MediaWorks has announced the name of its new talk station and its presenter line up but, as Mark Jennings writes, it picked a tough day if it was hoping for more headlines.

Tova O’Brien’s impending move from TV3 to MediaWorks saw a flurry of coverage around the radio company’s plans to launch a new talk station. The high profile political reporter’s move created the buzz MediaWorks’ head of news and talk, Dallas Gurney wanted.

Two days after the O’Brien announcement, Gurney confirmed well known journalists Duncan Garner and Rachel Smalley would also be joining (the still to be named) station. A week later he played another card – Mark Richardson and Polly Gillespie had signed. It is called momentum building.

Two weeks later the final piece of the puzzle would land in media commentators inboxes – the name of the station and the timeslots of each host (although we knew Tova had breakfast) would be revealed.

That day was yesterday, but the vagaries of the news business, as they often do, upended the calculated effort. National Party chaos saturated the media space and, to add a little more pain, the latest radio ratings survey was also released. The GfK survey saw Newstalk ZB, the prime target of the new MediaWorks station, hit a record high.

Maybe Gurney anticipated that ZB would fall from its recent heady heights or maybe he simply didn’t realise the latest results would land at the same time as his big reveal – either way NZME’s (ZB’s owner) loud crowing must have hurt.

Already the number one commercial station in the country, Newstalk ZB added 42,000 listeners for an average weekly audience of 713,000. Gurney and O’Brien – when she catches her breath – will need to devise a way of stopping and reversing the runaway train that is Mike Hosking.

Hosking’s breakfast show increased its audience by 34,000 to surpass 490,000 listeners.

MediaWorks’ More FM was the number two breakfast show at 303,000 listeners nationally but dropped 28,000 from the previous surveyed period.

Significantly, Hosking gained a whopping 9.6 share points in the biggest market, Auckland. Gurney later described ZB’s soaring ratings as “eye-watering.”

How then is a newbie like O’Brien going to dent the powerhouse?

Gurney says recent history shows raw talent can win the day.

“In 1987 Paul Holmes was new too. He’d been fired from a couple of RNZ shows, gone and done his OE and then when it was announced he was taking over from Merv Smith, everyone’s reaction was – ‘what?’

“I know that [like Holmes] Tova has fire in her belly.”

With announcing the name of the new station, Today FM, Gurney joined the dots on who is going where.

Rachel Smalley will start at 5am and warm up the seat for O’Brien who takes over at 6.30am. Garner will follow O’Brien at 9am. Mark Richardson and Leah Panapa will do afternoons, where there is likely to be a bit more emphasis on entertainment than the hard news diet of the mornings. Gurney says Richardson and Panapa have chemistry.

Former cricketer and broadcaster Mark Richardson. Photo: Supplied

“They are good mates off-air already. I think together, on-air, their humour could produce something electric.”

Lloyd Burr, who is currently doing the drive time show on Magic Talk will stay in that slot while Polly Gillespie will do nights. Gurney says Gillespie’s show will be modelled on successful international shows where listeners talk about “their challenges and successes in life” rather than whinging. “This will be a talk station not a talkback station,” he says.

Gurney has a feeling that MediaWorks has got its timing right and Today FM will succeed where its predecessors Live and Magic have failed.

“If you look at the geo-politics there is a lot of fear, anxiety and nervousness in the world at the moment. Our vision is about helping solve the problem and not just poking the bear.

“The audience we are after is the group of people in their 40’s and 50’s who are not checking out…the ones who want to be part of the solution. We don’t want to be a home for outdated views.”

“The name, Today FM, reflects a different perspective. We want to create a radio station that represents New Zealand today.”

Gurney accepts that Today is hardly original. There are lots of radio stations and TV shows in America, Australia, Ireland and other countries that carry the same moniker.

Today FM was the name Paul Henry gave to a radio station he briefly owned in Masterton in the early 90’s.

“Today was the first name we came up with but we went through this process with our [advertising] agency and came up with 25 different names. In the end we came back to where we started and thought nothing beats ‘Today’.

The FM part of the station’s name is likely to be an interesting conundrum for Mediaworks.

When Radio Live became Magic Talk it lost some of its 100.6 FM frequencies  to its sister station, Magic Music. It is unclear where the FM frequencies for Auckland, and other cities like Tauranga, are going to come from.

“I accept that we can’t be the future of talk radio and be on AM. But we are not there yet – there are lots of balls in the air still and transmission is one.”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

Leave a comment