The latest radio industry ratings would have caused grimaces at RNZ – which has watched its National programme slip to fourth most listened-to station in the land after sitting at number one just a year ago.

RNZ is down again in the radio industry’s audience survey, with its previously industry-leading breakfast show Morning Report sliding in listener numbers just as commercial rival Newstalk ZB surges.

The second ratings survey for 2021, from GfK, released on Thursday show RNZ National dropping almost 100,000 listeners across a week from 10 months ago at the height of the Covid crisis and pre-election period – from 703,000 to 602,000.  At the same time, NewstalkZB has grown from 512,000 to 651,000.

The breakfast ratings are likely to be of most acute concern at RNZ, as Morning Report has given up all its gains of the big news year of 2020 to now sit behind its last audience number for 2019, with an average of 412,000 turning in across a week now, compared with 433,000 in November 2019 and the peak of 531,000 in September 2020. Again, its drop-off comes as Newstalk’s Hosking breakfast show has lifted audience nationwide to 451,000 listeners weekly from 369,000 in November 2019 before Covid and a 2020 peak of 430,000. 

What could have caused listeners to switch off one of the country’s journalistic powerhouses? Regional statistics are not routinely released but it’s understood Morning Report has particular difficulties in the Auckland market. On Newstalk ZB, Hosking’s show has a grip on the Auckland commercial market, with 284,000 listeners in that city alone each week, ahead of MediaWorks’ music channels Mai FM and The Breeze.

Morning Report, hosted by Susie Ferguson and Corin Dann, even has the benefit of a weekly slot with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that was denied Hosking earlier this year when the PM’s office gave up the slot ostensibly due to scheduling pressures but also following uncomfortable – some would say unreasonable – questioning from the host.

All other RNZ National shows suffered audience drops in the latest GfK survey, other than Nine to Noon, which arrested a 26,000 listener fall in the previous period to bounce back by 5000 this time to 308,000, not far off its pre-Covid level.

The pressure on radio audiences comes at an awkward time for RNZ’s management as the broadcaster is subject to a Government working group looking at reforming RNZ and TVNZ into some form of combined state broadcaster. RNZ had, until this year, been able to point to growing reach among New Zealanders and a period of innovation and success. Its online audience has remained strong after a boost experienced by almost all media outlets through 2020.

Internally, RNZ has been reviewing its programmes and this latest survey will sharpen executives’ thinking. Ferguson and Dann’s partnership could be part of that, but both are experienced and accomplished and their duo took the slot to big numbers even before the Covid boom for RNZ. 

Critics on the right of politics often claim Morning Report is too accommodating of the Labour Government’s failures and ministers, too socially liberal and too focused on culture wars, doom and gloom. After the last ratings were revealed, and Morning Report had fallen, social media comments even focused on its extensive use of te reo Māori as a possible reason for listeners turning off. But RNZ chiefs will not be persuaded by that knee-jerkery to change the station’s approach to the official language.

In the evening, the drive show Checkpoint with Lisa Owen, is a newer incarnation of the RNZ end-of-day news wrap, but its audience is also under pressure, with 240,000 listeners, slightly down again on the first survey of 2021. The equivalent Newstalk ZB show, with Heather du Plessis-Allan, attracts 305,000 weekly listeners, up from 289,000 earlier this year.

In the commercial market, Newstalk ZB leads allcomers in nationwide market share, but in the measurement for weekly cumulative audience, is edged by MediaWorks’ owned The Breeze, with 671,000 listeners to Newstalk’s 651,000, MediaWorks’ duo The Edge on 631,000 and More FM on 595,000 and Newstalk’s NZME-owned sister station ZM on 589,000. 

The battle between the two commercial radio companies for overall market share widened again in MediaWorks’ favour in the latest survey. It notched a record high market share of 54.7 (up 1.1) giving it a remarkable 20 point lead over NZME, on 34.4 (down 0.7).

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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