• David Kowalski

The Raging Battle between Australian Music and Commercial Radio seemingly never ends...

In a recent statement, the chair of the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Annabelle Herd said that commercial radio needs to play more Australian music.

Almost immediately, in online forums and closed radio industry Facebook groups, the discontent and the excuses started…

“We don’t need more quotas”

“Australia doesn’t make 20% of all the music in the world, so why do we need to play that much of it?”

“Australian music needs to stand up and be as good as music from overseas”

“We’re only playing what the audience wants"

“There’s not enough Australian music that fits our station’s format”

“We already play loads of Cold Chisel, INXS and Men at Work”

“We need to make money for our station so that we all have jobs and can feed our families”.

This is all utter crap. All of it. Except for the “making money to feed the family” bit of course, but we’ll deal with that in a minute.

Joan Warner, the head of Commercial Radio Australia, said in her retort that “We are already one of the most heavily regulated industries in Australia, particularly in comparison to global competitors, and any further regulations would be unnecessary, burdensome and restrictive.”

I would argue that most of the regulations and quotas currently in play are the fault of radio operators in the first place. They are not a recent invention either - Australian content quotas have been in play since 1942, when the Curtin government wanted to try and encourage and build Australian culture. They started quite modestly and have now been increased to up to 25% Australian music every day.

Australians have always loved hearing their own artists, as evidenced by sell-out crowds at all-Australian music festivals like Scene and Heard. Yet there is this strange breed of individual known as the “content director” or the “music director” that seemingly only exists in commercial radio land, that thinks with this imperial mindset that anything produced here at home is instantly inferior that anything we import from America. Therefore, anything produced in our own backyard isn’t going to be given a fair shake, without even being considered, let alone listened to.

Content directors seem to forget that the power of radio is that of influence. They know that a well-crafted commercial can change the public’s buying habits. The same goes with playing music. Matchbox 20 and Nickelback didn’t become popular in Australia because they were any good - it was because radio flogged them to death. As a small case study, the first time I heard Matchbox 20 was in the car on Triple M Sydney, in the few minutes before I started my 6am shift on a technical support help desk. The DJ said “I’m not too sure about this one, but I’ll let you decide. This is Matchbox 20 with ‘Long Day’.”

He was right. It wasn’t very good. Certainly not in comparison to then-recent local works by Powderfinger, You Am I and Even. And yet, Matchbox 20 were to become the dominant band on Triple M for the next few years. Imagine if they chose to play the singles from “Hourly Daily” by You Am I with the same frequency as they played Matchbox 20? The listeners would’ve jumped on those songs simply because they would be hearing them every day.

As it was, You Am I had three number 1 charting albums in a row in the 1990s (Hourly, Daily being one of them) without any help from commercial radio, but that doesn’t make it a win-win situation.

I still find it offensive that the radio industry is still finding excuses to avoid playing Australian music. It’s certainly not because there is a lack of it. The Triple J Unearthed website has over 100,000 songs uploaded over the last 10 years as a kick-off. And that’s not even everything available that you can find elsewhere on the internet. If a music director from a commercial radio station can’t find anything to play on air in that lot to start with, then they’re clearly not trying very hard.

I had an argument with someone in a Facebook group that, when faced with the point they weren’t playing enough local content, they were just trying to keep their station afloat, and that playing the mix of music they were currently playing was doing just that. I countered that playing Australian music on air and making money were not mutually exclusive. He accused me of questioning his integrity. He truly believed there was no money in playing Australian music on radio. Soon after, this discussion thread disappeared from the Facebook group altogether. Clearly this issue is a sticking point for those in the industry.

It is also a sticking point for creative types and music fans like myself, who are bored with the risk- averse radio playlists, playing the same old songs that have been played for the last 40 years. The 90s in Britain, and also in Australia, was a purple patch of musical creativity that is all but ignored by radio but still enjoyed by those who grew up through it, and being rediscovered by younger generations. There are new local bands, like Little Quirks for example, who have just signed an overseas record deal without the help of commercial radio. It would have made their career a lot easier if radio had bothered to play their part.

The Radio industry wonders why it is losing ground to podcasts and streaming. Have they ever considered breaking the mold and taking risks? Do they really know what listeners want? Or are they more interested in self-preservation? Australians don’t like having things forced down their throats by the media, however if radio made subtle changes to playlists by adding new Australian music, things would change for the better.

Will it ever happen? I’ll let you be the judge.


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