It’s 10:13am on Tuesday and a caller has something to say about missing Fremantle Docker Harley Bennell’s latest ankle injury, so SEN radio host Kevin “KB” Bartlett puts him to air. “Connective tissue is a little bit like a ligament strain,” the man starts. We’re not told what, if any, medical qualifications the caller holds and unsure whether the diagnosis that follows is medically sound, but the man certainly sounds sure of himself. On sports radio confidence counts for plenty. Barlett’s co-host on this segment has just claimed he doesn’t want to share his thoughts on Bennell, lest he sound racist, so the sudden appearance of the show’s own Dr Nick Riviera actually counts as welcome relief.
This is sports talk, SEN style: a strange and verbose mix of old-timey front bar wisdom, sporting group therapy, crowd-sourced medical conjecture and an ever-churning footy rumour mill. Bartlett is a master of the format – a 403-game AFL legend who can muster an emphatic opinion on almost any sport topic thrown at him, at the same time skilfully cutting off nonsense-spouting callers and guests alike. An hour after the Bennell discussion he’ll wonder at length whether footballers who take their mouthguards out before kicking at goal are more accurate at taking set-shots.
Bartlett isn’t quite the archetype of the Melbourne sports talk host. That would be his long-time colleague Mark Fine, an SEN lifer and broadcasting all-rounder who’ll not only recite the guernsey number of an obscure VFL footballer, but tell listeners which opponent was trying to spoil him on his 1983 Scanlens trading card. If there is a human being currently retaining more football facts than “Finey”, he or she has yet to surface on the talkback lines. When the calls flood in after Richmond losses, Fine whips fans into a frenzy and then deftly talks them off the ledge.
Bartlett’s show, Hungry for Sport, is wedged between SEN’s higher-profile breakfast and drive-time line-ups – programming that often sets the sports media agenda in Melbourne and helped establish the station as Melbourne’s dominant weekday sports talk destination. SEN offer an unending, AFL-heavy stream of topical interviews, loose and often slightly unhinged talkback and forthright, sometimes deliberately provocative editorial. Footy minutiae is turned over and inspected to almost comical degrees.
The question now, though, is how many people in sports-obsessed Melbourne are actually still tuning in.
Late in 2016 SEN completed a high-profile overhaul of its day-time programming schedule, from which Bartlett’s perennial one-man show was the only to survive with its format and personnel intact. High profile breakfast show signings Garry Lyon and Hamish McLachlan arrived with much fanfare to join that program’s only survivor, Tim Watson. Drive-time host Daniel Harford departed for Racing and Sport National. Veterans Francis Leach and Andy Maher were shuffled around the schedule. Yet the rebooted, flagship breakfast show has basically tanked in its first few months.
March’s first radio survey revealed a disastrous Melbourne audience share of 2.5 for SEN since the arrival of Lyon and McLachlan, an alarming drop from 3.8 the survey prior and well down from the 5.0 the station is after. With its old line-up, SEN held a 4.6 share in August 2016, right as football season reached fever pitch. Remarkably, among those leapfrogging SEN in the last survey was ABCFM – a classical music station.
The lingering question here is what appeal these endless weekday sports radio yak-athons still hold
In the Melbourne radio world, breakfast is king. Research released by Roy Morgan in August 2016 suggested more than half of all Australians listen to breakfast radio, making it the most popular and lucrative slot in the schedule. SEN’s new strategy, and advertising rates, will live or die on the ratings of its morning show.
The qualifying factor in SEN’s current problem, and not an insignificant one, is that the first survey of 2017 was conducted in the period before the start of the men’s AFL season, at which point the station tends to come into its own. Yet industry veterans who have spoken to Guardian Australia say that if the downward trend continues in the next survey, heads might roll.
The lingering question here is what appeal these endless weekday sports radio yak-athons still hold for Melburnians, particularly outside of AFL season’s 30-week grip on the city’s attention. In an era in which talk has never been so cheap, nor opinion-driven media content more ubiquitous, do sports fans want to listen to re-heated versions of the same debates they’ve probably read hours or sometimes days prior via social media and blogs, where every user is a self-styled shock jock? And do we really want more from the same voices who dominate sports TV?
