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:
- Triple J is arrogant and doesn’t understand its audience.
- The music Triple plays is not what the audience wants to hear anymore.
- Triple J’s announcers are mostly dull and boring, or just strange.
- 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.