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Fair Go, Sport. Macquarie needs a Goal

Why do I feel that ‘Macquarie Sport’ is yet another wild ‘shot in the dark’ from MRN.

Each time the company rolls out a new format, they seem to be relying heavily on the old Bullwinkle Moose strategy - ‘this time for sure.’

With its latest offering, MRN is, no doubt, trying desperately to patch up those self-inflicted wounds suffered when converting their music stations in Brisbane and Melbourne to ‘Talking Lifestyle’ nearly eighteen months ago.

Back then, everyone with an ounce of common sense in the industry knew that introducing the talk format across three cities was a disaster looking for somewhere to land.

… and it did, with a giant thump!

So, when it finally dawned on MRN that a format change was needed, instead of retreating to safe ground with a low cost music program, which would have given the network time to regroup, they chose instead to rush headlong back into the flaming wreckage of their once-great radio stations, to add even more fuel to the fire.

Some may call that ‘a ballsy move’; I see it more along the lines of ‘biting off more than you can chew’.

However, to be fair, I’m not sure that, this time around, it was entirely their own fault. Business people are always looking for what they perceive to be profitable opportunities

Given this, I suspect the decision makers were seduced into take the sports gamble by people with vested interests, both from inside and outside the network.

Those, who love sports broadcasting, can be extremely passionate about it, and, most are blindly convinced that any form of radio sports will ultimately be wildly successful with listeners and generate rivers of gold.

Unfortunately, broadcasting history is littered with failed radio sports formats.

Nonetheless, sometimes it’s hard not be swept up in the passion of true believers and it would not be unreasonable to expect that, given their commitment to NRL and their pressing need to replace Talking Lifestyle, MRN’s decision makers may not have taken much convincing to be sold on the sports path.

But, changes in commercial radio should never be done on a hunch.

The fallout from the failure of ‘Talking Lifestyle’ should have been a warning to take a more prudent ‘steady as she goes’ approach.

Before launching into an ambitious project like Macquarie Sport, all the factors should have been considered, not the least of which was the extremely low audience base, from which they would have to build.

Macquarie Sport is an expensive format that is likely to be compounding, not solving, Macquarie’s revenue and ratings woes.

With several surveys behind them, the emerging pattern is clear.

The new format is not only continuing to hold the ratings of the Melbourne and Brisbane stations around their historic lows, but has now scuttled their former ‘Talking Lifestyle’ flagship station in Sydney, with 2UE losing around 40% of its audience in Survey 3 alone.

The ratings at 954, comfortably withstood the ‘Talking Lifestyle’ change, but have now fallen to a share of just 1.7, wallowing amongst the dregs of Harbour City ratings, with ABC Newsradio and Radio National.

2UE had managed to remain almost unscathed by the move to ‘Talking Lifestyle’, because the format change was little more than a tweak from news/talk to soft talk.

Unfortunately for Macquarie, while sport may also be a talk format, it doesn’t have universal talk appeal.

In reality, it’s its own niche format, appealing to an entirely different niche audience from general talk.

So, many of 2UE’s Talking Lifestyle listeners have clearly taken a hike.

When you have loyal listeners deserting a station in droves, it is confirmation of what happens when you impose an extreme format change.

The Melbourne and Brisbane stations had it 18 months ago when Macquarie threw out their Magic music format in favour of Talking Lifestyle; the listeners left the building.

Surely, MRN can’t be too surprised that the same outcome has now been repeated in Sydney.

Despite this, it’s not all ‘doom and gloom’ for Macquarie Sport.

Survey 3 in Melbourne and Brisbane, showed a very healthy bump in the afternoon Drive shift.

This doesn’t mean Macquarie Sport’s programming suddenly gets a whole lot better at this time of day. What it indicates to me is that listeners are tuning in when they leave work to get their quick fix of sports news, and, find out what’s been happening in the world of sport, during the work day.

While these figures are a long way from being ‘wonderful’ or a turnaround, percentage-wise, these dual city bumps are well above an anomaly.

For Macquarie Sport, these figures could at least be a glimmer of hope for the format, if they are interpreted and acted on properly.

However, in reality, the network’s figures are nowhere near achieving a financially viable base for the format. They’re probably still just listeners sampling the product to see if they like it.

