“Talk Radio Is Always Relevant”: Tom Malone And Hayley Bourne On Nine’s Total Audio Plans

“Talk Radio Is Always Relevant”: Tom Malone And Hayley Bourne On Nine’s Total Audio Plans
B&T Magazine
Edited by B&T Magazine

One of Nine’s most significant announcements in its 2021 Upfronts was an investment into Total Audio.

Hailed by Nine as the “future of radio”, B&T sat down with Tom Malone (general manager – radio, pictured) and Hayley Bourne (head of digital audio) to discuss total audio, and what it means for both advertisers and consumers.

B&T: How has Nine’s digital audio strategy developed over the last year?

Tom Malone: When we acquired the radio business, there was a big piece of work to do around content, distribution and commercialization, because at Nine our strategy is create, distribute, engage. You have to own the content, you have to improve the content, have to make sure you control its distribution [and therefore] you can commercialise the audiences where they consume you.

From an analogue point of view, obviously we launched 20 new shows in 18 months, and we’ve evolved the sound of talkback radio for a new generation. We were then able to have those discussions with advertisers around how they can engage with those evolving audiences, and then we started looking at distribution.

Really, the future of where we’re going as a business is about having a direct relationship with your listener from both a content point of view and a commercial point of view. In order to do that, you’ve got to balance and manage the transition of audiences and revenue from linear channels to digital channels.

At the heart of it, you’ve got to get your content right first, and I think the last two years, we’ve got our live content right. Then you’ve got to make sure you control your distribution. You’ve seen some of that strategy unfold in the last few months with us exiting third party platforms like TuneIn, and then you’ve got to make sure that you’re at the best place to commercialise them. You’ve seen that as well with the rollout of our enforced single sign-on for consumers now, through our apps and websites.

We’ve got this really strong content based on the unique sales proposition. Our point of difference in market is that we’re live and local in every shift, in every market, delivering the latest news, sports, weather, traffic information, entertainment, opinion. It doesn’t really matter how people consume that, be it through an analogue station, DAB plus, or now increasingly streaming radio on any device, any platform, any time.

People come to that content, no matter where they consume their radio or their media.

Hayley Bourne: I’ve been at Nine for five months [and] I spent my five months looking into what talk radio has to give, our point of difference in market and how that bridges really nicely into podcasting.

I spent nine years over in the UK working in podcasting and so it’s really nice to see it the foundations are already there [at Nine], and we can only build from there.

That seems to be the hardest part to get right in radio [and] in digital audio, is getting streaming and those digital audiences growing, and we’ve got there already.

So now we’ve got those foundations, we’re understanding more about our audience where we understand their trends. We’re working closely with the data teams to make sure that we’re building out further foundations from a data perspective, so we know we’re making the right content.

It’s a really exciting time, and we’ve gone through that phase of understanding, the second phase of reining it in and bringing all our content, as Tom touched on – streaming, our podcasts from other platforms – we’re bringing it all back into Nine and making sure that audiences are coming to the Nine platforms. We’re encouraging that through marketing [and] we’re making sure that once they’re there, they’re having a great experience with Nine and we can continue to serve them more content.

B&T: Why is it so important to look at audio through this total audio lens?

TM: I think it’s no different to what you’re seeing in other forms of media. If you look at television, obviously, the evolution from analogue or linear to include streaming platforms, to include subscriber platforms as well. I think you see the same in publishing.

It’s the same content, and it’s consumed through a different device. But it’s still a listener or viewer or reader.

What digital has enabled all of us to do, right across the Nine group, is actually realise a greater commercial opportunity for our content, because we are no longer broadcasting to a mass audience. We are broadcasting to a mass audience with an individual bespoke connection to that consumer, which is of greater value to an advertiser.

You still have to have great content, this is the really important thing. You can’t get lost on platforms or distribution. At the heart of what we all do is we make great content. That’s why we’re so relevant.

I think why you’re seeing the acceleration of some of those music stations to going into podcasting is because, essentially, podcasting is spoken word audio. Now, we’re already doing spoken word audio on air every day 24/7. So our podcast strategy will be slightly different. It’ll be more about being complimentary and adjacent to our existing audiences on linear channels, and even on streaming channels.

The music stations [are] seeing it as an opportunity to do spoken word audio to begin with, which we’re already doing.

