The PR-wing of the commercial radio community in Australia is getting everyone excited about a new report - that they commissioned and is weirdly in their favour - about how commercial radio in Australia is turning 100 years old this year on November 23rd.

The report tells a compelling story, which I don’t consider to be the actuality of local and regional commercial radio in Australia.

A few takeaways from the report include:

  • About three hours of locally significant content per day is broadcast in regional communities - which is pretty much just obeying the law.
  • 74% of Australians surveyed answered “sure, why not” when asked if they think commercial radio and audio build a sense of community.
  • Over 1/3 of the jobs in commercial radio are in about 1/3 of Australian society (that being, regional Australia).

And it was on the jobs issue I wanted to rebut the argument that Australian radio is “booming”.

It might be easy to try and point out that anyone born in the last 40 years doesn’t know what the antenna on their car is for, or how the Australian commercial radio industry has very poorly stepped foot into podcasting and internet distribution, especially in regards to local and regional content, one of the biggest voids in the sphere of content available today.

But instead I’ll share a personal story that might tell you how booming commercial radio is in regional Australia.

Late 2009 I accepted a role that I was so unqualified for that it was a joke. Twenty-seven years old, with only volunteer broadcast radio experience on my resume, having only even stepped foot in Western Australia once before at the other end of the state in Broome, let alone the small town of Esperance found on the far western side of the Great Australian Bight on Australia’s southern coast, 720 kilometres from the most remote city in the world, a forty hour nonstop drive from home.

The population of over 13,000 people had just shrunk a wee bit after the shock closure of the Ravensthorpe nickel mine in January of that year, but on a freezing cold Saturday morning this young buck who could not name song by The Travelling Wilburys found himself on the corner of Andrew and Demspter Street sitting at an outside broadcast studio in sub-zero temperatures (possibly).

I fell in love with the town of Esperance and its small population. It was a crime that I didn’t know who the Wilburys were considering one of its members had holidayed there, and it was a shame that 14 years on I appreciate the then Radiowest, now Triple M, playlist a lot more than that 27 year old did.

I moved on from that station to Star FM Port Macquarie just over a year later with many great friendships and a much more robust understanding of how to be a leading voice of a local community.

I bring up this anecdote because through COVID things were rough in the wedding industry and Britt and I considered changing many things in our life. One possibility was moving somewhere regional and quiet, somewhere far away, somewhere like Esperance and when the job advert for my old job as breakfast radio host popped up I got in touch. I loved the town and would have cherished the seachange, now with two daughters and now married to the girl I wrote letters to the last time I lived there.

Thirteen years on, with the Esperance population slowly growing, with industry slowly building, and the possibility for remote work in Australia slowly increasing thanks to the NBN and Starlink I thought things might be a little brighter for a modern family moving to the Great Southeast of WA.

  • The cost of goods has increased 36% since I last worked in Esperance. If you paid $60,000 for something in 2009 you were paying $86,000 for it now.
  • The average wage locally in Esperance (according to the ABS - 2021 to 2006) has increased 65% over (about) the same time period.
  • The cost of renting has actually doubled.
  • Esperance-Goldfields property purchase prices have increased about 13%.

But the wage on offer for the same job had decreased 7% and was most likely in a smaller team even though it was only a local staff of seven for two radio stations (I was the sole local programming hire) when I was there in 2009. There was the possibility of increasing the wage by also doing radio advertising sales but I’ve proven in the past that an advertising salesperson I am not.

The same role, for a slightly larger audience which would be begging for local stories and content in an ever-globalised content world, was paying $938 a week after tax - $177 more than the minimum wage.

The premise I’m making here is that the very heartbeat of commercial radio is creating a compelling story for an audience and inserting as many ads around that as possible. The fact that a community so bereft of local stories, news, and media personalities cannot support a good wage for someone to fill that role speaks to the weaknesses in the local media market, and the unwillingness of the corporation operating the media to invest there.

I remember a time at Radiowest Esperance where the technology that connects the telephone line to the broadcast console - which was already the simplest of radio technologies, old and very very simple - broke down and there was real deliberation as to whether it should be replaced. I posited the question: are we planning on taking phone calls and broadcasting phone calls and interviews on the radio station in the future? Were phone calls being broadcasted important to the job? I believed they were, but at all levels of management they weren’t sure it was worth it.

A 2009 era iPhone panorama photo of the low-tech Esperance studio

Maybe Esperance was never going to be a profitable radio station, and if so, hand the broadcast license over to a community radio organisation and let the community run it, like they do the fire and ambulance services.

Talking about the Esperance community spirit, we raised thousands (I think it was about $20,000) for the Perth Children’s Hospital when businesses could push their boss off the Tanker Jetty into the subzero Southern Ocean winter waters if they raised or donated $1000. If any community was going to excel at a community radio station it would be Esperance.

If a national commercial radio network can’t afford to pay a local content creator more than $177 a week over the minimum Australian wage to create and broadcast about 24 hours a week of local content by themselves without local assistance, then I cannot believe that commercial radio is soaring in popularity, or even breaking even financially as a business. Instead, commercial radio in Australia sounds like an industry that has ignored advances in civilisation, in communication, in broadcasting, and how societies work in 2023 and is just hanging on by the threads of people who haven’t got CarPlay yet.

Rest in peace, commercial radio. You were my first love, but at one hundred years old maybe it’s time to pass the batten to someone who understands how to be an integral part of a community.

This article has been updated because I’m a better podcaster and radio presenter than writer, plus I’m writing all this on my phone as I travel around Europe and the new autocorrect in the developer beta of iOS 17 is good but buggy