of the airways, by Jason Dowling - 21st August 2003
Neil Mitchell talks, middle Victoria listens. Jason
Dowling looks into the formula of his success.
taxi drivers lining the Spencer Street rank are pretty
set in their ways. No one jumps the queue, they work
long hours and - judging by countless trips taken
criss-crossing the city - most of them listen to 3AW.
Mitchell knows Melbourne and he's a normal fella,"
57-year-old Peter says, stepping out of his taxi,
pleased to have an audience.
50, in the taxi behind, agrees, "I can understand
Mitchell, he knows what he's talking about."
drivers matter to talk radio because they represent
a considerable dedicated audience. For much the same
reason, talk radio matters to politicians, advertisers
as last week's ratings figures confirmed, Mitchell
has the largest morning radio audience in Melbourne.
not surprising when Sharon McCrohan, director of the
state government media unit, calls to speak with him.
"Premier's office ... must be in trouble,"
Mitchell says with a wry smile.
in his spacious corner office at 3AW's South Melbourne
studio, Mitchell is almost relaxed, not a state that
comes easily. "I would hate to work for me. I
am very hard on my staff and I am very hard on myself."
he has little reason to be unhappy; Mitchell has won
all five ratings surveys this year with his program
attracting 430,000 listeners who dip in and out over
the three-and-a-half hours - an average audience at
any time of about 142,000.
is little surprise, then, that Premier Steve Bracks
has continued the weekly spot adopted by his predecessor,
Jeff Kennett, who saw Mitchell's program as an opportunity
to float policy ideas and test public reaction, a
barometer of Melbourne public opinion.
obviously has quite a big audience", says the
Premier's media adviser, Jane Wilson. Besides, she
adds, "the Premier enjoys going on the program,
he has a good relationship with Neil Mitchell and
probably catches up with him for lunch once or twice
the 13 years Mitchell has hosted 3AW's morning show
he has won 75 out of 105 radio ratings surveys. No
one really expects Mitchell to lose, so when Jon Faine's
morning show on 774 ABC Melbourne bumped him off last
year, he was jolted and the media had a story.
recalls the period with bitterness and pride.
had people ringing up all the time and people wrote
stories saying I was gone, finished, and that was
the end of it. But we weren't, I wasn't dead, and
that was satisfying," he says.
media hype surrounding Faine's ratings victory probably
helped extend his success, he reckons.
has learnt from the experience. He takes more callers
now and has beefed up the final hour of the program.
He is speaking with callers in a less adversarial
manner - something learnt from 3AW's disastrous experiment
with Sydney shock jock Stan Zemanek last year.
only did the ratings on Zemanek's drive shift plummet,
he dragged other programs with him. The Zemanek factor
- although beyond the control of Mitchell and Faine
- affected both their audiences as Mitchell's older,
disenchanted listener base switched to the ABC.
were driven away by being called idiots and dickheads.
They were insulted," Mitchell says. "I think
the reason Stan didn't work was more his on-air style,
he just grated. It was based more on ignorance than
information, abuse rather than discussion - he lost
the plot and offended listeners," Mitchell says.
departure of Zemanek and Mitchell's subtle changes
appear to have worked, with many older listeners returning
Mitchell says he doesn't go to air with a photograph
of a 60-year-old gardener in front of him to remind
him who his audience is. The ratings suggest he probably
attracts mostly older listeners, consistently rating
highest in the 40-plus age bracket in the Nielsen
Forbes, 3AW program director and a former producer
on the Mitchell program, says 40-plus is AW's main
market. "You probably wouldn't target 3AW for
an advertising campaign if you were appealing to 18-year-olds,"
suggests some stations target an older audience with
stories about law and order, safety in the home, nursing
home waiting lists and self-funding retirees.
Mitchell recoils at any suggestion that commercial
talk radio is simply the arena of the elderly or the
there are redneck ratbags, there are left-wingers
and right-wingers, there are old and young. It's a
mix, it's representative," he says.
radio is not sensationalist. Well, not much, anyway.
discerning audience means talk radio cannot get away
with what it does in Sydney, he says. Which may partly
explain the popularity of Mitchell's news-based journalistic
style, a legacy of his days as a reporter.
joined The Age in 1969 as a cadet journalist, spending
15 years at the paper before moving to The Herald
for two years as editor, "resigning when Rupert
had never intended to do radio and probably still
feel at heart that I am a newspaper journalist,"
Gawenda, editor-in-chief of The Age, says one of the
keys to Mitchell's success is that he remains, in
many ways, a reporter.
understands his audience and he works with them,"
Gawenda says. The slogan of 3AW is "talking Melbourne",
and Mitchell's eye for a story means he talks Melbourne
better than most.
2002 Mitchell was named the best current affairs commentator
at the 2002 Commercial Radio Awards. He was president
of the Melbourne Press Club from 1999 to 2003.
believes Mitchell has a good nose for what the middle-of-the-road
audience would find interesting and identifies local
this reason, the program sits very comfortably with
a Herald Sun audience," he says. Mitchell, indeed,
derives many stories from the paper.
his popularity, Mitchell is often described as sullen
and gloomy. Radio, he says, saps your self-confidence
like no other profession. So despite the latest ratings
win, he isn't celebrating.
fact that we were knocked off top after being there
for so long means it could happen again tomorrow."
a realism that might have been born out of his other
passion, the Melbourne Football Club. It could also
be seen as pessimism. With his contract at 3AW due
to expire at the end of the year, he is tempted to
consider the possibility that he might have more time
to support his team next season.
look, I'm out of contract at the end of this year,"
he says. "I enjoy it and would be disappointed
if I am not here, but who knows."
an unlikely prospect.
without Neil Mitchell would be unthinkable,"
like a taxi driver without an opinion.
Mitchell is on 3AW from 8.30am weekdays.
Talking Melbourne 1278 - Neil Mitchell
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