It’s about eight o’clock on a Thursday morning in May and triple j’s breakfast team are hard at work. Robbie Buck, Marieke Hardy and Lindsay McDougall (The Doctor) are interviewing The Hilltop Hoods in preparation for their trip to Sale in regional Victoria for triple j’s One Night Stand concert the following Saturday.
But despite the talent gathered together in the ABC studio in Ultimo, the Hilltop Hoods interview of 28 May 2009 was not a particularly noteworthy piece of radio. McDougall and Hardy riffed with Suffa and Pressure, the Hilltop Hoods rappers, about the resemblance of their microphones to phalluses; Hardy made a joke about ‘brewer’s drop’, while Buck tried to draw the conversation back to the Hilltop Hoods’ headline performance at triple j’s One Night Stand in Sale. About the best that could be said for the interview was that it was diverting, perhaps mildly amusing.
This is the sort of moment on triple j that so annoys certain musicians and fans. It gives rise to the fear that triple j, supposedly a national youth public radio network with a licence to support and ‘unearth’ new Australian contemporary music, is simply a simulacrum of commercial FM stations, with a format and a music playlist not markedly dissimilar to national commercial networks such as Nova.
Is this the best we can expect of a taxpayer-funded national youth radio network? What exactly is the role of triple j, and is the network fulfilling it? Is triple j too commercial, or not commercial enough? Does it rotate too many songs, or does it play too much weird stuff that has resulted in the flight of its core audience of 18- to 24-year-olds? Is the network a national juggernaut that makes and breaks artists with impunity, or is it a relic of a bygone era, before the advent of the internet, when radio was the key way to listen to new music?
This essay attempts to answer some of these questions. In researching it, I spoke to musicians, music industry executives and radio people from across the sector, including triple j’s music director Richard Kingsmill and other staff at the broadcaster. What emerges is a picture of a network that, for all its significance, is in many ways misunderstood. Triple j is a keystone of contemporary Australian culture and a kind of strange hybrid that sits in an uncomfortable middle ground between its commercial and community radio cousins. Indeed, the level and intensity of criticism the network attracts is a sign of the network’s importance.
In late 2007 two Australian musicians, Ben McCarthy and Keir Nuttall, started a Facebook group entitled ‘Split JJJ into Two Competing Stations—Save the Oz Music Industry!’ Their idea was simple: create a second station alongside the existing model of triple j in the manner of BBC Two in the United Kingdom. The group’s manifesto does a good job of explaining what many Australian musicians find objectionable about triple j: ‘initially, the fact that it was a government entity (therefore not subject to commercial pressures) meant that it could provide an opportunity for diverse and obscure music that would never have a chance on commercial radio to be heard nationally,’ the group’s page records. But ‘[triple j] has strayed from this charter, and is now behaving like its commercial rivals i.e. it excludes variety and diversity in the name of building its own brand,’ the page continues. ‘Currently the only effective outlet for new artists is run like a typical government department.’
The Facebook group grew slowly until early 2009, was covered in the mainstream media and briefly gained some traction with Facebook members, before dwindling into the sort of semi-obscurity that describes the majority of Facebook campaigns. It boasted 2765 members by the start of June 2009. ‘As the discussion unfolded, some people pointed out that “split jjj” wasn’t a very practical idea and I came to agree,’ Nuttall explained to me in an email. ‘Lots of smart people joined the group and it really showed me what a complex issue the whole thing is and that I am not the kind of person who could be a lobbyist,’ he added.
But the Facebook group—Nuttall insists ‘it never became a proper campaign’—generated a lot of interest in Australia’s relatively small and highly-connected music industry, arguably far more than it warranted. This was partly because it dared to say the sort of things that can be heard over a pint of beer at any Australian rock music venue on any given night: that triple j was too commercial, or, alternatively, that triple j had lost ‘the kids’ to Nova by not being commercial enough; that triple j played too much hip-hop; that triple j won’t play your band if Richard Kingsmill doesn’t like your haircut; that triple j has abandoned its glory days of the nineties.
Some of these criticisms make no sense. At one level, the message-board chatter about triple j on websites such as Mess+Noise reveals nothing more than the prejudices of those writing them; a lot of the criticism of triple j is from people who no longer listen to the network or identify with its goals.
But many musicians have thoughtful and good-willed criticisms to make. Nuttall, for instance, is an award-winning songwriter and musician who co-writes and performs with Kate Miller-Heidke, one of Australia’s most talented emerging pop stars. He thinks a key problem is triple j’s ‘centralised playlist, which is all about nurturing triple j’s corporate identity rather than reflecting the community around it … Do Kings of Leon or Lily Allen need high rotation on taxpayer funded broadcasting?’ he asks, pointing out that US band the Kings of Leon are the most-played act on triple j. ‘This is not enhancing Australian culture and community, it is just positioning the triple j brand.’
