‘The change coming is significant’: ABC radio set for shake-up

By Karl Quinn

Ben Latimer, the new head of audio at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.Credit: James Brickwood

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Ben Latimer has barely had time to get his feet under the desk, but the ABC’s head of audio has already started tackling the challenges the broadcaster faces across the dial.

“I hit the ground running,” says Latimer, who joined the ABC at the end of July after six years at Nova, where he was joint head of programming. “I love a challenge, I really do. I just find it more interesting.”

The hit list for Latimer is long and varied, with big challenges in local radio, Triple J and Radio National. But at core, it comes down to a simple proposition.

“We’re serious about getting ABC local radio back to where it needs to be,” he says, referring to the audience share for the main station in each capital city. “Pre-COVID is where we believe we should be, and we can be.”

In the most recent radio survey results delivered two weeks ago, ABC Radio held a 7 per cent share of the market in Sydney, 8 in Melbourne, 5.9 in Brisbane, 7.4 in Adelaide, and 7.2 in Perth. In the same survey period in 2019, the numbers were 8.1 in Sydney, 9.2 in Melbourne, 6.6 in Brisbane, 10 in Adelaide and 7.2 in Perth.

Craig Reucassel has been drafted in to host Breakfast in Sydney from next January.Credit: James Brickwood

Clearly, there is work to do – and Latimer has already started. This week, major line-up changes were announced for Sydney, with The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel coming into Breakfast, James Valentine moving from that shift back to the Afternoons chair he occupied for more than 20 years, and Renee Krosch replacing Indira Naidoo, whose show she has been producing, in Evenings.

In September, a similar shake-up of the Melbourne line-up was announced, with Raf Epstein moving to Mornings and Ali Moore to Drive until the end of the year (more announcements are imminent, Latimer hints).

At the same time, ABC Melbourne’s rival in the talk radio space, 3AW, underwent its own shake-up, as Neil Mitchell – who presented his last show on Friday – announced he was stepping down after 35 years on air.

Raf Epstein moved from Drive to Mornings as part of the Melbourne shake-up announced in September.

It all sets the scene for a rare moment in radio, which is perhaps the most loyal of mediums, in which listeners might be willing to dip their toes (or ears) in unfamiliar waters for a brief period.

“The change coming is significant for the ABC and significant for local radio, so we’d expect to see some audience sampling across the new year,” says Latimer.

To capitalise, the ABC plans a big campaign on TV and in print – “the most investment in marketing our local radio network has had in years”, he says. But there’s been plenty of work behind the scenes, too, to ensure the moment isn’t squandered.

“The really big part was focusing the presenters and the producers on understanding their audience, which is 50-plus,” Latimer says. “We’ve reimagined our music, designed a playlist that is really catering for that 50-plus audience. I’m looking at the on-air imaging, the ideas you hear on air, they need a freshen-up.

“I don’t think it’s correct to say we went young,” he clarifies, “but I think you’ve got to narrow it down to that target ideal listener and make it really clear who we are talking to.”

While the main stations are the jewels in the crown, Latimer knows there are also big challenges facing Radio National and, especially, the ABC’s youth network.

“I think Triple J is an incredibly important brand for us,” he says. “But the 18-24s are a very difficult demographic to capture.

Latimer comes to the position at the ABC after a career in the commercial media, including ARN and Foxtel.Credit: James Brickwood

“The challenge with Triple J is that we’ve got this exceptionally engaged audience on the digital offering, but a declining audience on linear [traditional broadcast radio]. We are more than a radio station, we tell people this all the time, it’s a multi-platform youth network. But we must have a strong linear broadcast reach and right now, the current five capital city share is 4.2 per cent, so clearly we’ve got to do some work around that.”

Latimer and his team have two key focuses as they try to turn Triple J’s fortunes around: “working more closely with our talent-led shows, particularly Breakfast and Drive, on content, strategy and execution, and taking a better look at music preferences for younger audiences”. He’s also keen to develop the next “iconic brand” to bolster a stable still dominated by the Hottest 100 and Like A Version.

Radio National, meanwhile, sometimes struggles to attract a share of audience greater than the margin of error in the ratings surveys. “We have to be engaging with a share above the current 1.4 per cent on linear radio, we just have to be,” he says.

Increasingly, people are consuming RN content on the app or on the weekend, outside the broadcast schedule. “News avoidance is having some impact on the linear figures, but our digital audience is continuing to grow,” he says. “The strategy for next year is to look at growing the RN weekend audience on linear, and really use that as a gateway to showcase the breadth and quality of RN’s expert presenters and programs.”

One change Latimer categorically rules out is the temptation to take a star like Reucassel – who already has a national profile thanks to his TV work – to other cities.

That might work for the FM players like KIIS, which recently announced the Kyle and Jackie O Show would be broadcast live into Melbourne for the first time from next year, but it would be contrary to everything ABC local radio stands for.

“The commitment to being local and live is 100 per cent. It’s everything we do,” says Latimer. “That is our wonderful point of difference. We are unashamedly local and live and we are firmly committed to that.”

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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