The Covid-19 crisis hammered commercial radio’s revenue for a few months, but it has given news and talk stations a big boost in audience. Mark Jennings reports on the latest survey results.

The nationwide lockdown, followed by a second dose in Auckland – our biggest media market – struck fear into the hearts of this country’s radio executives. With almost no one getting in their cars and driving to and from work, radio’s lifeblood was being drained away.

The lockdowns had the potential to seriously disrupt audience listening patterns and, to some extent, they have.

The GfK survey that measures radio audiences was temporarily suspended during these periods but the latest numbers, released this week, show that a significant number of people have changed their listening habits – at least for now.

The big winners are RNZ National and Newstalk ZB. The losers are music stations The Rock, More FM, and The Hits.

The flight to news and information has pushed RNZ National to an all-time high and it is the first New Zealand radio station to surpass 700,000 unique listeners in a week.

Its audience increased by a whopping (in radio survey terms) 48,700 compared to the previous survey, and 103,000 year on year.

The second highest rating station was The Breeze. The MediaWorks station had 622,000 different listeners in a week just ahead of NZME-owned Newstalk ZB with 610,300.

National Radio and Newstalk both benefited from big jumps in their breakfast shows – the most important audience building block in radio.

Morning Report added 31,000 listeners to reach a total of 531,800, and Newstalk’s Mike Hosking jumped 33,100 to 430,700.

RNZ’s CEO Paul Thompson said Morning Report “had knocked it out of the park” with its strong and consistent coverage of the Covid-19 crisis.

“Breakfast (Morning Report) is a big beast, being a three-hour show, but it underpins everything we do and supports all our other programming. The audience lift along with Newstalk ZB’s result speaks to the fact that people are looking for news and information they can trust in a confronting year.”

RNZ’s other flagship news and current affairs programme, Checkpoint, also had a good survey.

The Lisa Owen-hosted programme added 30,900 listeners for a total of 311,100.

Checkpoint is probably the most ambitious of RNZ’s shows, creating and screening video that can travel across different platforms while still being a fast-moving news programme. Sometimes, it makes for a bumpy ride, but Owen appears to have settled into a nice groove.

Breakfast shows remain the key audience-drivers for music stations and drops in the 6am to 9am slots precipitated falls for MediaWorks’ leading networks – The Edge, The Rock and More FM.

Overall, The Rock took the biggest hit, shedding 28,000 listeners while More FM lost 14,000.

The Edge’s breakfast show dropped 9000, but the station’s other shows held up, with limited total loss held to 2700.

But it wasn’t all bad news for music formats. MediaWorks has such a balanced portfolio of stations that when some fall others gain, and in this survey, Mai FM came to its rescue, adding 33,500 listeners and climbing to a total of 429,500.

The other half of the radio duopoly, NZME, would’ve been very pleased with ZM increasing its popularity by nearly 28,000 for a total of 495,900.

One of the surprises to come out of the survey was the growth in RNZ’s Concert FM. The station recorded a total of 260,900 listeners over a week, an increase of 18,000 on the previous survey. Close to 4 percent of the population (10+ years) listen to the classical music station.

The good result serves up a small dose of humble pie for RNZ’s CEO. Thompson received a virtual pounding early in the year when he announced plans to move Concert FM to an AM frequency and get rid of most of its 17 announcers and staff. He planned to use the FM frequency for a new multi-media music station aimed at the youth market.

Within a week he was forced to back-track on the idea when thousands of classical music lovers, including former Prime Minister Helen Clark, protested the decision.

Asked if the publicity generated by “the Concert FM row” had brought a new audience to an old format, Thompson replied “well, it is a pretty confronting way to tap into an opportunity but the proof is in the numbers, and I can see a clear signal is being sent”.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

Leave a comment