding?)

702 is more creative (an hour of comedy and music from 5.05pm to 6pm — on Fridays on Richard Glover’s drive program) helps make it the highest rating talking drive program in Sydney, as does around 25 minutes of chat between politicians, arts critics, journalists and life matters. Self improvement on Wednesday, where an obscure topic is discussed (classical Greek history for example) gets higher figures.

Even the derided Deborah Cameron on 702, a complete newbie when she started at the begging of 2008, is doing better than everyone bar the shouting Ray Hadley on 2GB. Adam Spencer in breakfast on 702 talks about maths puzzles, science and politics, as well as the joys and pitfalls of riding a bike to work at 4.30am. Alan Jones for example is driven to work.

But it’s the continuing decline of Alan Jones in Sydney breakfast radio, the most competitive and lucrative radio timeslot in the country, that best exemplifies what is happening.

Jones and his station are being stalked by the underfunded 702. It has fewer resources than the commercial AM talk and FM stations and yet it was the big improver in the most recent survey and is now a clear number two in the market behind 2GB.

The radio audience figures show that more people listened to 702 in the last survey than listened to 2GB. 589,000 people listened to 702 Monday to Friday according to the latest figures compared to 476,000 for 2GB.

2GB’s share was 11.6 Monday to Friday, down from 11.7: 702’s share was 10.6, up from 8.9. A year ago 2GB’s share in survey 4 of 2007 was 13.7 (13.6 in survey 4) and 702’s was 7.6 (down from 9.3 in Survey 4 and a low point).

Jones is still in front with a 13.8 share (15.2 previously) but Adam Spencer has closed to a 12.2 share, up from 10.1, indicating an enormous fall in the past year. In survey five last year he had a share of 17 (16.8 in survey four) and 702 breakfast’s share was 10.1, down from 11 in Survey 4.

And it’s significant that at a time when high oil and petrol prices, as well as food costs and interest rates should have provided fertile ground for Jones and Hadley, as well as Mike Carlton and Steve Price on Fairfax radio’s 2UE, they failed to make any impression. The ABC improved in the face of those “struggle street” issues.

Is that why Brendan Nelson is struggling with his 5 cents a litre off? Australians want to hear something substantive, not a band-aid or a crude appeal to our emotions or hip pocket, and they are prepared to listen?

Meanwhile, there was little discussion in The Sydney Morning Herald of the poor performance of Fairfax radio’s 2UE talk station in Sydney. 2UE’s poor performance was lumped into a final paragraph with other stations. Its share fell to 6.6 Monday to Friday from 7.1, a drop of half a point and its share in breakfast, mornings, afternoon and drive, all the important timeslots, fell.

Macquarie Radio’s easy music station, 2CH, now has a higher share than 2UE (at 6.7) Monday to Friday and outrates it in the morning and afternoon shifts. 2CH also has more listeners on weekends. Surely that was a story for the SMH news editors?

Peter Fray

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