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Triple J is losing touch, and the ratings

Triple J is fast spiralling into obscurity as its ratings plummet. Has Triple J lost touch with its audience?

When I was a teenager back in 1990’s Melbourne, Triple J was unquestionably the station to listen to if one didn’t want to listen to teen pop or classic rock.

The nineties was the era of grunge and electronic dance music and Triple J was leading the pack in broadcasting new music from these genres. I recall the delight in finally discovering this amazing station and its unique blend of music. Its announcers were amusing and knowledgeable and the station had a significant cultural and social relevance to me. It rocked!

But something has gone terribly wrong at Triple J since those glory days.

The station seems to be having trouble connecting with its audience. Rather than face up to the challenge, the station has chosen to blame Nova, blame the audience and even blame the former Howard government!

In essence, I believe that:

  1. Triple J is arrogant and doesn’t understand its audience.
  2. The music Triple plays is not what the audience wants to hear anymore.
  3. Triple J’s announcers are mostly dull and boring, or just strange.
  4. The on-air presentation is mediocre, if not plain bad.

I have always really enjoyed listening to Triple J, but I am fast wearing tired of the ABC’s youth station. So let’s explore these issues in some more detail to see why “the j’s” have ended up like this.

I recently read an interesting article on Crikey by Michael Tunn, an ex-Triple J announcer. Back in July, Tunn noted that in his city of Adelaide, Mix 102.3 (Radio 5ADD) regularly out-performs 5JJJ in what is supposed to be Triple J’s target market – 18 to 24 year olds. This is despite Mix’s target demographic being women aged over 35! Indeed, a scan at the Melbourne radio ratings for December 2007 shows that 3JJJ recorded just 5.3% of the 18-24 market, compared to rival Nova 100 (3MEL) which captured 31.1% of that audience and 3FOX with 26.9%. You may ask what Nova and Fox have that Triple J doesn’t? Relevance is the answer.

If you tune into Nova (Triple J’s major competitor) or other commercial FM music stations, they’re polished. Their announcers are fast-paced and witty, the music is constant and there is a general feel that something interesting is happening or about to happen. The news is local and the personalities (for the most part) are engaging. In contrast, Triple J sounds like crappy community radio a lot of the time.

Long gone are the glory days of Helen Razor and Judith Lucy with The Ladies Lounge or Chris and Craig with Today Today. These days we get the occasionally engaging and rarely amusing Top Shelf with Robbie Buck at drive time. No wonder people prefer to listen to Hamish and Andy on the commercial stations. People like to laugh on the way home from work, not be bored with long interviews.

Back in 2003, when Richard Kingsmill took over at Triple J, he told The Age “I think Triple J has the potential to be the best radio station in Australia, if not one of the best in the world. But we let ourselves down too often. We can be great one moment and pretty average the next. At times we sound like the worst community radio station around. We need to realise that our competition is on the ball, so we need to be on the ball, too.”

A lot of this “community station sound” has to do with dead air because Triple J is full of it. From stuttering young announcers waffling about who-knows-what to fill gaps between songs to “technical problems” with CD players, its so often sounds amateurish. Listen to Nova and the songs seamlessly glide from one to the next. Their announcers sound excited and keen. They use backing tracks behind the announcements for interest and continuity. The broadcast sounds dynamic and people enjoy it.

But lack of polish alone doesn’t account for poor ratings at Triple J. The lack of listeners has as much to do with the music as anything else.

Triple J has always had the challenge of balancing “alternative” and “popular”. In my opinion, the station needs some commercially popular music in order to expose their audience to the alternative songs. That’s what Nova does successfully and what Triple J used to do too, but hardly any more.

As an example, Triple J used to play music by Primary, a Sydney-based electro-rock band that featured the distinct vocals of Connie Mitchell. Mitchell has since moved on to Sneaky Sound System which is musically similar to Primary. And whilst Sneaky has become an ARIA charts success with its unique brand of music and Nova has been playing their songs on high-rotation, Triple J has ignored them completely. Why? I have no doubt that a Triple J audience would enjoy this music. Nova’s ratings would confirm this, since they’re credited with eroding the Triple J audience.

Perhaps the music committee at Triple J really is out of touch with what young people enjoy listening to?

I say this because Triple J announcers seem to be afflicted with a peculiar sort of musical élitism. They deride their commercial counterparts’ musical line-up as if ‘alternative’ is superior to ‘pop’ somehow without recognising that taste is involved. This holier-than-thou approach does nothing to win audience share. Commercial stations see no need to deride Triple J audiences, so why the reverse? Surely a confident station would see no need to engage in this juvenile behaviour.

