ABC radio boss Michael Mason talks running biggest Oz network

ABC director of radio Michael Mason on metro stations, audience ambitions and on-demand delivery

As the ABC head of radio, Michael Mason oversees the capital city Local Radio stations, triple j, Classic FM, RN (formerly Radio National) and the digital stations Grandstand, Double J, triple j Unearthed, ABC Jazz, ABC Country and ABC Extra.

Asked about priorities in the 18 months he has been in this role, Mason said: “As we continue to see fragmentation of our audience, like many others are also experiencing, and the growth of on-demand, we are starting to see a decline in time spent listening. We have been asking ourselves how do we best address that. We want to ensure that we will be loved as much in 2020 as we are by audiences today.”

“We have been seeing massive growth in our digital numbers and we know we need to be there.” – Mason

When commercial radio and TV broadcasters switch to on-demand there are commercial ramifications for their business models. However, that is not an issue at the ABC, which gives it more freedom to experiment with digital on-demand delivery.

“We have been seeing massive growth in our digital numbers and we know we need to be there. Commercial broadcasters know that too but their balance needs to be different because of their operating model.”

Mason used RN as an example of a brand that maintains a very strong linear audience, but also has been reporting growth with radio shows delivered as podcasts on-demand.

Metro local radio

702 ABC Sydney

There was almost a generational change when Adam Spencer took over breakfast a number of years ago. That change continued with the current 702 breakfast host Robbie Buck now into his second year in breakfast. “He has had incredible success,” said Mason. “It can take a while for an announcer to find his rhythm and Robbie in the past 12 months has been doing some great work.”

612 ABC Brisbane breakfast host Spencer Howson

612 ABC Brisbane breakfast host Spencer Howson

Wendy Harmer is the newest recruit in her morning slot. She is a seasoned commercial broadcaster, yet no stranger to ABC Radio via her fill-in slots with Angela Catterns over the years. Mason noted this is her first time solo on air apart from a short stint at Vega. “We are happy with the first few surveys for Wendy and survey three was very encouraging.”

Richard Glover is the veteran of the 702 team with his drive show. “The tremendous thing that he brings to the table is the ability to reinvent the program. He is a very gifted broadcaster and we continue to be delighted with how drive is going.”

Mason agreed that an afternoon timeslot on a talk station is perhaps the biggest challenge. “James Valentine owns his timeslot and I think of it like him having a James Valentine club and the members tune in at 1pm to hear what the show will have that day and he is not afraid to push the boundaries.”

774 ABC Melbourne

The breakfast/morning duo of Red Symons and Jon Faine have been in control for a long time at the station. “They are very different characters,” said Mason. “A highlight is when they are on air together around 7.30am each weekday. We have had a couple of tough surveys in Melbourne, which was partly due to smaller audiences listening to the cricket.”

Mason also made mention of the importance of Rafael Epstein in drive. “Clare Bowditch is new this year hosting afternoons. She is quite new to radio which was one of the attractions. She has a lovely warm voice and manner and a great profile from her music and her TV work.”

Jon Faine 1200x600

774 ABC Melbourne breakfast co-host Jon Faine

612 ABC Brisbane

Breakfast host Spencer Howson dominates not just ABC Radio breakfast but also the Brisbane breakfast market. “He is a great broadcaster who does lots of things all broadcasters could learn from,” said Mason.

“He has a great passion for the city. People often say broadcasters are good at finding stories, but Spencer really does go out and find different stories that engage the audience. He and the team have developed something called Community Correspondent which brings in members of the community and trains them about radio. He then sends them back out into the field and they come back to the show with different stories about Brisbane. That has real appeal for listeners and stops him from being another cog in the media machine.”

891 ABC Adelaide

One of the major changes in the market this year was the signing of former Mix and Triple M breakfast broadcaster Ali Clarke to mornings. “She is going very, very well. Ali was a very quick adaptor to the ABC environment, which some people don’t adapt to so quickly. She is a busy working mother and that has helped her resonate with a broader audience. She has a great repertoire when it comes to interviewing, she can be very hard-nosed on the big issues and then on human interest stories she has demonstrated she can show real compassion. When Ali came in as the new host the initial feedback was very positive which is not always the way after a major change is made.”

Another key part of the 891 family is breakfast hosts Matthew Abraham and David Bevan at breakfast. “I have known them both for a long time and they are true role models for the ABC in terms of how they can connect with everyday Australians. There are no pretensions and they are the real deal on air. They are the champions of the city and take on people’s concerns.” The hosts are the only duo hosting a metro Local Radio breakfast show.

720 ABC Perth

James Lush has been filling the breakfast slot since the departure of Eoin Cameron, with Mason noting they are yet to settle on a long-term plan. “We think highly of James and he was asked to step into the role before we make a decision about the timeslot. It is such an important role to get right.” Other members of the 720 team are Geoff Hutchison in morning, Gillian O’Shaughnessy in afternoon and Jane Marwick in drive.

Ali Clarke

891 ABC Adelaide breakfast host Ali Clarke

Niche Audiences

While Local Radio and Triple J pull big audiences that out-rate many of the commercial broadcasters, the ABC is more accepting of the smaller niche audience that the other networks like RN, Classic FM and the digital stations command.

“Those other brands give great enjoyment and engagement to communities in different ways, but they also enable us to add with depth and richness to the ABC offer.”

Mason added the RN team has been working very hard to share its content around more effectively. “We use a lot more social media to share it around and also our radio app to make it easier to podcast programs. People are often too busy to tune in at particular time each week. Many of them love the content, yet want to be able to listen at a time that suits them.”

Mason said about 30% of all ABC Radio listening is now done via a digital device or DAB+. “Close to 15% of listening is now via online, streaming or on-demand and it is continuing to grow at a healthy clip.”


Radio budgets and goals

“There were some cuts we had to manage through when I started in this role. In order for us to do new things in the digital space and maintain our linear broadcasting we have had to adjust and review how we are spending. We are looking for ways to find funding streams to enable us to launch initiatives.”

“The big thing is to ensure that audience is at the centre of everything we do. We want to develop our radio player so it can be more recommendation based and personalised in that it will offer people other content they could enjoy.

“We also want to continue to build relationships with third party platforms. We are on iTunes, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, the Southern Cross Austereo app and the iHeartRadio app.”

In terms of demographics, Mason is keen to maintain and then build the triple j audiences 18-35, the Local Radio numbers 50+, but to also hit the audience in the middle between 30 and 50.

“We are having a close look at what we are putting to air to make sure we can deliver on those goals.”

Mason also told Mediaweek he has spent time with his new boss Michelle Guthrie despite her short time in the role. “She is very engaged and very plugged in to what we are doing in radio. She has visited every capital city radio station.

Michelle Guthrie

Michelle Guthrie

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