King of the airways

King of the airways, by Jason Dowling - 21st August 2003
Credit: The Age

When Neil Mitchell talks, middle Victoria listens. Jason Dowling looks into the formula of his success.

The 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.

"Neil Mitchell knows Melbourne and he's a normal fella," 57-year-old Peter says, stepping out of his taxi, pleased to have an audience.

Greg, 50, in the taxi behind, agrees, "I can understand Mitchell, he knows what he's talking about."

Taxi drivers matter to talk radio because they represent a considerable dedicated audience. For much the same reason, talk radio matters to politicians, advertisers and business.

And as last week's ratings figures confirmed, Mitchell has the largest morning radio audience in Melbourne.

It's 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.

Sitting 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."

But 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.

It 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.

"Neil 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 a year."

For 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.

Mitchell recalls the period with bitterness and pride.

"I 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.

The media hype surrounding Faine's ratings victory probably helped extend his success, he reckons.

Mitchell 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.

Not 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.

"They 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.

The departure of Zemanek and Mitchell's subtle changes appear to have worked, with many older listeners returning to AW.

But 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 should.

3AW attracts mostly older listeners, consistently rating highest in the 40-plus age bracket in the Nielsen surveys.

Clark 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," he says.

Faine 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.

But Mitchell recoils at any suggestion that commercial talk radio is simply the arena of the elderly or the bigoted.

"Sure 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.

Talk radio is not sensationalist. Well, not much, anyway.

Melbourne's 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.

Mitchell 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 bought it".

"I had never intended to do radio and probably still feel at heart that I am a newspaper journalist," he says.

Michael 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.

"He 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.

In 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.

Forbes believes Mitchell has a good nose for what the middle-of-the-road audience would find interesting and identifies local issues well.

"For this reason, the program sits very comfortably with a Herald Sun audience," he says. Mitchell, indeed, derives many stories from the paper.

Despite 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.

"The fact that we were knocked off top after being there for so long means it could happen again tomorrow."

It's 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.

"Well, 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."

It's an unlikely prospect.

"3AW without Neil Mitchell would be unthinkable," says Forbes.

Much like a taxi driver without an opinion.

Neil Mitchell is on 3AW from 8.30am weekdays.


3AW official website

3AW Talking Melbourne 1278 - Neil Mitchell

3AK Talking Melbourne 1278 - Glossing Over

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