It is not shameful to like Britney Spears’ music. Sure, I don’t like Briteney Spears and I wouldn’t want her played on Triple J (or my CD player) for a second, but her music’s not inferior, just different and not to my taste.

Yet staff at Triple J can’t understand this. So whilst Triple J pretends to promote variety of music and be open and tolerant, they self-indulgently focus ever more on their favoured hip-hop, reggae and garage sounds at the expense of music that their target audience will actually enjoy. Michael Tunn summed it up nicely when he said Triple J needs to “stop being scared of being mainstream”.

Triple J staff need to understand that people listen to Nova for a reason. Even if Nova plays Shakira or Britney and other sugar-sweet teen-pop artists, they also play music that Triple J would once have considered appropriate for airplay. And whilst Nova isn’t faultless, a 50% slump in Triple J ratings cannot be ignored, even by the ABC.

The problem with the Triple J staff is not just their attitude, but their presentation too. In a way it comes back to the concept of polish.

Is it really too much to expect a prime-time announcer not to “um” or stutter? Listening to Vijay Khurana is just painful, especially when he talks to a caller live-to-air. Dave Callan isn’t much better. The ums and arrs, the delayed waffle whilst changing CD’s and the painful “So, what are you up to this weekend?” talkback is sometimes too much. Okay, if the caller is doing something different or interesting, let us know. If they’re going to get pissed on the front verandah with mates over the weekend and that’s all they’ll tell us, what do I care? Just play some music!

For all the criticisms I’ve made of Triple J, I do acknowledge the good work that they continue to do and have done. Their tireless promotion of emerging Australian music is something for which the nation can be grateful. And Triple J’s preparedness to play new music long before commercial stations is a testament to their brevity. And the station does still have some excellent announcers like Gaby Brown and Mel Bampton. Yet these alone aren’t good enough.

Triple J has major deficiencies. It has no local news call and no local weather. (Scott Dooley even once complained on air “why do people need to know what the weather is anyway?”). Perhaps some regionalised broadcasting would be nice? Simply syndicating everything from 2JJJ in Sydney isn’t good enough. And finally, the employees at the station need to get of their high horse and find out why their audience are listening to the other stations, and what music they enjoy listening-to rather than condemning them for liking it.

For if they don’t do something soon, there won’t be much justification for the ABC (and the Australian taxpayer) to maintain Triple J at all. Triple J is unlikely going to be number 1 any time soon, but it should come close if it is meeting its charter obligations to young Australians.



64 responses to “Triple J is losing touch, and the ratings”

On 29 January 2011, tys wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

tripple J is dreadfully boring, tbh i dont care about presenters, i care about the music. And its awful, you might get 1 out of 20 songs that is good, the rest are so BORING… you have to have holes in your head to ‘rock out’ to this crap. How disappointing, the hottest 100 this year was the worst ive ever seen. There needs to be a new radio station, cause tripple J aint gonna change.

On 15 February 2011, darren wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

you are an absolute idiot..comparing nova to triple J pls nothing comes close to the Js knowledge of great up and coming artists and there playlists are second to nono..been listening for 15 yrs would never evan entertain the thought of listening to that commercial crap..sounds like you haven’t much idea on good music..go back to nova where you belong

On 3 March 2011, Taco wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

hey man i know where you’re coming from with the whole elitist attitude thing for sure the Js does have a bit of that anti-commercial, mainstream is garbage feel to it quite a lot of the time but then again who’s to blame them for not liking a lot of the bullshit and corporate games that goes into making chart music thesedays… also i think a major difference between triple j and nova that you failed to acknowledge here is triple J’s commitment to bands and traditionally ‘live’ acts… don’t get me wrong i LOVE a good DJ set but there needs to be a good mix in the music world between DJ’s and bands and whilst nova represents a good crop of the latter there is still very minimal support coming from them for up and coming bands or acoustic artists… things like triple J unearthed and the big day out are still bringing up some of the best new talent in australia and even though all the big electro festivals (future music, parklife, stereos etc.) are waving the DJ’s flag hand in hand with nova i think there is a place for both in the australian music landscape
triple J hasn’t changed and i hope it never does

On 5 March 2011, Nina wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Thank you so much. It is such a relief to me that someone, somewhere, can finally express what I have been feeling for a long time and in a well thought-out, objective way.

I agree that Triple J do play some interesting, great music and do an awesome job in promoting new artists, but the program (and more often in my experience, their listeners) have constantly frustrated me with their elitism as you put it.

I can’t understand why I need to be put down and feel bad for enjoying commercial radio, yet it’s difficult for me to respond to their arguments. It’s nice that I can use your article to finally counter in a logical and valid way.

Thanks again!

