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The Mt Isa Survey: It just doesn't resonate

They say it’s a ground-breaker!

The first time official radio ratings have been undertaken in the Mount Isa market since 1937.

Unfortunately, for me, as a former owner of 4LM, the results are a disappointing outcome.

The recent figures simply confirm what I've been saying to whoever would listen to my concerns over the past six years.

“Putting New South Wales-centric talk programming into western Queensland will destroy the stations that are forced to take it.”

The outcome?

Well, unfortunately for the new owners, the figures now speak for themselves.

Once a proud powerhouse station, 4LM was the communications icon of north-west Queensland from the time it first went on air in the 60s to serve the wealthy, but remote mining community.

With 4LM as part of the Smart Radio Group back in October 2009, we decided to get some internal tracking done to see how well the station was performing under our style of management, and, how it was accepted by the listeners of Mount Isa and Cloncurry.

Granted, this was not an official survey, but it was structured to produce as accurate and realistic outcomes, as possible. We were not interested in skewed or inflated results.

At that time, we were programming 4LM as a music station, with a high percentage of local content and internal network programming, as well as some content from Prime Media on the Sunshine Coast.

The workday talk programming 4LM carried under our ownership was the Queensland-based current affairs program with Greg Cary from 9am till midday.

Those tracking results showed 4LM had a clear lead over what was then HOT-FM (now Hit102.5). HOT was then on satellite feed 24 hours a day from Townsville.

In 2011, the Smart Radio stations changed hands and the programming immediately changed too.

Now, six years of Ray Hadley, Alan Jones, Chris Smith, Ross Greenwood and more recently, Steve Price, talking throughout much of the day, primarily, on NSW-centric topics, with constant references to the NSW Premier, state issues, state government ministers and various NSW government departments, appears to have turned 4LM’s once-dominant market position around.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not condemning the quality of Macquarie Media’s talk programming, simply its lack of relevance to western Queensland.

Macquarie’s talk does a great job for 2GB in the Sydney market, for which it’s designed, and throughout NSW, as regional listeners are always eager to tune in to issues from their own state capital city that may affect them.

However, if the results of our 2009 tracking were accurate, as I believe they were, then the conversion of 4LM to an interstate ‘talker’, is, in my opinion, likely to have been a major catalyst that’s led to the station’s decline in the official ratings survey.

This once-dominant and highly profitable AM station, is now 33 points behind the FM music station, which, for a long time appeared to be firmly held in second place, through, what I believe was 4LM’s commitment to local content and state-based programming.

No matter how you try to spin it, with such a major differential between the two commercial stations, 4LM is now in a ‘difficult’ position in a marketplace it once dominated.

My real fear for its new owners, Resonate Broadcasting, is that these results may be replicated in every inland Queensland market where they have inherited this interstate talk programming.

It's an accepted axiom in U.S. broadcasting, particularly in small markets, that ‘trashed’ AM stations, being those stations whose ratings have been decimated for one reason or another, cannot be revived.

If an AM station has been ‘trashed’ – they say, it’s ‘trashed’ for good.

With a ‘trashed’ FM station, the better sound quality and greater market appeal will, at least, give an operator a fighting chance to get it back on its feet.

Now, admittedly, this is a U.S. small-market broadcasting axiom, which may or may not be applicable here in Australia and for Resonate’s sake, I certainly hope it’s not.

In this country, we have comparably far fewer commercial radio licenses issued in each regional market, so it’s just possible the chances of an AM being able to be resurrected are greater here.

However, right now, the prospect for real commercial radio competition in Mount Isa is looking rather bleak.

The directors of Resonate now need to roll their sleeves up, get back out into the marketplace and turn 4LM around by restoring its relevance within the local community.

My feeling is the sooner they can rid themselves of much of this irrelevant niche talk programming and broaden their appeal, the better their chances of long-term survival will be.

The Ray Hadley program, in my opinion, is simply too NSW-focused to have any broad appeal or specific relevance to rural listeners outside that state.

Certainly, every now and then, Hadley will cover a Queensland or a regional story, but then, quite understandably, he’s immediately back to stories of interest to his primary audience and from where the major revenue stream flows – Sydney.