To me, it seems clear that the lack of Macquarie Sport promotion in all three cities, suggests that the board of MRN hasn’t been gullible enough to commit millions of dollars to drive the new format, when in relative terms there are only a handful of listeners.

Funding for a new format is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, and, the question for the board becomes ‘how long do you sit on your hands before you put one of them in your pocket and spend some serious money on promotion?’

That’s a complex issue because Macquarie Sport is probably not going to get up and run by itself.

The clock is ticking, and, if an expensive format, like 24-hour sport, is going to succeed within a realistic timeframe, the promotional budget is always going to be a critical factor.

Based on this glimmer of hope coming from the Drive timeslot, MRN should be funnelling whatever promotional and programming funds they have available into the afternoon Drive shift to try to consolidate the recent audience gains.

Properly applied, those additional funds could go a long way towards locking in those listeners who have so far just been sampling.

They also need to concentrate on getting their programming right, then promote it in whatever media their research shows will give them the greatest reach and best ‘bang for buck’.

Smart operators have known from the very early days of radio and television that you first get your programming right to build an audience, then the dollars will follow; it never happens the other way around.

Afternoon Drive is clearly the daypart during which the greatest number of people want to sample Macquarie Sport in Melbourne and Brisbane, and MRN must capitalise on it.

The biggest mistake MRN could make at this stage is to start saying ‘wow, drive is going great, let’s try to get breakfast moving too.’

That’s a rookie mistake and while some vested interests will no doubt be pushing for it, it’s a trap that the powers-that-be should not fall into.

There’s enough high-quality competition in Breakfast in every metro market already.

An under-funded ‘Johnny come lately’ is not going to make any significant inroads into the breakfast ratings any time soon, so Macquarie would be best advised to take the gains from Drive, which is a time slot in flux with so many changes at different networks, and, at least for the time being, leave their breakfast show to sink or swim on its own merits.

If the recently-increased number of Drivetime listeners wants to listen to the Macquarie Sport Breakfast Show on their way to work, they will; they know it’s there, they know where to find it and they’ll figure it out.

Now, I’m just spit-balling here, but I’d guess that, in the wake of the Talking Lifestyle debacle, the new Macquarie Sport is probably operating on a ‘shoestring’, certainly when compared with its big sister stations 2GB, 3AW and 4BC.

The very thought of spending up big to make the sports network fire is probably very low on the priority list.

However, if MRN can consolidate their Survey 3 gains in Drive, the network will have, at least, a small story to tell potential advertisers and agencies, but Survey 4 will need to deliver the same or better figures to convince advertisers.

If MRN correctly interprets these latest survey figures and can consolidate or even build on the gains in Drive, the network’s other dayparts could be expected to grow on the basis of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’

While they need to focus on locking in those Drive figures, the station can’t afford to take its eye off any of their other programs either. The quality of the program offering must always continue to improve, because you can’t sacrifice general program quality to prop up a single daypart.

So, let’s turn to the Big Question: After Survey 3, is Macquarie Sport destined to be a winner?

Unfortunately, I doubt it; the odds simply are not in its favour.

The way I see it is this.

The audience base, which, unfortunately, MRN created with Talking Lifestyle, is just too small to build from in any reasonable timeframe, even given Survey 3’s nice little bump for Melbourne and Brisbane.

I am also doubtful that MRN has the expertise to be able to massage the sports format for optimum results without bringing in some heavy-hitting outside help.

One of the biggest problems facing free-to-air broadcasters today, in both radio and television, is that shareholders, aren’t prepared to invest for the long haul, and that has become a big problem for media management in general, not just at MRN.

Stakeholders want any program format to instantly connect with the public and be a viable contender in months, not years.

If it doesn’t click; it’s gone.

It there’s ever been a format that is really going to be a ‘long haul’ challenge, it’s Macquarie Sport.

A format, like this, coming off a miniscule audience base in two out of three markets is a project that needs a lot of money for production and promotion, and an unswerving patience and confidence to see it through.

If the MRN Board has had the nod from its major shareholders, Fairfax and John Singleton, indicating that they’re fully committed to this sports format no matter what, then the Board may be able to stick with it for the long term.

But, if like most shareholders today, neither wants to wait for profitability four or five years down the track, then I fear, Macquarie Sport is destined to become just another horse on the MRN merry-go-round.

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