Hamish Blake on scratching the audio itch

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 7 August 2018
Hamish Blake & Andy Lee

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Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) was quick to hammer a stake in the ground to ensure its deserting comedic radio stars Hamish Blake and Andy Lee would still be on its books in some fashion until 2019.

Despite the 2016 radio revelation that the pair would be leaving a 13–year career in radio to focus on their TV careers, SCA managed to keep Hamish & Andy for the whole of 2017, as well as shore up a deal for two series of 40 podcasts for 2018 and 2019.

Now, just five months into the new podcast venture, the Hamish & Andy original content offering has clocked up 13 million downloads as of 30 June. It also has the backing of major telco Telstra.

SCA said the vast majority of those downloads are by Australian podcast listeners. In newly completed SCA research conducted in May 2018 across all Australians, it showed one in five podcast listeners have listened to the new original podcast series. The research also shows that original podcast listening is growing in Australia, with 87% of podcast listeners now choosing original podcasts.

“Podcasting is another layer up from radio in terms of the intimacy,” Blake said.

“You might not have that immediacy where you can call straight into a podcast, like with radio, but we’ve noticed our podcast is hardcore interactive — the involvement is at a much deeper level than you just experience day–to–day doing a radio show.”

Blake said doing the podcast was a good way to “scratch the itch” as he and Lee weren’t ready to go “completely cold turkey” and stop hanging out with each other in the studio. They also weren’t ready to say goodbye to their audio fans.

The 36–year–old Australian said the beauty of doing podcasts is the level of engagement and buy–in that people have as they listen more intently. Blake said you can always tell an email that comes from a radio show listener versus a podcast listener as podcast listeners have “an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show”.

2016: Hamish Blake and his wife Zoe Foster-Blake became Bonds' ambassadors

“For us, success, excitement and pay–off really would look like a scenario where six months from now, we have several wild tangents on the go and a tribe or a community that understand all these odd references," he explained. "Essentially the podcast becomes its own world and then a lot of members of that community understand the world and all its references."

A stickier landing spot for brands

Blake admitted that a commercial partner here and there within podcasting is the viable way for this industry to move forward, rather than it being a subscription model.

“Advertising is making that morph and that jump from where it lived in traditional radio now into podcasting,” he said.

“We’re super open to it and we’re up for it. I think the golden rule just has to be authenticity.”

Blake, who starred in a Bonds TV ad alongside his wife Zoe Blake–Foster in 2016, was also the voiceover in an Apple iPhone ad in 2014. Just having one overarching brand sponsor who allows the whole thing to happen, he said, is good for certain podcasts too.

“We’re always going to be grateful for that brand and that partner and it allows us to authentically go ‘we’re super pumped to have this brand on board’ and we don’t have to read 24 different ads a show which probably dilutes the message a bit," he explained.

“In radio, it’s just a tick in a book, but in podcast it’s also about how hard you’re pressing on the page when you tick it — like a harder tick in a book with a podcast because it’s not just, ‘I spent some time listening to this’ like it is in radio, but in podcasting it’s ‘I’m listening to this, I listen deep and I trust this podcast'.

“I suppose it is a bit more of a stickier landing spot for brands to partner with.”

Blake said he and Lee have never been pushed into brand deals they’ve never wanted to do but added, “we definitely didn’t do ourselves any favours in our early promotional attempts”.

“I reckon the worst stuff we did was our own promotion. When it came to doing the network promos or the station promos we had no concept," he revealed.

"Early days, you don’t really know what you’ve got to say, so you just end up doing dumb stuff. You just end up doing really cheesy stuff and you basically end up trying to mimic everyone that’s come before, which doesn’t work for anyone. “I’m sure there’s a tonne of stuff through the radio network that we ended up doing for clients that they can’t have been that happy with, but we didn’t know what we were doing.

That was probably really smoothly managed by an account executive somewhere at SCA that we never heard about — covering for us and apologising for our young approach of having to do that sort of stuff.”

Ratings furore

The radio industry lives and breathes the radio ratings with major networks torpedoing out stat–rammed glowing press releases and primed senior executives within minutes of the surveys landing eight times a year. The shifts in total listener share across metro cities as well as top breakfast and drivetime slots are rarely without fanfare and hype, mixed with a dash of rivalrous backbiting. But do radio hosts get as swept up as the advertising suits?

“I say this with all due respect to your industry. Not at all,” Blake said. “Not at all, especially the last few years. In our early 20s, perhaps there may have been really early days in our career when the concept of ratings was new to us, but it seemed to be a big thing for other people, not us. It just wasn’t on our radar.

“It was like we came from another country and we were seeing everyone celebrate a national holiday we had no idea about. I guess it’s like never having heard of St Patrick’s Day and everyone’s dressing up in Ireland in green and making a big deal of something. You think, ‘Well, this seems to be really important to these people. I’ve really got no concept of what this is’”.

Blake believes it shouldn’t be the goal of any show hosts to care too deeply about the ratings. If you’re ever making a decision on air about content based on trying, or even buying into the fallacy that one small decision could affect ratings over another, Blake said you are “a long way away” from where he personally believes your head needs to be at to make good radio.

TV: True Story with Hamish & Andy

But radio is well and truly on the backburner now. The reason for bidding farewell to radio was the desire to forge a deeper career in TV. As well as seeing out their final year on broadcast radio, True Story with Hamish & Andy, made its debut for Channel Nine late 2017, cracking more than 1.28 million metro viewers according to OzTam overnight ratings.

The second season is now here and it’s not yet clear if it will be renewed for a third season. However, Blake said radio would always be an option.

“I’m not going to say I’m never going to do radio again,” he revealed. “We certainly have no immediate plans, nor any secret plans, to somehow launch an assault back on the airwaves.”

Compared to TV, Blake says radio is generous with its ratings, but if TV shows tank, the show can be pulled off the air within a week and the cast fired.

“That happens all the time in television. It’s such an immediate environment," he said. "With radio, it’s like, ‘hey, you were on for six weeks, then we took two weeks to tally up the ratings’ so by the time you hear about what they are, you’re so far down the track of doing something else, they can’t really tell you to get better because you might have gotten better in those eight weeks.”

So, is he worried about how season two of True Story will perform? “It’s either going to live or it’s going to die. You couldn’t rush back and re–edit the secret, successful version if for some reason it’s not working on air,” he said. “We’re lucky — and maybe this just comes from having gone around the block a couple of times in the industry — we’ve seen shows do great, we’ve seen shows get axed, and that’s just the game. Life marches on."

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