Simply reading out the weather forecast for each of the relay markets doesn’t make a Sydney-centric talk program instantly relevant or of general interest to remote western Queensland towns.

Those Queensland stations, which have switched to John Laws, say Laws has greater appeal to regional audiences, because he appears to go out of his way to make his program fit the needs of country listeners.

Clearly, these recent Mount Isa survey figures must be a major wake-up call for Resonate Broadcasting.

As an outside observer, it appears to me that very little has really changed in their programming from the time Resonate acquired the additional Queensland regional stations nearly 18 months ago.

I can only surmise that Resonate must have some sort of contractual obligation to continue carrying the Sydney talk programming for a certain period of time as part of their purchase deal.

Otherwise, I feel sure they would have dropped it like a hot potato.

The directors of Resonate, Rex Morris and Sally Dobson, are experienced radio people.

I'm sure they’re frustrated and just waiting for the day they can change their programming to a format that will better suit their audiences and advertisers.

No doubt, there will be some very serious discussions around the Resonate board table in the immediate future to determine the direction their stations now need to go to start clawing their way out of the abyss.

The problem with being the second commercial station by such a large margin in a market, like Mount Isa, is that these ratings are now of little benefit as a sales tool.

I can tell you from experience that nobody wants to hear that you’re a distant second, no matter how hard you spin it.

Understandably, Hit102.5 will be out in the marketplace banging on loudly to every client, with a dollar to spend, about the heavily dominant role they now play in the Mount Isa market.

4LM has no alternative.

Its sales team will now have to go out and try to sell its niche position as an ‘influential talker’.

In a multi-station market, like Sydney or Melbourne, being a niche talker is not too difficult to sell.

Even if you have a small, but respectable, percentage of the audience, those markets will have enough ‘sets of ears’ listening in to attract reasonable revenue.

Unfortunately, for Resonate, the Mount Isa service area is a mid-sized market of approximately 30,000; not big enough to comfortably support a niche talk station when your opposition is playing broad-appeal music.

So, in analyzing the results, let’s make a reasonable assumption and say 30% of people are listening to some form of radio during peak times, like Breakfast.

That's going to see around 9000 people tuned in throughout the entire Mount Isa licence area, to which we then apply the ratings.

The Hit102.5 story is easy: with over 47% of the market, they can claim around 4200 people are listening. It's an easy sell and a pretty respectable audience number in regional terms.

4LM, on the other hand, has to go to its potential advertisers with a story of how influential, affluent and sophisticated its 1300 (approx.) listeners are. That's going to be a lot tougher sell, particularly if your rates aren’t much different from the #1 station.

My reading of the situation is this.

The NSW talk programming is, and has been, a millstone around 4LM's neck and while it continues to occupy such a dominant role in its broadcast day, it's going to make selling the heritage station pretty tough, particularly with these ratings now in existence.

If the station had access to a Queensland-based talk format, well, it may be somewhat different, because of the state-based allegiance listeners have, but such a beast no longer exists.

The job that Resonate now faces is to find a new format that will work effectively on AM, and yet, will offer a sufficiently different alternative to HIT102.5 that listeners will start flooding back.

This position is not impossible, if it’s done skillfully, as there are still only two commercial radio stations in Mount Isa for listeners to choose from, and, in most markets, the figures show that listeners prefer to listen to commercial radio.

Of course, in Mount Isa, the current market leader has the advantage of FM, and that is going to make the battle somewhat harder for the AM challenger, but, a turnaround is possible if Resonate goes back to basics and starts rebuilding a truly locally-relevant station.

The problem with this scenario is that it will take a player, not only with commitment and creativity, but with deep pockets as well.

They’ll also have to be constantly looking over their shoulder, as Hit102.5’s owner, Southern Cross Austereo, can outspend 4LM any time the AMer becomes troublesome.

Personally, I’d love to see Resonate succeed in reviving 4LM; the local community deserves it.

Resonate is a small player, as my company was, and I have nothing but admiration for small companies that have the guts to get up and give it a go, especially in tough markets, like western Queensland.

However, as they stand right now with their current programming, I am concerned that Resonate finds itself in a very tricky position indeed.

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