Ben Butcher, a Melbourne musician, shares some of these concerns. Butcher has been in a number of bands that have received varying levels of support from triple j, including the highly regarded Baseball; he thinks triple j is Sydney-centric and finds it frustrating the network isn’t closer in nature to community stations. ‘‘When I hear bands like Phoenix, Kings of Leon and Bloc Party being constantly played, I can’t help but to think that old Sydney people are running the station, second guessing what the kids like …’ he wrote in an email.
But many in the industry have a different view. One of the most insightful is Stephen Green, the programmer for Queensland music industry conference Big Sound and an executive for digital radio services company DSTAR. Green worked as a radio ‘plugger’ for eight years in the 2000s and has detailed inside knowledge of the process of FM radio programming.
Like most Australian music fans, I didn’t know how a particular song makes it onto playlists on Australian radio. Green patiently explained the process to me in a long phone interview. The basics are disarmingly simple:
Basically the plugger has a meeting with a music director, brings in music and plays it … They’re relatively informal, most stations will do them once a week, in Sydney meetings are generally held on a Tuesday, everyone has their fifteen minutes or half an hour and they go in and pitch what they’ve got. Generally you don’t go all out and do Powerpoints, it’s about getting music directors to listen to it. If you’re sitting in front of them you know it’s being done.
Green told me that triple j pluggers meetings are slightly different to those at commercial stations. ‘They’ve got a slightly different group of pluggers, there’s a lot of indies that visit triple j that don’t visit commercial radio, like Remote Control and those kind of labels—triple j is their bread and butter.’ The pitch is also different. ‘What you’re pitching to triple j is a little bit different: they’re looking for potential, they’re looking for something that in a few years time is going to be bigger than Ben Hur—they want to champion something that’s going to be big.’
In contrast, Green says, commercial radio is looking for sure bets. ‘They’re just looking for the fact that it’s already popular, they’re looking for stuff that’s going to have a high familiarity rating with the listeners, something that’s not too hard to break.’
When I asked Richard Kingsmill about this process, he told me that triple j pluggers meetings are conducted on tight time-lines at the Ultimo offices. Stories of industry schmoozing, wining and dining are ‘a myth’. ‘We don’t place faith in those research methods that the commercial stations use, we’re looking at what people are requesting each night, but a lot of it is just gut instinct, we’re basing it on the mood of this place,’ Kingsmill said in an interview. ‘We’re employed to be music experts.’
Kingsmill’s deputy in the programming department, Nick Findlay, explained how new songs are added to triple j’s playlists. ‘We add eight songs a week to rotation, which may not seem like much but is actually bursting at the seams in terms of adding new music.’ In addition to the eight songs added to rotation, seven songs from the feature album are also rotated each week, and singles from previous week’s feature albums are ‘pushed up in the rotation’.
But it is also the case that Richard Kingsmill’s musical tastes and sensibilities are only a marginal part of triple j’s programming philosophy. The network is part of a demographic range that supports a diverse set of audiences. Triple j’s own programming data show that the network’s playlists sit somewhere between the commercial networks and community stations. Between these two, triple j’s programming is shaped by the musical knowledge of its programmers and specialist announcers, as well as the demands of its listeners for popular songs by established artists. The result is a hybrid that accommodates a lot of diversity: big-name international artists jostle up against indie bands and unknown hopefuls ‘unearthed’ from triple j’s vast vault. Many more acts are played than on commercial radio and some acts are supported with a lot of enthusiasm.
According to Stephen Green, ‘It’s important that triple j doesn’t stray too far left [of centre] because it’s the vehicle for people’s musical exploration.’ Green explains it as a demographic shift whereby listeners’ tastes develop as they age.
You might start at Video Hits at age ten; by the time you get to your mid teens you’ve progressed onto Nova, they’re playing more progressive stuff and it starts to open your mind a little. Once that’s not enough for you, you jump to triple j: they’re playing a couple of songs you’ve heard on Nova, but they’re playing a lot of stuff you haven’t. Triple j helps you get on that journey where you are listening to new stuff, that’s the entry point to get you to listen to 4ZZZ and FBi. If you take triple j too left of centre, you are taking that link out of the chain of musical growth for people.
One way of understanding triple j’s niche is to talk to those who sit on either side of it. Dean Buchanon is program director at DMG’s commercial FM network Nova. Nova out-rates triple j by a handy margin in triple j’s key demographic of 18- to 24-year-olds, with a glossier and more commercial mix of music. Moreover, Nova’s disciplined and focused advertising strategy of ‘never more than two ads in a row’ sees it deliver a less promotion-heavy radio format than triple j, whose various station IDs, tour support promotions, triple j–branded events and associated audio clutter have now progressed to the stage where you can hear a promotion for the Big Day Out or a Lily Allen tour on the ostensibly non-commercial national broadcaster.
