It’s not you, it’s the format

I haven’t had time to watch much comedy in the past few weeks apart from catching up with LOLZ RANDOMS-magnets Beached Az and The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote – hey, at least they’re short! – and fast-forwarding through several weeks worth of Rove to see how Judith Lucy’s segment’s been going – she’s great, but as someone who’s always divided audiences I worry how long she’ll last…which kinda brings me to what I have had time for: Tony Martin and Tony Wilson filling in for Derek Guille on 774 ABC Melbourne and ABC Victoria’s evening show.

Martin and Wilson, sometimes known as the Two Tones, have come off the subs bench for various people on 3RRR throughout the year, to much acclaim from their fans. But while the laid back, youthful, free-wheeling style of 3RRR has suited the Tones, their time on ABC Local has been a different experience.

As fill-ins, Tony and Tony couldn’t mess too much with the established format, which was fine when the topics of discussion were crime fiction, music, cinema, or even AFL (although Wilson obviously did the heavy lifting there), but when it came to more serious matters, like a segment on sexual assault, Tony Martin in particular struggled to find something appropriate to say.

Perhaps the clash of radio cultures was most strikingly obvious during the phone-ins. Whatever the topic, the majority of callers had anecdotes so deathly dull that Tony Martin could barely stop himself from laughing at whatever ageing waffler was telling them, while Tony Wilson tried as quickly and politely as possible to wrap said waffler up, and move things along.

It’s also fair to assume that such wafflers, who make up ABC Local’s core audience of baby boomers, radiophiles and the elderly, weren’t universally won over by Tony and Tony’s style of playing eclectic music between lots of joking around and obscure pop culture talk. Such listeners are essentially wowsers, used to hearing a very detailed, very serious and very long weather forecast at a certain time each evening, and definitely not the type to actively encourage Tony Martin to talk about Corey Haim or reference Blakey from On The Buses.

And herein lies the problem for Tony Martin, as brilliantly talented as he is, he’s a man with a distinctive style that doesn’t endear him to everyone. Opportunities at the increasingly bland youth-focused commercial radio stations are probably closed to him even if he wanted to go back (witness the failure of any of them to sign him after the demise of Get This), ABC Local tends to suit a more everyman personality (because as Tony pointed out repeatedly during the two weeks – on the ABC you can’t comment on anything), the commercial stations aimed at more mature audiences wouldn’t be right either (as proved when Tony filled-in on Melbourne’s Gold FM breakfast show and took the piss every time he had to do a live read – funny, but not something likely to keep you your job, even if it’s how Graham Kennedy kept his), and 3RRR, which does suit him, can’t pay him.

A different, but related problem is that whichever format a station’s gone for, that format is king. For someone like Tony Martin, who basically has his own format, the only possibilities are that:

  1. he tries to adopt a different persona in order to get work (unlikely)

  2. he is given a slot somewhere and is allowed the freedom to make it his own, with obscure pop-culture talk a-plenty and sketches consisting of clips of Julia Gillard using ill-fitting metaphors to describe the school’s stimulus fund being cut into Little Boot’s Remedy (sadly, also unlikely)

  3. digital radio takes off enough to make “minority interest” channels of the type that would suit Martin viable (again unlikely, if the British experience is any guide quirky start-up channels will either die on their arse or realise they have no option but to bland down in order to attract an audience)

  4. he plays the long game and sticks with 3RRR until someone offers him a paid gig elsewhere (things will get better soon, right?)

  5. he leaves the industry and starts a video shop (well, I’d join).

And if that doesn’t make you weep for the future of both comedy and radio in this country then clearly nothing will.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Generation X are now in their 30’s and 40’s and starting to outgrow the youth-focused stations like Nova, the Today Network and Triple J. Amongst the alternatives for these increasingly settled and family-oriented Gen Xers is ABC Local, which every couple of years manages to sign up someone a bit younger than their traditional audience, indicating that they’re not adverse to trying to attract the newly middle aged. A Gen X hero like Tony Martin could draw such people to a station like 774, but only if he were allowed the freedom to do what he does best.

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