ABC Grandstand Breakfast aired its last episode this morning, as Aunty axed the daily sports discussion show after three years.

“The decision was made to refocus our efforts in other areas,” a spokesman said this morning when asked why the program had been axed. “ABC Grandstand will still focus on sports reporting through local radio, through its digital platforms and through the ABC radio app.”

It’s understood no ABC staff will be made redundant as a result. One casual producer has lost regular work on the program, but the ABC is looking at using him elsewhere. Crikey understands Grandstand Breakfast‘s budget is being absorbed into the broader Grandstand operation. The digital radio channel airs live matches or replays most of the time, and this programming will likely fill the slot previously occupied by the Breakfast show in the short term.

Grandstand Breakfast was launched in 2012 as one of the ABC’s first forays into digital radio, with now redeployed commentator Francis Leach as host. He stepped away from the show last November, which has had a rotating cast of hosts ever since, including Chris Coleman, Al Crombie and Andrew Mayes. Regular listeners lauded its ad-free, broad coverage of sport, including substantial coverage of women’s sports, typically achieved through interviews with specialised correspondents. The three-hour show was produced by a very small team, but it failed to secure a strong listenership — along with ABC budget cuts, this is the crucial factor in its demise.

Also hobbling the program was its lack of natural promotion within the ABC network. Unlike later ABC digital radio ventures, like Double J, which is heavily promoted on Triple J, Grandstand as a whole suffers from a lack of natural backers within the ABC’s existing properties. Grandstand coverage is aired on local ABC radio stations during certain hours, but stations have been hesitant to promote the digital station, seeing it as a competitor to, rather than a natural extension of, local ABC coverage.

The ABC is currently conducting a review into its sports coverage, which is due to report by the end of the year. It’s expected to greatly impact Grandstand. There are big changes already afoot at the sports hub, with a focus on conversation with listeners online and through social media.

Australians have embraced digital radios, capable of broadcasting channels like Grandstand. Take-up is currently sitting at 24.5%, according to Commercial Radio Australia figures released in March. This is a high market share compared to global take-up, notes radio consultant and RadioInfo editor Steve Ahern. But of course, given the growing numbers of digital radio channels, as well as traditional channels and things like podcasts, the listening audience pie gets sliced thinner and thinner.

Ahern notes that Grandstand Digital appears to have a strong audience. “Something we know about sports radio is that live calls and big events get the biggest audience. That’s the primary draw. Then, if you have a big enough audience, talking about sports is the second most attractive sports format.

“What’s been great about Grandstand Digital is it’s given another channel for live sports.” The breadth of the channel — which is national and not tied to the most popular league in a given region — is good for listeners, he says. AFL fans in New South Wales, for example, can find high-quality commercial-free AFL content through the ABC.

“But obviously they’ve realised that while the live coverage is doing very well, a program talking about sport didn’t get a big enough audience to justify itself,” Ahern said.

Digital audio content is currently undergoing something of a boom. Earlier this year, Radio National began several podcast-only shows. It’s an increasingly competitive area — The Sydney Morning Herald also has started podcasts this year, in areas increasingly neglected by print coverage, like science journalism. The Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, started a podcast crime series in the wake of the success of American series Serial.

Asked if such developments made it even harder for digital radio to get a foothold, Ahern says he doesn’t think it is a zero-sum game. “How you deliver audio isn’t of great significance to the consumer,” he said. “Whether it’s on digital radio, terrestrial transmission or on-demand streaming, it doesn’t really matter. It’s smart for the ABC to be experimenting with podcasting, as that could be where the next big audience is.”

“The reality of modern broadcasting is more channels are available to more people.”

But one ABC insider said if Grandstand Breakfast‘s demise showed anything, it was how hard it is to get a digital channel off the ground without significant cross-promotion. “Digital radio won’t work in and of itself,” the insider said. Grandstand Breakfast, launched before properties like the ABC radio app and without a heavy focus on integration with social media, was, perhaps, a little ahead of its time.

Peter Fray

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