Nova’s national network of FM licences cost its corporate parent DMG Radio hundreds of millions of dollars when it bought them in federal government auctions in the early 2000s. Critics thought DMG had overpaid, but Nova proceeded to steal market share from all its rivals, becoming the number-one radio station for under forties by 2003.
‘We uncovered a massive audience that were interested in new music and music of all genres,’ Buchanon explained. ‘Once the Nova stations started to get critical mass, it started to change the landscape [in that] triple j was no longer the only domain for new music, the only brand that took risks on new music, and the Austereo stations were no longer the only ones that played hits.’
Buchanon believes triple j has moved closer to Nova’s programming philosophy. ‘Triple j appears to have become a lot closer to a commercial player like Nova in recent times,’ he said. ‘They’ll play big commercial bands like Kings of Leon, where eighteen months ago they wouldn’t have because they were commercially successful.’
At the other end of the spectrum in Australian radio lies the community sector. This large and diverse collection of more than 300 community radio stations includes niche, local and special interest radio outlets, ranging from small rural broadcasters to medium-sized FM music stations such as FBi in Sydney and 3RRR in Melbourne. Australia’s capital cities have enjoyed a diverse and healthy alternative to commercial radio since the mid 1970s, with stations such as 3RRR and 4ZZZ becoming genuine landmarks in the cultural scene of their cities. Despite this, community radio in Australia remains underfunded, with most stations relying on volunteer labour and community fundraising to survive. It’s a difficult environment, which has seen heavily indebted community station FBi in Sydney reach crisis point this year.
‘We’ve always had a high debt that we’ve managed,’ FBi’s Dan Zilber told me on the phone from Sydney. ‘What we’ve found over the last six months as the economy has declined is that our sponsors have had less money to spend with us and budgets have reduced.’ FBi needs to raise $1 million to pay back these start-up loans. It’s a challenging task in the current environment, but Zilber sees it as critical to Sydney’s musical and cultural diversity. ‘I guess I see FBi’s job as reflecting Sydney back at itself, and perpetually reflecting the cultural fabric of the city back to the people.’
Stations such as FBi, 2SER, 3RRR, 3PBS, 4ZZZ and RTRfm generally support contemporary music of a quirkier, less commercial, more local and more independent nature than either triple j or the commercial networks. Although FBi maintains a relatively loose playlist, most community radio stations are completely unplaylisted, with announcers (often with deep and long-standing networks in their local music scenes) free to play whatever they want within station policies.
‘Some people look at community radio as a feeder for triple j and commercial radio, but that’s not true,’ says FBi’s Zilber. ‘You can’t deny a great pop song, but we’re not going to play something just because it’s going to be a real cross-over hit. We’re a place of passion and enthusiasm—we’re not just filling in a playlist.’
Kath Letch has been station manager at Melbourne’s 3RRR for fourteen years. ‘I think the community radio sector is a really broad sector with both specialist and general services,’ she said when I visited her at the station. ‘You’ve got classical stations—the MBS stations—ethnic and multicultural licences, the general licences.’ In contrast, ‘triple j is set up in a particular way,’ she continued. ‘In comparison to community radio, it’s a highly-funded service, it’s a staff-based operation, it has a more stereotypical structure and it’s set up as a national broadcaster. I think that changes your content and how you produce content.’
Like nearly everyone I talked to while researching this essay, Letch acknowledges triple j’s importance in regional Australia. ‘Triple j has been a really interesting development in terms of regional communities and young people that I think had very little that reflected their perspective on the world. The extension of a specific youth-based service nationally has been a very good development for people’s radio options.’
It’s impossible to discuss triple j without debating the influence of music director Richard Kingsmill. The focus on Kingsmill is perhaps unfortunate, given all that triple j does, but it cannot be avoided. In our interviews, other triple j staff often deferred to him and waited for the music director to speak before giving their thoughts. There is a sense in which Kingsmill’s musical tastes—in hip-hop, in indie rock and in pop—help define triple j’s musical personality.
Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing will depend of what you think of the man himself. You could argue that the criticism that triple j is programmed by a small group of people led by Richard Kingsmill is not really a criticism at all. As one of the longest-standing radio announcers in the country, Kingsmill has shaped the voice and identity of triple j (and through it, Australian music in general) for more than two decades. In some ways, he can lay significant claim as a fascinating and important cultural figure in his own right. The wonderful thing about triple j’s history, Kingsmill told me,
is that we’ve had competitors and other media come along to rival our audience and rival what we do, but the station has always remained pretty fixed in its ideals. One is be a strong supporter of Australian music. We set a benchmark of 40 per cent Australian music, day in, day out, throughout the month. That figure last month was 42.99 per cent. So that commitment to Australian music is still there after thirty years, that hasn’t changed. We’ve got a commitment to live music that hasn’t changed in thirty years. We’ve got a commitment to discovering and fostering new Australian talent and bringing them up through the ranks, and it’s also about trying to expose as much of the exciting overseas music as much as we can in amongst that as well.
