For more than a decade, it’s been something of a national pastime to proclaim the irrelevance of Triple J. But while Australia’s national youth broadcaster has faced some controversies in that time – over the timing of its annual Hottest 100 countdown, softball interviews of far-right figures and, most recently, a regrettable tweet – it’s held on remarkably well to its core demographic of 18-to-24-year-old listeners.
Until now. Last month, the year’s fourth radio ratings survey confirmed that Triple J has been shedding those listeners, with its audience share in that demographic dropping by an average of 2.5% across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide between late April and late June. (Audience share is a metric theoretically unaffected by overall upward or downward trends in listenership, making it the most useful measurement here.)
Compare this year’s numbers to the same time last year and it looks even worse: in Sydney, Triple J’s share among 18-to-24-year-olds dropped from 7.7% to 4.4%, while its share in Melbourne took a 4.2% hit. Triple J listenership among millennials and gen X, meanwhile, stayed roughly the same.
Triple J is a taxpayer-funded entity with a specific mandate to reach 18-to-24-year-olds, so audience shifts deserve scrutiny. They could have real significance too. For years, Triple J has been the most important platform for new Australian music. The only national youth-focussed terrestrial radio station, it has the power to break new local acts and support their national tours. It was instrumental in the rise of global success stories like Amy Shark, Vance Joy, Flume and Dean Lewis.
The station’s 40% minimum Australian content quota – which is well above commercial radio’s 25% – means that many young bands get their first radio play on Triple J, and its extraordinary reach means that artists, tour promoters and festivals are often reliant on the station’s support. In regional areas especially, Triple J is a juggernaut. A ratings survey from late 2021 showed the station was holding a nearly 40% audience share among 18-to-24s in Newcastle and the Gold Coast.
But its targeted demographic seems to be tuning out – so we spoke to some to find out why. The answer? It’s complicated.
Shifting subcultures vs the ‘Triple J sound’
The perception that its audience is ageing has dogged Triple J for a while now. The station has been aggressive in its attempts to shake its millennial listeners in favour of gen Z. In 2014, they launched Double J, a digital sister station that plays more legacy Australian acts (Sarah Blasko, Magic Dirt), adult-leaning contemporary acts (Courtney Barnett, Ngaiire) and former “Triple J artists” who have aged into Double J territory (the Avalanches, Julia Stone).
Meanwhile, Triple J itself underwent a staffing overhaul. In 2017, longtime music director Richard Kingsmill moved into a role coordinating the music directors across Triple J, Triple J Unearthed, Double J, ABC Radio and ABC Country, with longtime assistant music director Nick Findlay replacing him at Triple J. (Kingsmill still hosts 2022, Triple J’s weekly new music show.) Many of the station’s most recognisable personalities, including Zan Rowe, Linda Marigliano and Tom Tilley, exited the station, making way for younger presenters like Avani Dias, Lucy Smith, Dave Woodhead, Bridget Hustwaite, Ebony Boadu and Bryce Mills. They even tried to shitpost their way to a younger audience, with a tweet suggesting that much of its audience had “aged out”, sparking accusations of ageism. (Representatives for Triple J declined to comment for this piece.)
It would be easy to attribute Triple J’s decline in audience to an overall decline in terrestrial radio listenership among gen Z – but the numbers, generally, say otherwise. In Sydney and Perth, radio listenership overall saw a modest increase among gen Z in the last survey. Notably, in Sydney, 2DAY FM, KIIS FM and Smooth FM – the latter of which largely targets baby boomers – all saw significant increases of gen Z listeners in the past few months.
So how to account for Triple J’s loss? Two lapsed listeners told the Guardian that the “Triple J sound” long associated with the station was the main reason they stopped tuning in. Harrison Khannah, a 22-year-old software engineer from Sydney, first began listening to Triple J in 2016. As time went on his tastes evolved, but the station’s playlist seemed to stay the same: dominated by garage-pop bands. “[Triple J] was meant to be so open and free and accepting,” he says, “but realistically, [they’re] not covering all bases.”
Harry Green, also 22 and from Melbourne, plays in the band Mouseatouille. He, like Khannah, feels the station’s programming is consistent to a fault. “It felt as though there was a particular Triple J sound” when it came to Australian bands, Green says. He first started listening to Triple J regularly in 2011; now, he prefers to discover music in other ways. “In the mid-2010s I switched to Discord servers and niche internet forums for finding new music – that or the old-school way of just going to gigs and checking out the supporting acts.” This tracks with the way the internet has essentially destroyed the alternative subcultures Triple J traditionally served, in favour of ultra-specific micro-genres like hyperpop and digicore, which emerged online.
