As jobs are cut at talkback stations across the country, the number of voices on air has dropped significantly. But are we heading for national talkback stations networked across state boundaries?

Two weeks ago, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission gave approval to a merger between Fairfax and Macquarie radio. The resulting AM radio behemoth will control the dominant talkback stations in Sydney and Melbourne and provides a way for managers to cut costs and streamline operations. The speed and cohesiveness of the redundancy program has been striking. This merger had been well planned in advance.

Some of the deepest cuts have come in Brisbane, the home of underperforming former Fairfax-owned talkback station 4BC, where high-profile presenters (along with station management) have been turfed out. Breakfast presenters Ian Skippen and Loretta Ryan, along with mornings host Patrick Condren, were some of the 18 people leaving the station. Replacing them is a host of shock jocks from Sydney. The Courier-Mail has reported 4BC’s breakfast slot will be filled in by 2GB’s Alan Jones, while mornings will be filled by Ray Hadley (also from 2GB). The afternoon and drive shows will continue to be hosted in Brisbane, but evenings will also be filled by content from Sydney, with Ross Greenwood’s Money News program airing from 6pm and the evening show syndicated from 2UE.

It’s a courageous move for the new radio entity, as attempts to syndicate talkback in Australia nationally have a chequered history.

As FM radio developed in the 1980s, most AM stations began to focus on talkback. But unlike FM, there have been few attempts to air talkback nationally. In 1986, Kerry Packer launched the Consolidated Broadcasting Network — a joint talkback venture between Sydney’s 2UE and Melbourne’s 3AK. It hosted some big names, including veteran ABC radio host Phillip Adams. But it was a commercial failure. Australian media columnist and experienced broadcaster Mark Day in 2012 said his experience with CBN taught him “first and above all else” that “talk radio relying on news and current affairs must be local”. “People may listen to comedy or specific music interviews and not care where it’s coming from, but not news,” he wrote. “They want to know what’s happening over their own back fence and couldn’t give a rat’s about traffic jams in another city.”

Others Crikey spoke to for this piece echoed the sentiment. A highly placed radio insider said there’d been “no outstanding successes” in syndicating talkback nationally. Others involved in the production of talkback radio told Crikey there was a tendency for the most successful segments to be highly local in focus. For example, in Melbourne, 3AW’s drive presenter, Tom Elliott, has a “Councilwatch” segment keeping an eye on local councils. “People prefer to call about stuff that is happening to them,” one insider said.

And attempts to broaden the geographical coverage of talkback has often been met with resistance from listeners. When 3AW wrapped up its locally produced overnights program in January in order to network content from Sydney, listeners took to the Facebook page of Nightline to voice their discontent with the move.

“I wouldn’t think they could garner more audience with this decision-making. I would think they would assume their audience would go down. But it could be a more profitable network to run nonetheless.”

But, others noted, the local nature of talkback isn’t the most important thing in making the format work. One ex-producer says that it isn’t necessarily geography that makes listeners stay, but a connection with the broadcaster. “Talkback works when you relate to the person asking the question … It’s all about the common ground you pitch to.” Pointing to the success of Alan Jones’ recent foray into the Brisbane market, the source said “listeners can connect with Alan Jones the broadcaster”.

“If you don’t feel like the host is someone who shares your values then you won’t call up and share your experience.”

All those Crikey spoke to agreed the driving factor behind the syndication of Jones and Hadley was financial. One veteran radio insider told us past failures aside, he suspected people would continue trying to syndicate talkback as long as huge savings could stand to be made.

Talkback radio is very expensive to produce. The need to screen calls and adapt to changing conditions means it can take twice as many people to put together a talkback program as an equivalent music-based or entertainment show on FM radio. To boot, talkback listeners tend to be over 55, with the strongest contingent over 65. The advertising convention is that people at that age are unlikely to significantly change their consumption habits. This means it takes scale to make money off talkback — something only 3AW in Melbourne and 2GB in Sydney (now both under the Fairfax-Macquarie banner) are able to do easily. Stations in smaller markets like 4BC in Brisbane, 6PR in Perth or 5AA in Adelaide (not part of the new super-network but owned by Nova) are marginally profitable at best. They tend to be strongly challenged for their older audience by local ABC channels, and for their younger audience by music channels on the FM band. Selling advertising on a national platform also has its challenges — local car dealers or restaurants are less likely to be part of giveaways and promotions if the audience is not local.

Of the stations now owned by the group, 4BC in particular has been struggling in the ratings in recent years. A low-rating network offers opportunity for experimentation without fears of a ratings collapse. Several of those Crikey spoke to say Macquarie would be foolish to change anything on 3AW, because that station already rates so well, and Melbourne talkback is markedly different from Sydney talkback. There’s perceived to be more of a natural fit between Sydney and Brisbane, especially with Jones, who grew up in Queensland and hosted a show there recently in the lead-up to the recent election.

Fusion Strategy’s Steve Allen, however, notes it’s risky to muck around with any metropolitan station. Unlike regional markets, where listeners have often had to endure content out of Sydney, listeners in metropolitan markets have alternatives. Allan is sceptical audience numbers could go up as a result of the changes, which are accompanied by a clean-out of the station’s staff and some of its most high-profile talent. But Macquarie, Allen says, is playing with the numbers. “And the financial numbers seem to matter a lot more than the ratings ones.”

“I wouldn’t think they could garner more audience with this decision-making. I would think they would assume their audience would go down. But it could be a more profitable network to run nonetheless.”

Peter Fray

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