Kingsmill is aware of the criticism triple j attracts, and doesn’t hide the fact he finds much of it unfair. ‘The mistruths are the ones that are most upsetting, that’s when it hurts. I’m not saying we’re perfect but we try really, really hard to get it right.’
After twenty years at triple j, and nearly thirty in radio, Kingsmill shows no signs of slowing down. In person he is quite intense, with a certain highly strung energy in his communication style; Kingsmill cares. ‘We would never talk down to our audience. We engage them as much as we possibly can. The audience we’ve got now, it’s a national audience, it’s an excited audience, it’s the same [size] audience as we had ten years ago, it’s the same kind of people.’
Although music is triple j’s focus, the network does a range of things outside music. Among the best of these is Hack, triple j’s daily youth current affairs show. As producer James West pointed out to me, the show is unique in its ambit and scope. West, a 27-year-old with a degree in journalism from New York University, got his start as a junior reporter for triple j as a 20-year-old—another example of triple j’s history of giving talented young presenters a chance.
West argues persuasively that Hack occupies some of the best radio real estate in the country: 5.30 to 6.00 p.m. on a national FM network. Hack has the resources to deliver high-quality radio journalism; indeed, the show can at times be every bit as good as that delivered by Hack’s more ‘adult’ colleagues on ABC Radio. He points to triple j’s coverage of the Pacific Adventurer oil spill in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, and Hack’s exploration of the declining fortunes of Australian basketball. ‘We included an analysis of Firepower, the greatest corporate swindle this country has ever seen, and we were able to talk to young basketballers—promising athletes—and get out to courts in western Sydney and talk to people who had only ever been fans of American basketball … For me,’ said West, ‘Hack is one of the only venues that can really engage in a conversation with young people in what matters to them.’
Ten days after I spoke to Richard Kingsmill, Nick Findlay and James West at triple j, the network held its One Night Stand in Sale. The event showed the network in its best light. In a town of barely 2000 people, triple j staged a sellout concert for 15,000 mainly young people that featured some of the most popular bands in the country, including the Hilltop Hoods, Eskimo Joe and the Butterfly Effect, as well as indie rock up-and-comers Children Collide and Gippsland’s Unearthed winners And Burn. Whatever triple j’s quirks, its ongoing commitment to young music audiences in non-capital-city Australia continues to define the network at its most socially engaged.
Dr Kate Ames is an academic at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton who studied triple j’s impact on regional audiences for her doctorate. ‘I moved to Rockhampton in the mid nineties, just after triple j had gone national. In Rocky at the time, there were only the two commercial AM stations. What I really noticed when triple j came to town was that there was an almost automatic conversion of youth culture in Rockhampton. I was driving down the street and it was Jump for Js day, and all these people were getting out and jumping, and I thought, this must be something.’
Ames believes triple j is a crucial source of cultural capital for young people living in the regions. ‘Triple j is a radio station that allows listeners to mentally leave the area they live in,’ she told me. ‘Triple j creates this sense of a virtual world that sits above where someone is located, it brings people together with a love of music, with a sense of being a little bit different.’
Kingsmill is proud of the Gippsland event. ‘Initiatives like that are key to what we do, it’s part of [our] philosophy … to broadcast to the whole of Australian public.’ For him, the One Night Stand in Sale is evidence that triple j continues to deliver. ‘Well, are we happy? Yeah. No-one around here goes “This place is broken” … there’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing, [although] there’s always tweaks and improvements to make.’
Triple j emerges as a kind of rough diamond, a quirky but wonderful institution that makes a unique contribution to the Australian cultural landscape. The network is sometimes mediocre, but often excellent. It does some things poorly, but does other things extraordinarily well. And it does some very important things, particularly in terms of its youth current affairs programming and its outreach to independent bands and regional communities, that no other Australian cultural institution even tries. As cringe-worthy as triple j can sometimes be, the network is irreplaceable; it fills a unique niche in the Australian cultural landscape .
A podcast of the author’s interview with triple j’s Richard Kingsmill and Nick Findlay is available on Spike.
1.triple j insists on being name-checked without any capitals. Like Australian rock band silverchair or the mobile phone company 3, the network’s small “t” and “j” is a conscious marketing decision and reflects a particular world-view that takes brand identity seriously. triple j’s marketing staff will vet press releases and posters for this punctuation to ensure the networks’ brand identity is maintained.