Assessing the appeal or otherwise of sports radio content is one thing, taking stock of the waning Australian media economy which underpins the SENs of the world is another. Though the highest-rating radio shows retain a certain cachet with advertisers, like all traditional mediums, radio is starting to feel what creative industries now euphemistically term “disruption”. In addition to traditional radio dials, audiences are now fragmented across live streams, apps and podcasts.
Radio has actually weathered the storm better than most mediums, but listening habits are changing more drastically now than at any point in the last 30 years. A July 2015 report by the federal department of communications identified the clear threat to traditional stations posed by the rapid adoption of streaming technologies such as Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora – a trend countered only in part by live streaming services and apps created by old-fashioned operators like SEN. Some in the industry claim newer technologies like Facebook Live and the dedicated, one-stop portals for the likes of the NBA and UFC also present challenges for independent multimedia outlets.
For any radio station now geared towards serious consumers of sport, podcasts are the fastest-growing threat, because so may of them offer specialised, innovative, slickly-produced and often far more irreverent and absorbing analysis than the strictures of regulated, advertising-driven FM/AM radio will allow. In Melbourne, SEN is also subject to the same woes as any other footy-focused sports media outlet: AFL football generates the city’s biggest sports stories, for sure, but the league and its clubs are themselves now among the primary distributors of that news, often withholding content to boost traffic on their own platforms.
Granting that a kind of existential crisis does indeed loom for sports radio stations, in the last six months SEN’s profit-making parent company, Pacific Star, have elected to throw money at the problem. Last year their board appointed FM radio veteran Cathy Thomas as general manager of broadcasting, giving her a mandate for change whose most obvious symbol is the high-profile breakfast show and its cast of big names. Long known as “Morning Glory”, it now goes by the FM-flavoured “Garry, Tim and Hamish”.
Also symptomatic of that Triple M-ification of the station was the recent replacement of former Fitzroy and Adelaide coach Robert Shaw – a shrewd football analyst and decade-long co-host of SEN’s Sunday morning show – with recently-retired Brownlow medalist Adam Cooney. Yet ironically, it is FM radio where we see the clearest signs of radio listeners actually abandoning non-stop chatter: “Less talk, more great music”, they promise.
What’s clear is that SEN’s one-off splurge on big-name talent for a single blockbuster show has heightened the stakes dramatically, carrying considerable risk, and it’s a strategy whose success or otherwise carries broader implications for sports media in Melbourne. Failure might even suggest that full-time, dedicated weekday Melbourne sports radio chat in its traditional form is an early-2000s relic whose days are numbered.
As SEN attempts its high-wire act, salient lessons regarding the brutal market conditions for sports radio ventures are not hard to find in the short history of EON sports radio, the Melbourne-based startup network launched by entrepreneur John Wall and controversial businessman and music industry veteran Glenn Wheatley in July 2016. Named after Wheatley’s 1980s FM radio station, EON was initially billed as as Australia’s first 24-hour digital only national sports radio station – an exclusive Australian radio home for English Premier League broadcasts, with generalist Australian sports talk programs and local A-League and NBL game coverage thrown in.
From the outset, Wall said he considered the DAB+ station a strong chance of breaking even within six to 12 months by following a strategy of limiting on-air talent costs, cashing in on the appeal of the Premier League and attracting a broader, national audience. “What we want to be is the Fox Sports for digital radio,” Wall told Australian Financial Review upon the station’s launch. “We think we’ve got some good on-air talent and we will have some good sponsors as well. And latest numbers have 3.5 million Australians listening to digital radio [in capital cities], so we think a 24-hours sports network talking about all the big sports, and some other ones as well, can be a success.”
No such luck. Wall told Guardian Australian that within months of launch it became apparent EON’s advertising revenue would go nowhere close to covering his heavy investment within the timeframe he’d hoped; advertising agencies adopting a “wait and see” approach on the new station weren’t immediately sold on its exact audience. Within the first six months of launch Wall was looking for a new owner for the passion project, and by the time he’d sold to a management group including EON general manager and SEN founder Danny Staffieri in March 2017, Wall had burnt through in excess of $1.5m of his own money, and was paying some full-time staff out of his own pocket.
