Big Interview: Tom Malone On Nine’s Plan To Inject Health Back Into Radio

Tom Malone, Head of Radio, at 3AW studio in Docklands. 6 November 209. The Age News. Photo: Eddie Jim.

It’s been a big few months for Nine Radio – formerly Macquarie Media. Ally Burnie spoke with newly anointed radio chief Tom Malone to chart its history

It all started in October following Nine’s acquisition of Macquarie Media, attaining a 90 per cent stake in the radio broadcaster.

Roughly two weeks later, then-CEO Adam Lang was made redundant.

A week after that, the program changes, internal staff shakeups and presenter shifts started coming. First, 3AW operations director Stephen Beers was shown the door. Next, Nine’s director of sport Tom Malone was appointed as MD of the radio division. Following that, Macquarie Media’s national executive producer Michael Thompson left the business after more than 11 years. Former Sky News editor Greg Byrnes was then installed as the new head of content. Money News program host Ross Greenwood was next to leave.

Then, the new programs were announced. In December, the radio broadcaster launched a dedicated sports show, Wide World of Sports, on 2GB and 4BC, covering the latest events in the sporting world four nights a week. And just today, Nine has dropped Macquarie Sports Radio in favour of a new music format playing 70s, 80s and 90s music across its stations in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, along with digital radio in Perth.

Amidst all that, Macquarie Media rebranded to Nine Radio. And that probably doesn’t even tick off all of the changes.

Yes, it’s been a busy couple of months for Nine Radio, but it’s not been for nothing. As 2020 kicks off, Nine is hoping to cement itself as the number one news talk network in the country.

Chatting to B&T, Nine Radio’s MD Tom Malone discusses what the year ahead looks like for the radio broadcaster, and how Nine plans to inject some health back into a struggling market.

Rebranding the parent company

On how the name change from Macquarie Media to Nine Radio has been received, Malone said it’s been positive.

He stressed, however, that it’s not about rebranding the stations that fell under the Macquarie Media banner, but rather the parent company.

“What [the rebrand] really enables us to do is to hero the local brand like 2GB in Sydney or 3AW in Melbourne. We’re not seeking to replace, we’re seeking to enhance their presence by making the brand more generic,” said Malone.

The big vision 

Malone’s big vision for Nine Radio is, in his words, to strengthen its position as the number one news talk network in Australia.

He also plans to not only drive a greater share of audience in the 40-plus demographic but to also attract younger listeners. How? Through engaging with Nine Radio’s audience “around what’s important to them in their community”.

“Typically people start engaging in talkback radio once they settle down or have children. They start becoming engaged in issues like schools, health care, insurance, self-funded retirees and so on. [That’s when] they start converting to talkback radio and that’s where we need to grab them and hold them,” he added.

Max reach of TV coupled with the immediacy of social media

Talking to what excites him about the year ahead for Nine Radio, Malone said the broadcaster has secured “amazing broadcasters” in each of its local markets who “put together extremely passionate, and engaging radio shows every day”.

He is confident in the power of talkback radio “because it combines the max reach of television and also the immediate feedback of social media”.

He said: “You have this incredibly intimate medium, where you’re talking to hundreds of thousands of people at once, but you’re also getting feedback from individual listeners at the same time.”

A disrupted industry

Conversely, what makes him nervous about the year ahead is disruption, though he said he still feels “pretty confident” about what’s in store for Nine Radio.

“I think the thing that everyone is concerned about across the media industry is obviously disruption. But radio was disrupted probably 10 to 15 years ago, and especially talkback radio, you’re talking about content that you can’t find anywhere else. That’s why it’s an incredibly powerful medium.”

Malone said the most important benchmark for Nine Radio is delivering “the best possible content” for its audience, while at the same time “keeping a lid on costs” and “driving revenue at the top line”.

The backing of a broader business

As revealed on Tuesday, advertising revenue for metro commercial radio stations fell by 6.1 per cent in 2019 to $760.799 million, compared to $810.322 million achieved in 2018.

CRA CEO Joan Warner said the drop reflects a “challenging end to the year for radio and the media” as a whole.

On how Malone plans to inject some health back into Nine Radio, he said it helps to have the backing of the broader Nine business.

Malone said: “Nine Radio will benefit from the relationship with Nine television and Nine digital and publishing.”

He added that Nine Radio will in turn also provide “a great promotional platform” to some of Nine’s other major assets, including Domain, Stan and Nine TV.

Talking to how Nine Radio can compete against the likes of TV and other big media platforms, he’s confident in the power of talkback radio.

“We all have a job to do in how we communicate to the market and the effectiveness of advertising, no matter the medium. If you look at the effectiveness of radio advertising, radio went through [a period of disruption] 10 or 15 years ago. While talkback radio sailed through the middle of that, it has also had incredible success in recent years, not only growing its audience but growing its revenue.

“Nine Radio, especially in the broader radio market, and the broader media marketing is very well placed in the future.”

Presenter and program shakeups galore 

When asked whether the presenter and program changes were a cost-cutting measure, Malone said it was simply “what’s best for the business”. He added Nine Radio looked at the market and identified where it could fill the gaps.

Speaking on the recent program change – dropping Macquarie Sports Radio for a music-only format – Malone said it will sit “right in the sweet spot” for its demographic.

“It’ll complement what we do on the news talk network well,” he said, adding: “It’s both audience-driven and then revenue-focused.”

Commenting on the on-air and program “shuffle”, Malone said the changes were made in order to “deliver the best possible content” for its audience.

Will Alan ever get the boot?

Chairman Russell Tate has said before that controversial 2GB breakfast show host Alan Jones would have his contract terminated following any more slip-ups.

His statement, issued to the media in August last year followed a number of brands pulling their advertising dollars from Jones’ 2GB breakfast show following his Jacinda Ardern comment where he suggested Scott Morrison should “shove a sock down [her] throat”.

At the time, Tate said: “Notwithstanding his apologies, I have today discussed the matter with Alan and advised him that any recurrence of commentary of this nature will result in the termination of his contract.”

While Jones has seemingly not misstepped since, a number of industry personnel have suggested his commercial pull is just too strong for Nine Radio to ever fire the 78-year-old presenter.

Malone said that the radio broadcaster will have an “ongoing discussion” with Jones, suggesting that Nine’s takeover “refreshed and re-energised” Jones’ breakfast show.

“We’ve got a great relationship with Alan. He’s been number one in the Sydney market for 30 years and it’s an extraordinary achievement. The reason is because he knows the audience better than anyone.

“He’s got a great connection to his listeners, he’s got a great idea for what people want to hear, and what makes people in Sydney and Brisbane tick. That’s what makes him a phenomenal broadcaster.”

Malone said Nine Radio had worked with Jones during the summer to ensure he and all of its presenters know the “expectations” around the broadcaster’s radio show.

He also said Nine Radio has “reviewed and strengthened” its editorial policy and compliance with the ACMA code and broadcasting license agreement.

At the end of the day, Malone said: “We want great, passionate and engaging radio.”




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