The Pak N Save-style logo associated with radio station Brian FM.
Brian FM is this logo, music, and little else. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BusinessMay 13, 2023

Who is Brian and why is he breaking every rule of FM radio?

The Pak N Save-style logo associated with radio station Brian FM.
Brian FM is this logo, music, and little else. (Image: Tina Tiller)

They refuse to run ads, don’t have any DJs and play whatever songs they feel like. Yet regional radio station Brian FM is flourishing. How?

No, Andrew Jeffries doesn’t want his photo in this story. Neither does he want anything about his background included. As the founder of Brian FM, he’d very much like the focus of any line of questioning to stay firmly on the topic at hand, which is his renegade regional radio network. “It’s about the station,” he says. “It’s not about me.”

Yet, on that, he also doesn’t want to reveal too much. “We’re a little more mysterious than the other guys,” he warns, via email, ahead of our interview. Over the phone, he’s even warier. “Are we saying hello first and doing a dance, or are we straight into it?” he asks. “Are we chatting on the record or off the record?”

Who or what exactly is Brian FM? I’ve called Jeffries to find out more. Fourteen years ago, the small Marlborough radio station kicked off with nothing more than a hangover, a cheap frequency, a Pak’nSave-style face squiggle supplied by a mate and a dream to create something different to everything other commercial radio station. 

That means no ads and no DJs, just curated playlists created by Jeffries the day prior, piped into 13 regional markets. Unless you go online, you can’t tune in from Auckland or Wellington, but you can find it on the dial if you’re in Ashburton, Timaru and Oamaru. It plays music and only music, the only deviation being the occasional mention of the station’s name, and that of select sponsors.

A list of the rules adhered to by the regional radio station Brian FM.
Brian FM’s strict code of conduct

It is, says Jeffries, all about the music. Brian FM supplies the most hectic jukebox you can find on Aotearoa’s airwaves. Across the week The Spinoff tunes in, Six60 smashes up against Alannah Miles, Depeche Mode crashes into Death Cab For Cutie. Suddenly, Dave Dobbyn begins crooning before P!nk, The Killers and Twentyone Pilots take over.

Jeffries admits he and his mates concoct playlists on the fly, usually creating a playlist of hundreds of songs the day prior. Yes, their choices tend to be nostalgic, but they won’t rule anything out. “We’ll play [Metallica’s] ‘Enter Sandman,'” he says. “A little bit of Outkast, Eminem, Snoop.” Coming up next, Jeffries announces to me and no one else, is Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’.

Despite breaking just about every rule of commercial radio, Brian FM is flourishing. It’s just spread to Hanmer Springs, Taranaki and Southland. Jeffries is eyeing up more markets, and it’s getting so big competitors might be trying to steal his thunder. Just last week, Mediaworks replaced its shortlived talk station Today FM with a throwback music station called Channel X. The playlist sounds suspiciously similar to Brian’s. “That’s a watch and wait,” quips Jeffries when asked.

What Channel X doesn’t have is a cult fan base built over years of airtime. “I don’t know how they’re managing to do it but I really hope their business model is sustainable, because good grief I cannot listen to other radio stations without hate-stabbing the off switch,” says a Redditor who started a thread called “Brian FM is a treasure”. Among the dozens of comments, one says: “It reminds me of early George or bFM.”

I would also add into that mix Channel Z, the notorious 90s alt-rock station that stuck around for a good time, not a long time. Jeffries – after 10 minutes on the phone, he’s finally beginning to open up – begs to differ. “That’s a different world what we do,” he says. “That’s a commercial station with a large corporation that owns it, and it expects a return on their investment. The end result is a radio station that sounds like a radio station.” 

Brian FM, the radio station that says it doesn’t sound like any other radio station, started over a drink. “We were drinking beers at a mate’s place and listening to songs off of my phone,” says Jeffries. “We were going, ‘You never hear this song anymore… Don’t hear that anymore…'” One friend suggested Jeffries start his own radio station. “I went, ‘Yeah, right.’ The next day we woke up, sat down and looked at it … One thing led to another. We said, ‘Let’s start a radio station and see how it goes.’ And that’s it.”

Jeffries named it ‘Brian’ by mashing up his kids’ names Blair and Ryan. It kicked off in Marlborough, then moved to Whanganui. “That’s as far as we ever thought it would go,” he says. He pulls out a classic dad joke to explain what happened next: “It’s like gorse – if you leave us unattended we spread.” Jeffries began buying up regional frequencies as they became available, shifting Brian FM into areas he thought it might work, then courting sponsors.

Now, with just five staff, including Jeffries’ wife Vicky, and their kids Blair and Ryan chipping in part-time, with the same face squiggle from 14 years ago fronting the entire operation, Brian FM seems to be enjoying a niche all of its own creation. “We just do it differently,” says Jeffries. “There’s a lot less repetition, a lot more variety and frankly a lot more fun. We just play what we feel like.” Again, he announces another song to me and only me: Three Days Grace 2006 hit ‘Pain’.

It is, Jeffries admits, the “antidote” to his decades spent working on radio stations around the world. He may not want to admit to his radio past, but it’s easy to research it. In a Stuff story from 2018, Jeffries revealed his CV includes stints working at Capital Radio, Kerrang! Radio and Kiss 100 London before moving to Los Angeles to head 90 – yes, 90 – iHeartRadio stations. There, private shows by Coldplay and Ed Sheeran were the norm.

Some of the T-shirts sold with slogans by Brian FM.
Some of the T-shirts sold with slogans by Brian FM.

He’s still involved in some of those other stations, Jeffries says, but since moving back to New Zealand and taking up residency in Blenheim, he admits Brian is taking up much more of his time. While he won’t pay for radio ratings – “It’s just another expense” – the station’s rising profile in Nelson could be a fair indication of what may be happening in similar regional markets. Does he think other stations are worried about him? “They’re aware of us,” he says, choosing his words carefully.

Jeffries, it seems, is back to being cagey. Is Brian FM coming to Auckland anytime soon? “It all comes down to finances … it’s an extremely expensive market to get into.” Is Brian making money? “We’re not a charity. We have to buy food … and beer.” On that, he also says: “It’s not about mass profiteering. It’s not about having a large corporate HQ. The creativity is more valuable than the big budgets, big players, big expensive versions [of this].” Is he trying to hark back to the pirate spirits of stations like Radio Hauraki? He likes that question, and laughs the long, hearty laugh of someone who’s been in radio for a long time. He doesn’t say any more.

Finally, will Jeffries please send me a photo to go with this story? He umms and ahhs, tells me to pull something off Brain’s Facebook page, then says: “We’ve just never done it.” How very Brian of him.

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