Shock jocks are people whose need for attention outstrips their talent. To stop us noticing their inability to sing, dance, act, tell a funny joke or even put together a logical argument – they resort to outrage and insult. They’ve spent so long burying insecurity under aggression and put-downs, they’ve managed to make a career out of it.
Of course, shock jocks usually aren’t short on listeners (including myself sometimes).
The appeal of the shock jock has nothing to with logic or reason — it’s all about displaced anger. Fury sells, enraged talk radio hosts have a history of both spectacular ratings and powerful political influence in this country.
But the recent Kyle furore comes at a time when the position of the shock jock on our airwaves is becoming increasingly precarious.
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Just look at the recent history: we had the retirement of John Laws and Mike Carlton, the death of Stan Zemanek, cash-for-comment, the dismal ratings of Steve Price, the outing of Alan Jones, the rise of online media, the end of Howard and the emergence of radio nice-guys Hamish and Andy – who trade in fun and self-deprecation rather than nastiness.
This year, we can add this apparent new sensitivity to the behaviour of anyone or anything on the airwaves to the list. This manufactured outrage about Kyle or Chaser or Hey Hey, is created by the media, about the media, so we’ll consume more media.
Also, it could be said the younger, user-generated and more democratic world of the new media landscape may just not be compatible with broadcasters who want to preach, insult and patronise their listeners.
Crikey has put together a list comparing and ranking shows across the five major cities from their average ratings across all six surveys this year — here they are in order of most popular:
Shows with the highest average audience rating in their respective city in 2009 (average ratings share in brackets):
- Hamish Blake and Andy Lee — Austereo Drive — Comedy/Music (all capital cities around 20% average)
- Ross Stevenson and John Burns — Breakfast 3AW — Light Talk — Melbourne — 19.9%
- Bob Francis — 5AA Evening — Shock Jock — Adelaide — 19.8%
- Ian Blackney — Mix Fm Afternoons — Pop/Rock Music — Perth — 17.9%
- Alan Jones/Jason Morrison — 2GB Breakfast — Shock Jock/Current Affairs — Sydney — 17.4%
- Jane Doyle, Keith Conlon, Tony Pilkington and Jon Blake 5aa Breakfast — Light News Talk — Adelaide — 16.8%
- Ray Hadley — 2GB Mornings — Shock Jock — Sydney — 16.78%
- Derek Guille– 774 Evenings – Light Talk – Melbourne -16.74%
- Craig Weston — Mix Fm Mornings — Pop/Rock Music — Perth — 16.71%
- Neil Mitchell — 3AW Mornings — Current Affairs — Melbourne — 16.3%
- Red Symons — 774 Breakfast — Light Talk/Comedy — Melbourne — 15.98%
- Peter Goers — 891 Evenings — Light Talk — Adelaide — 15.97%
- Joss Dwyer, Lisa Shaw and Fred Botica — Mix fm Breakfast — Pop/Rock Music — Perth — 15.5%
- Bruce Mansfield and Phillip Brady — 3AW Evenings — Light Talk — Melbourne — 15%
- John Kenneally and Tony McCarthy — 891 Breakfast — Light Talk — Adelaide — 15%
- Matthew Abraham and David Bevan — 891 Mornings — Current Affairs — Adelaide — 14.9%
- “Cat” — Nova Afternoons — Music — Brisbane — 14.8%
- Jon Faine — 774 Mornings — Current Affairs — Melbourne — 14.7%
- Michael Christian — Fox FM Afternoons — Music — Melbourne — 14.6%
- Eoin Cameron — 720 Breakfast — Light Talk — Perth — 14.5%
(This is still only a rough guide to most popular programs – this doesn’t take into account the strength of the market or actual numbers of listeners, nor does it take into account national-programs with national-audiences.)
The shock jock now seems to appeal only to the over 45’s in a few select, but very still popular time-slots in Sydney and Adelaide. The life span of the angry, talkback radio might only be as long as its aging listeners. While shock jock radio might be starting to lose its popularity, talk radio as a whole isn’t — a less opinionated, chatty style of talk radio is clearly emerging as a ratings winner.
So far this year, eight out of the ten highest rating programs in Melbourne and seven out of the top ten in Sydney and Adelaide have been talkback programs, only in the chilled-out tropical cities of Perth and Brisbane do pop-music stations still dominate. Programs led by charismatic, relatively non-offence personalities who can cover both light and heavy topics are usually the highest rating on metropolitan talk radio stations; shows like Red Symons and Derek Guille on 774, Burns and Stevenson on 3AW, Adam Spencer on 702 and the 5AA and 891 Breakfast show are the programs pulling big numbers in competitive markets.
In Perth and Brisbane, the highest rating talk programs are in breakfast and evening slots with a mix of light current affairs, music, entertainment and human-interest type talkback.
There are several reasons for the success of ‘light chat’. For starters, radio stations aimed at older audiences have been much less affected by the threat of new forms of media and in particular, music downloading. Also, the very interactive and instant nature of talkback radio is yet to be replicated by anything online, if anything it is extremely adaptable to the needs of younger audiences. The intimacy of feeling part of a real, live, personal conversation is almost unique to the medium of radio and will take some time for new media to replace.
Successful radio doesn’t have to be about confrontation and venting your spleen — it’s also about being good company in a culture in which are becoming both more individualised and lonelier.
It’s a formula which has not gone unnoticed at the ABC. A few years back, management moved to change the format on local radio from hard-hitting current affairs to magazine style with a mix of human-interest, light news and Oprah-style talkback topics. There has been, however, mixed results, with audience gains in Sydney and losses in Melbourne since the programming change.
So if there was a new national radio station launched next year, based on what’s worked in the last 12 months — you’d probably need a talk format aimed at a 35-55 demographic with a male duo hosting the brekkie program, music in the afternoon, a sports show at night and a drive show with a neat mix of hard-hitting and human interest topics. You’d probably also want to link-up with the branding of a mainstream news or news-commentary site or find a good-place to put your podcasts and run online discussions.
As for a shock jock, perhaps as a guest commentator or co-host or perhaps, hosting a weekly Sunday morning show — but it’s probably just too much of gamble to employ one as a full time host.
Those who trade in being deliberately offensive may have already had their day in the sun.
Luke Williams is a former Triple J “Hack” journalist