B&T: When we’ve discussed digital audio over the last few years, there has been such a massive emphasis on podcasts. What other innovations in digital audio are leading the way, that maybe don’t get as much airtime?

HB: I think probably, video and branded content [are] definitely spaces that can be evolved.  But, I think it all kind of pulls back together again. For us, podcasting is that Trojan horse where we can use the Nine ecosystem to take a podcast and expand it out.

That is the new media, the production that is flexible [and] means that we can work in a more integrated way with clients. We can take talent and work from across the ecosystem into different medias to expand that audience. I think we can use podcasting in various ways, and if it goes into video content in the future, if it’s right for that piece of podcasting, then that’s where it needs to evolve.

B&T: Do you think we will see the linear talk radio numbers continue to perform well as time goes on? Why is talk radio such a focal point for Australian consumers? 

TM: It’s the nature of the content. What’s special about talk radio – I keep repeating it – but it’s live and local, it’s relevant at the time you’re listening. That’s why people consume it, whether it be on a linear channel or now, whether it be through streaming. I think COVID has accelerated some of that platform transition from linear to streaming.

It’s doubled in five years in terms of total cumulative audience who consume through a streaming device – that’s as an industry, and Nine is in line with that as well. I think there’s no doubt we’re experiencing at the moment a spike in audience numbers because there’s that thirst for information, and people rely on us and trust us for fast and accurate information, and the ability to put some context around that information for them.

But I think also what it’s done is make people realise how important talk radio is in their lives. Sure, we are at record highs at the moment now, [and] you’d love to be able to say you’re going to maintain that. I’ve no doubt that as we progress, audiences will move around a bit. So it will be hard to maintain those record high audience numbers. At the same time [though], there will always be things [where] they’re turning to us for the latest information, be it the earthquake in Melbourne, be it Cleo Smith’s rescue, and we’ve got a federal election coming up next year that’s going to dominate six months of the new cycle.

The nature of talk radio is, it’s always relevant, because it’s always discussing whatever the big stories are in your city at that time.  I would expect now that we’ve done the hard work in terms of overhauling the programming, from both an audience and a trade marketing point of view, that we’re going to continue to be extremely relevant as we go into the years ahead.

B&T: How do you see radio, particularly digital audio, continuing to transform into the future?

TM:  I think the great thing about radio and digital audio is that it’s only reinforced the ubiquity of radio.

Your mobile phone is your radio, your smart watch is your radio. It’ll go everywhere with you. Now it’s even easier, because you consume through [headphones] that are wireless. It’s such an intimate medium, it’s such an immediate medium, and spoken word audio will never be outdone by anything else.

In fact you’ll see how a lot of technology is going back to voice interaction, because it’s the easiest way for people to issue an instruction or communicate. We are very confident about the industry as a whole, both radio and total audio, and we’re also very confident about our position in that market [because] we’re doing live and local. That’s our point of difference, and that’s why our listeners come to us and rely on us.

I’m incredibly excited about the future of radio and audio, and also really confident about Nine’s proposition in market, what that means for our listeners, and then how we can engage with advertisers.

HB: The vision for the future is to harness that foundation of what we’re doing really well in talk radio, and making sure that our platforms are working to their best capabilities, to make sure our audience are happy.

With that data over the top, it’s a really a strong, unique selling point for us, because we will then know more about our audience, we’ll be able to create content that is right for them and that they’re happy consuming, and we will be able to target advertisers towards a very specific audience, which will have more effectiveness for the brands.

Then, learning from that audience and moving into the podcast space. We’ve produced our first podcast which is the Nine News lunch podcast. What Nine and Nine Radio hang their hat on is news and opinion. We put out our Nine News podcast about three months ago [and the download numbers] continue to grow.

Those opportunities are going to start to pop up across the Nine ecosystem. Nine radio is the heart of the Nine ecosystem’s audio. The opinion, the information, those topics are massive in podcasting, and that’s what we do best across across Nine.

I’m really excited about the thought of us getting  into a position where we’re ready to build a team and to get podcasting off the ground. The commissioning stage of talking to talent, finding ideas and stories that people want to tell. We’ve opened the floodgates now and we’re starting to sort through which ideas we want to launch with because that’s the hardest part: finding those hooks, those narratives that need to be told.

This interview has been edited for length & clarity.

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