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(Image : MediaWorks/Tina Tiller)
(Image : MediaWorks/Tina Tiller)

MediaNovember 25, 2021

Meet the man who thinks he can fix Magic Talk

(Image : MediaWorks/Tina Tiller)
(Image : MediaWorks/Tina Tiller)

MediaWorks has announced the launch of its new talk brand Today FM, set to replace the embattled Magic Talk in 2022. 

Boasting a formidable new lineup of news and talk talent, Today FM is set to make a big impact on the local radio scene next year.

Replacing Magic Talk in MediaWorks’ stable of radio brands, Today FM will feature a new breakfast show hosted by outgoing Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien – which Toby Manhire predicted might “shift the tectonic plates of NZ talk radio”.

But O’Brien isn’t the only get: former Newstalk ZB host Rachel Smalley will front a new 5am show, going up against Kate Hawkesby, the broadcaster that replaced her on ZB. Duncan Garner, meanwhile, returns to the airwaves with a nine-to-noon show called Duncan Garner Today. His old AM Show colleague Mark Richardson will co-host an afternoon programme with existing Magic Talk broadcaster Leah Panapa. Lloyd Burr will continue in his current role hosting the drive show, while former ZM morning show host Polly Gillespie will be on air from 8pm until midnight. 

Whatever you make of those names individually, that is a big lineup. And it’s one that MediaWorks director of news and talk Dallas Gurney hopes can reset the Magic Talk brand after racism scandals, sudden departures and threats of an advertiser boycott.

The Spinoff: Magic Talk isn’t that old. Tell me why it already needs a fresh coat of paint?

Dallas Gurney: I think it’s been a long time coming. You can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing and get a different result. MediaWorks has been a dominant player in radio except for talk radio, and it’s been that way for decades. The reason I’m here is to design a talk radio station that changes that. 

But Magic Talk only replaced Radio Live a few years back. Why is it already outdated?

It’s partly the linking around Magic Music and Magic Talk and whether that had longevity. 

A rebrand was always going to be on the cards. But it’s more than that – it’s a reset moment. You go, “What do people want from talk radio stations in 2022, or 2025?” The last time this category was disrupted was in the 80s and New Zealand’s changed a lot since then. We’re asking, “What should a talk station stand for in modern New Zealand?”

Why Today FM?

It was always always on the shortlist, maybe name one or two. Today felt right. It reflects what people want from a talk radio station, which is to know what they need to know today. But it’s also to reflect a more modern Aotearoa.

You’ve assembled pretty much the biggest names you could for this new network. But it’s not the first time a MediaWorks talk station has assembled a big lineup of known names. Why will it be different this time?

It starts with the brand values. We’ve been designed from the outset to reflect a modern New Zealand. In order to disrupt the category, we have to do something different. We don’t want to be like ZB, we don’t want to chase ZB. We’ve done that and it hasn’t worked. We want this station to be a place where it’s a bit more positive, where we can talk about potential solutions to things rather than slamming each other about the place. 

Kiwis are pretty moderate: sometimes we vote left, sometimes we vote right. There’s a big place in the centre and that’s where governments change so there’s a whole audience there that’s not currently served by talk radio. We want to change that.

That sounds like a big pivot from where Magic’s current audience sits. Was it an intentional decision to shift the politics of the station?

It’s not necessarily about shifting the politics. It’s about going, “If we want to be the leader in talk, what do people want from a talk station?” It’s a reset. What we’ve done before has been done already, so how can we differentiate ourselves? 

If it’s not to beat Newstalk ZB, what’s the goal of Today FM?

To make New Zealand a better place through having decent conversations and coming up with solutions that help Kiwis in their day-to-day lives. 

I think from a commercial perspective, we recognise that this is a long game. ZB hasn’t become dominant in six months: it’s been that way for 20 or 30 years. It’s less about immediate commercial success and more about how we compete and win in five or 10 years. 

If you put the lineup of Today side by side with ZB, they seem pretty complementary?

Yes and no. Tova [O’Brien] leading our team at breakfast, she’s new to radio. But she’s shown again in the past 24 hours how much of a formidable journalist she is. I look at her and I’m so happy she’s come onboard. It’s about giving her a broader platform than she has at the moment. Her show – called Tova – will always have you wondering what’s happening. You’ll wonder who she’s going to be talking to. It’s going to be electric. 

And Mark Richardson: he’s a proven talent but less so in the news space?

He’ll be an incredibly enjoyable listen in the afternoon with Leah [Panapa]. When you look at what people want from an afternoon show, entertainment is top of the list. They’ll have that in spades. 

Are you worried that these changes could alienate existing Magic Talk listeners? 

If that happens it happens. We want to carry the audience forward that we have already. But the reality is something has to change. My desire is that every single one of those listeners give us a chance. It’s always a risk when you make big, bold changes like this, but we think there is a huge audience for this and it’s a largely unserved audience, and we can plug a gap.

This interview was edited for brevity. Today FM will launch in the first quarter of 2022.

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