1992 vs 2017: David Gibbs compares radio surveys separated by a quarter-century

The last two weeks in radio land have seen Champagne bottles popping and campaigns rolled out shouting “number one” and numbers reaching the multi-millions. It was another round of radio surveys and everyone wanted to celebrate their slice of the share pie. However, take a step back to 24 or 25 years and it’s a slightly different picture. StopPress has been given a selection of past radio surveys—including a 1993 Auckland Radio Survey, a 1993 Wellington survey and a 1992 Waikato survey—and they reveal there were once fewer stations and greater slices of the pie to go around.

(Make tab full-screen to see the numbers in the gallery)

For example, in 1993, Classic Hits 97FM achieved a share of 18 percent among 25- to 54-year-olds in the Auckland market, while in the most recent survey the highest share in that audience demographic is Mai FM’s 9.1 percent.

And across all of the surveys supplied from the 1990s, only five had a share of less than one percent across all demographics, whereas today, it’s not an uncommon site.

Former Radio New Zealand national sales manager and recent acting head of radio for MediaWorks David Gibbs, explains the difference by recalling the early days of his radio career in which stations were independent and government-owned stations.

When he started at Radio New Zealand in 1987, it operated a number of commercial and community stations, those that operated in heartland areas of New Zealand and ran a combination of locally and nationally produced programming, that were later sold off in 1996 to what became The Radio Network.

It also operated a youth network of stations under the ZM brand, with three original stations in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Again, they were sold to The Radio Network.

Now, of course, The Radio Network is under the umbrella of NZME, which goes head-to-head with MediaWorks, a company formed by the combination of TV3 Network Services and RadioWorks.

NZME now has 14 stations and MediaWorks has 11.

Those large number of stations are a result of each company wanting to cover all audiences across their offering and they sit alongside the remaining independent stations and Radio New Zealand’s non-commercial stations—meaning the station list on surveys are longer than ever.

In a 1992 Waikato survey, there were seven stations listed as well as ‘others’ while in the most recent Waikato commercial survey, there were 20 names alongside ‘others’.

In 1993, Wellington had nine stations plus ‘others’ to list on its survey and today it has 22 and ‘others’, meanwhile, Auckland had 17 plus ‘others’ while today it has 30 and ‘others’.

And because there’s less of the pie to go around, the excitement over getting a piece is bigger than ever. As each survey is released, stations are quick to crown themselves the number one for music, talkback or breakfast, or the number one for a particular demographic.

In the most recent survey, NZME was celebrating Newstalk ZB being the number one station in New Zealand, ZM being the number one breakfast show for 18- to 34-year-olds and Coast being the number one music station for people over 40.

Meanwhile, MediaWorks was celebrating its combined audience of 2.3 million New Zealanders across all stations as well as Mai FM being  the number one breakfast show in Auckland.

It’s a different conversation to those had prior to the consolidation of stations, and Gibbs describes this as target market-driven. He says back then, it was easier for the media to understand what was being said; however now, the statement of being “number one” changes according to what’s being talked about—cume, share, average and audience demographics.

And it’s not just the numbers in the surveys that have changed over the years as the number of surveys has also seen a change.

It wasn’t until this year that four surveys a year were introduced, following GfK winning the radio audience research contract in New Zealand at the beginning of last year. Last year saw three surveys and prior to that, there were only two a year.

Despite GfK doubling the number of surveys, Gibbs says the local market is still under-surveyed when compared to the eight annual surveys in Australia as well as the numerous surveys in other markets.  

However, he does say a positive to come out of the surveys is that alongside their own wins, both NZME and MediaWorks are talking about the growing audience for radio as a whole. In the latest survey, 3.36 million New Zealanders aged 10 or older were found to listen to commercial radio each week, up from 3.35 million in the previous survey.

On the non-commercial side, RNZ National was found to have 625,500 listeners in this latest survey, up from the 579,400 listeners it had in the first survey of the year.

Prior to the release of the survey, MediaWorks’ group content director for radio, Leon Wratt, told The Spinoff it’s in everyone’s best interest to tone down the competitiveness and move the conversation to radio’s collective success.

NZME group director of entertainment Dean Buchanan supported the sentiment when speaking to StopPress following the results release, saying: “While other mediums are struggling against digital, radio remains very healthy.”

“And you just have to look at what we’re doing in video to know that we’re also competing for eyeballs when it comes to streaming.”

Streaming wasn’t even a word on Gibbs’ radar when his career in radio started and he says digital wasn’t on the horizon either. Radio was what it was back then but now it’s transcending new technology and delivery modes through innovation and experimentation and as a result, it’s not losing any ears.

He gives the example of MediaWorks’ experimentation with its digital audio-streaming platform Rova. It launched in January this year and in July, received a boost in downloads and listeners when Polly and Grant launched an all-day stream. Called the All Day Breakfast, it sees the breakfast show repeatedly streamed all day until the next show is recorded the following morning.

And for NZME, Gibbs credits it for getting on board with iHeartRadio, which was also quickly picked up an audience of listeners. 

“[Radio’s] successfully managed to stay relevant,” Gibbs says.

“It’s basically the only content-driven media that is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago.”

But what about the next 10 years? Gibbs says there’s still a lot to consider in terms of how audiences will want to listen to the radio, with the digital era continuously throwing up opportunities.

“What do driverless cars mean for radio?” he asks.

That’s anyone’s guess, but you can rest assured that a few programme directors are already thinking about how to evolve the medium and keep it relevant so that in 25 years we can again look back and guffaw at how much things have changed.    

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