Gotye poses with his Grammy awards for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance with Kimbra (R) and for Best Alternative Music Album, backstage at the 55th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles last February. Photo: Jonathan Alcorn
There are three certainties amid the current call for Triple J to be sold. The national youth network serves its audience, it can be annoying as all get-out - and privatisation would change both of those things for the worse.
Last week a senior Liberal senator, James McGrath, called for Triple J to be sold. The Queensland senator said Triple J would survive as a commercial enterprise because of its “demographic dominance and clear ability to stand on its own”. Family First's Bob Day supported the call, but didn't want the entire ABC sold off.
Former Silverchair, photographed way back in 1994, the year they were discovered by Triple J. Photo: Darren Pateman.
McGrath's argument was that because Triple J is successful in its target market it would work as a profit-making business, which seems a common-sense argument.
The fourth Sydney radio ratings for 2014 showed 2JJJ came in second (to Nova 96.9) in the key 18-24 age group, although in the July figures Triple J took a big hit, falling from 18.1 market share to 13.8. It was also second in the 25-39 age group, where it overturned Nova and closed the gap on leader Kiis 106.5.
In Melbourne 3JJJ came a distant fourth in the younger age bracket, well behind Fox FM and Nova 100 and fifth among 25-39s (although it was third in that age group in the previous survey).
Owl Eyes performs at the Falls Festival in Lorne. Photo: Rachel Murdolo.
While these are respectable figures, they are hardly market-leading. There's a lot that experienced, commercially-savvy radio programmers could do to lift those ratings, if that were the goal. More pranks and giveaways? Bigger name, polarising on-air talent? There must be many more where Kyle Sandilands came from. Vomiting into a bucket live on air and offending interviewees is hardly a rare talent, although it takes a certain (ahem) chutzpah to do it. All you need is a big night, a bigger head and a bad attitude.
If you are looking for some kind of context for Senator McGrath's comments, let's look at what else he called for: a review of the ABC's charter (because he says it "represents only inner-city leftist views"), increasing the GST and the abolition of federal health and education departments. One could draw the conclusion McGrath falls into line with a suite of traditional, even stereotypical, Liberal policies quicker than you could say "balance".
But left/right arguments aside, Triple J could be improved, no doubt. The on-air banter can be excruciating at times, amounting to little more than half-baked undergraduate comedy. It's often barely a notch up from the self-satisfied musings of community radio DJs, except delivered to a national (wince) audience. Better on-air comic talent exists no doubt and hefty salaries would smoke them out.
Of course, you'd need to commercialise the station to pay higher wages; advertising revenue could no doubt deliver a slicker Triple J. But what would the cost be and what would be lost?
Triple J's music doesn't always give us what we want: too much electronica and hip-hop some say, too much "hipster music", or just that the playlist is not what it used to be. (Translation: we are getting older and can't recognise or relate to the songs).
But by definition that is what a public service should do: serve the wider public interest, not its quick-fix tastes. Think about it, a commercial radio station is like a good party playlist: if you want to keep control of the stereo at a party you have to play songs that will keep as many hands in the air as possible. The holy grail is a playlist that has everyone dancing.
But such a station could never truly prioritise awkward goals like "showcasing Australian music", a platform on which the local music industry is able to continuously renew itself. Without Triple J supporting Australian artists like Gotye, Kimbra, Flume and Vance Joy and any number of hip-hop artists, may not have got the foothold from which to launch bigger careers. Go further back and you'll find iconic bands like Silverchair and Grinspoon were championed by Triple J. Fast forward and you may find bands like Sticky Fingers, Owl Eyes and San Cisco emerging out of the Triple J petri dish.
A commercial network has no such obligation to support Australian music, just a commercial imperative to play songs listeners love and to follow the tastes of the listeners who spend with advertisers. Triple J has been criticised for encouraging a formulaic sound (and for sure, it has become safer - for instance the daring Campbelltown rapper Kerser can't get played). But that formula is even narrower on big commercial radio networks, which are reluctant to risk unfamiliar or unfashionable sounds, instead preferring a familiar up-tempo, global R&B/pop sound.
Triple J still faces challenges to overcome perceptions of male bias in its playlist or the preferences of its listeners. But how would a profit-first approach overcome that? Arguably by prioritising what Dave Grohl so accurately dubbed "stripper pop" over the many female artists with the creativity and substance of Kimbra, Grimes or Haim.
The best argument for Triple J to remain public is its focus on new Australian music. Invariably, that involves risky choices - playing artists that you suspect may never grace the charts. Triple J plucks unknowns from its digital little brother, Unearthed, adding them to the playlist and crossing fingers, thumbs and toes. Many times that bravery has been rewarded and Australian music has benefited, but to find the gems plenty of rocks get polished too.
If time is money, in commercial broadcasting spinning the wheel and throwing up challenging content which might be unpopular is tantamount to bad business. In that world, throwing up Kyle Sandilands is a good choice.