On 20 March 2011, Cluey wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

You guys have all missed when this was posted, December 23rd, 2007.
I wasn’t listening back then, not just JJJ but to anything, I am listening now and I like most of what JJJ plays but I do agree with some of the announcers being not very good.

On 17 September 2011, Dave wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Triple J would have to do a lot worse before I’ll start listening to 50% ads.

On 17 November 2011, Davos wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

FBi > Triple J…nuff said.

On 9 December 2011, Shauna wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

You said it yourself, everyone has different music tastes, so it doesn’t matter what station you listen to there is always going to be music that you won’t like, and it’s ok if you don’t!

In regards to the station as a whole, being non-polished, and unscripted is part of the appeal. They are human and that certainly beats the commercial station banter and advertising.

I have been listening to triple j for over 20 years and to me, it is the best. For it’s friendliness, huge diversity of music and presenters, and the fact that they support live Australian music and bands, which has only been hightened by the new digital station, triple j unearthed.

Think of the music that triple j has brought into all of our lives, silverchair, Powderfinger and so many more.

If not for triple j, they might not have had their success.

If I wanted to know the weather, I’ll look out a window or go outside, and as for local news, I can buy the local paper as I have always done.

If you still think that triple j is no longer of interest to you, then change the station and get over it!

On 27 March 2012, Ajay wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I am forced at work to listen to Nova and b105.After hearing both of these radio stations for months on end i would gladly listen to any radio station that does not offer the same boring souless format.

I was stuck listening to triple m in early 2000-1 , the format for all three of these stations is the same.Nothing has changed. I believ that was the Nickleback era for MMM.Tragic.

If i want to hear ads i will watch TV, or listen to 105, nova or MMM.

Repetitive music, sometimes three times a day for the current hit songs..every day.Day in and day out..thats a successful station ? Mainstream top 40 or the same old drudged up number 1 hits from the past..and their horible love for the 80’s ?

No thanks Nova, b105 and triplem, you have bored me to tears. Where is the local music..JJJ, where is the upcoming and unheard talent..JJJ.Where is the edge..JJJ.

Thankfully JJJ fills the very large void that these robotic stations cannot hope to fill.I cannot remember the last time i heard anything relevant and meaningful on any of the mainstream commercial stations that relates to Australian music.JJJ does this every day.

Do not stop what you do guys and girls at JJJ , you know you have a special place on the air that these Americanised copycats can never hope to attain.

Please dont ever change , we do not care for backdrop music or perfect dj sets, we do care for the australianism you guys and gals provide, the wittiness, the silliness and the closeness the presenters have with the australian music scene.


On 11 March 2013, Arthur wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

hey adam.. you are a lemon 🙂

On 18 June 2013, Hayden wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

i know this is years old but anyway.. Alot of the criticism from comments here suggest people cluelessly scrolled across this blog taking nothing in except for several missinterpereted points. He didn’t just say “they need more mainstream” and “they need to be like Nova”, there’s a method to it. Yeah mainstream music is pretty bad these days, but being a narrow minded elitist is bad too, there’s no intellectual merrit gained in going ‘alternative’ with such a mentality. he’s just saying if it can hook more of both crowds, not only will the mainstream bait gain popularity for the alternative music you apparently want to support, but it will also generate more money for the station which will improve the quality of it, thus sealing the longevity of the station ensuring your continued feed of alternative music, at the expense of a few mainstream tracks here and there which i’m sure J’s would pick within some measure of taste.

On 17 February 2014, Glenn Davey wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I was already a little iffy on your suggestions … but then you quoted Scott Dooley… and he was about the furthest thing from Triple J culture that ever appeared on the air on Triple J.

If he was your gold standard… well then… Just listen to Nova and STFU?

I’m writing from the future, of course. I don’t mind Triple J… it’s probably improved from 2007… But then Australians have become a nation of whingers in the new millennium…

On 22 March 2016, Ash wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I gave up on triple j long ago
When the presenters changed and the music as well
Hip Hop seemed to be the music of choice ( but not mine or my friends)
And then i found FBI
But like Triple J, it went the same way in quicker time

Maybe i am prehistoric in my music tastes and likes
But at least i know, my tastes are the same as everyone i know and hang around with
And the feeling is the same with them
And BTW the ratings proved it back in the day
And the amount of cars with the old beat the drum stickers is now are rare site for old eye’s

Bring back the glory days i say, and not announcers think that they like to talk the talk, but loose the audience and we all walk away to our CD collections

On 22 November 2018, Caitlin Jones wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I honestly think there just a bunch if know it all, rich kid wankers. I find it hard listening to there first world bull sh#t complaining. And out of touch perspective

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