But is there really a “Triple J sound”? It’s undeniable that a certain kind of hooky guitar band gets a lot of airtime: groups like Spacey Jane, Lime Cordiale, Skegss and Ball Park Music are consistently among the most played artists on the station every year.
But Triple J’s programming has changed drastically over the past few years too, having more in common now with commercial stations: pop A-listers including Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X and The Kid Laroi are all playlist fixtures, with Eilish even winning the Hottest 100 in 2018 – an outcome that would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier. It’s an aesthetic change in line with the tides of culture more broadly: the boundaries between what’s considered “alternative” and “mainstream” feel totally arbitrary in an era where Phoebe Bridgers collaborates with Taylor Swift.
There’s more competition – and it’s more curated
Embracing more pop and rap is a way for Triple J to court gen Z, but it faces significant hurdles. TikTok, YouTube and streaming services offer far more tailored music discovery experiences and are far more integrated into their audiences’ lives.
“Most people just find [new music] through the algorithm,” Green says. “It’s right there on our phones giving us recommendations constantly, and there’s no news or banter in between songs.” Unlike those platforms, Triple J can’t possibly be everybody’s everything.
Even among young listeners who do still prefer radio, there’s more competition than ever. Local radio stations like Triple R, FBI and 4ZZZ still hold massive influence and were valuable community resources during the recent lockdowns. Meanwhile, niche DIY internet radio stations like Skylab Radio in Melbourne and Nomad Radio in Sydney – as well as international stalwarts like London’s NTS and New York’s The Lot – have gained significant followings.
Rielly Haberecht, a 24-year-old retail worker based in Geelong, says it’s “not really that common” for any of his friends to listen to Triple J. “I’ve engaged with Triple J a few times, but more for the novelty of a Hottest 100 or a Splendour live set. It’s never really been a destination where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, I want to listen to some great music’,” he says. He and his friends prefer music discovery experiences that are more specific to their tastes, like curated playlists, TikTok videos that suggest new music based on what you like and Spotify’s discovery algorithm, which he finds “consistent and reliable”.
His generation has had access to niche, curated listening experiences for so long that, by the time they age into Triple J’s demographic – by the time they might have their own car in which to listen to the radio, for example – their taste is already fully formed. “[Young people are] coming in with predisposed music tastes,” he says, “and they might not necessarily fit into what Triple J has previously been.”
A loss in audience – but not in influence
Triple J’s ratings predicament could be a reflection of its own success: gen X and millennials are simply refusing to stop listening, which may be creating a perception that Triple J is for an older generation.
Speaking to the Guardian, Louisa Thurn, a 24-year-old DJ and presenter on FBI, said “there are a lot of memes about Richard Kingsmill just not giving up his position … That’s not the case anymore, but that cultural [perception] still exists. That overarching perception – that Triple J isn’t by the youth for the youth anymore – could be contributing to [its ratings decline].”
It’s also easy to forget that – at nearly 50 – Triple J has been a dominant cultural force since before gen Z were born. Khannah says Triple J’s earnest, pithy brand voice is another reason he tuned out, comparing it to the 30 Rock meme of Steve Buscemi in a backwards cap. “With the recent election, [current affairs show Hack] was like, ‘What’s up with this election?’,” he says. “Everyone knows what an election is – like, it’s a fucking election.”
Of course, the question hanging over all of this is: do terrestrial radio ratings even matter? The number of 18-to-24-year-olds listening to radio each week – around 500,000 a week in Sydney and Melbourne, and fewer than half that in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide – is paltry compared with the streams being tracked on YouTube and TikTok, two platforms on which Triple J is active.
And the industry still clearly covets the station’s support: multiple artists declined to comment on the record for this piece, with representatives for one saying they were afraid of jeopardising any potential Triple J support. Even if the station’s audience share is declining among 18-to-24s, it doesn’t mean it’s losing its overall reach among that demographic or its influence in the industry.
But at the very least, the ratings shift – and the myriad theories that explain it – suggests the station’s position as Australia’s main arbiter of youth music culture could be precarious. Perhaps it’s not Triple J itself that needs a re-evaluation but its mandate: if radio is no longer a viable way to reach young Australians, it can’t help but be playing a losing game.