“It was a lot of money,” Wall says. “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. You’ve got to get your listeners up so that you can deal with agencies, but agencies have a responsibility to their customers not to speculate with their advertising money, so they wait for the ratings to come out.” In addition, EON’s in-house ad sales team couldn’t attract enough backers to cover the shortfall. The early listenership struggle might also be explained by EON’s initial carrot of live EPL broadcasts, which seemed amiss: what Australian fan is laying in bed listening to games but not watching them?
These things take time. You need to invest and build your audience, then the advertisers comeDanny Staffieri
Spooked by the turbulence, key staff including breakfast show host and former netball star Bianca Chatfield walked, while media reports emerged that Chatfield and a number of high-profile on-air hosts and contributors were owed significant wage debts. Wall admits those staffing upheavals were “completely understandable”, while Staffieri told Guardian Australia that the company is “working through all of those now”, that all contributors who are still owed money will “absolutely” be paid in full, and that he considers EON’s prospects bright as it attempts to establish a regular and sustainable audience.
“We think we’ve got something pretty unique,” Staffieri says. “We’re very buoyant about the future of the business. These things take time. You need to invest and build your audience, then the advertisers come.” The first survey of 2017 showed EON’s audience has climbed to an accumulated total of 44,000 listeners per week, behind digital market leaders like the “BUDDHA” chill-out channel, and the in-store radio stations piped through to customers of major retailers Coles and Chemist Warehouse.
“It’s quite a hard graft,” Wall says. “Unless you’ve got the audience (immediately) it’s hard to monetise the content through agencies. I just wasn’t prepared to hang on for another 12 months, which had nothing to do with the product itself. I love the business, and they’re good people. I’m proud of the business, and proud of the product. As a listener I enjoyed it, but the commercial side was particularly hard. We did it tough there for a few months but I really tried to keep it going as long as I could on the funding we had, but it’s not an easy thing to do, to start a digital-only sports radio station. It’s a very simple business challenge: the revenue didn’t come as fast as the costs did.”
If EON’s public battle has provided the Melbourne media rumour-mill with plenty of fodder, it is also a reasonably predictable path for an ambitious digital startup. Melbourne had no pre-existing culture of digital sports radio listenership (in October 2015 the ABC axed its Francis Leach-led Grandstand digital sports breakfast show after it failed to attract an audience) and radio listeners remain creatures of habit. Former EON staff liken the digital radio audience shortfall as bearing the hallmarks of Blu-Ray’s struggles in the Netflix era; a decent enough idea battling against newer, possibly better ones.
Explanations for the stalling popularity of an AFL-focused radio station like SEN are also not hard to muster: in football’s new age of enlightenment, female voices are largely missing and many of the others sound the same; on-air guests and advertising spots are often grating and blokey (phrases like “The Diamond guys: for blokes who love women who love diamonds” are surely burnt into the cerebral cortex of SEN listeners); even breakfast errs testosterone-heavy, and Lyon’s most publicised on-air moment so far was his suggestion that AFLW star Erin Phillips had endangered her infant children carrying them onto the ground after Adelaide’s grand final win; unsurprisingly, content varies very little in tone throughout the day.
SEN are in some sense victims of their own success, because the all-encompassing footification of Melbourne radio means they’re no longer particularly differentiated in the battle for morning listeners. Almost every major FM breakfast crew now calls upon an AFL player or prominent footy figure on a daily basis, while ex-footballers Brendan Fevola (Fox FM) and Jonathan Brown (Nova) now occupy co-host slots. SEN perfected their format but at some stage stopped improving it to the extent of broadening the station’s appeal.
Whether you think the contrasting battles of SEN and EON sound alarm bells for around-the-clock sports radio in Melbourne really depends on whether they’re taken as isolated business cases or viewed as the end result of undeniable and irreversible market forces. Let’s throw the lines open to callers, shall we?