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OPINIONMediaMarch 30, 2023

The shutdown of Today FM is Mediaworks admitting its best days are behind it


The station was a bold, future-facing investment to diversify revenue streams. Yet internal opposition has broken the brand, writes Duncan Greive.

The text read, “Hey – tune into Today FM now if you can”. It came from a senior staffer there, and the omens were not good. It turned out that the following 30 minutes were the last moments of the station as originally conceived. It has now been summarily executed in an act of stunning brutality from the new regime at Mediaworks.

The station was launched amid a blaze of publicity a year ago, with the megawatt stardom of Tova O’Brien the heart of the campaign, leading a deep bench of veteran media talent, including hosts like Duncan Garner, Mark Richardson, Rachel Smalley, Leah Panapa and Lloyd Burr. Just as key were seasoned executives, including former ZB lead Dallas Gurney and Carol Hirschfeld and her decades of experience at the highest levels of impactful current affairs. The vision was to create a new talk and news brand that would over time give Mediaworks space in a whole new market, and allow it to imagine a future beyond the slow value decay of its radio assets.

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Now it’s gone, detonated within days of the departure of Cam Wallace, the CEO who placed the big bet on Today FM diversifying Mediaworks’ radio brands from the fading music stations into a serious play into news and talk. Acting CEO Wendy Palmer reportedly told staff that Today FM was losing around $1m a year on current revenues. If correct, that makes the decision even more mystifying – for a company at MediaWorks’ scale that is a trivial sum for the promise of a major new platform (and represents brilliant work from Today’s sales team). “Betrayal” is what Duncan Garner called it, and while it’s natural for hosts to be emotional while losing their jobs live on air, the shoe fits.

Rivals have talked up the low audience numbers, which is exactly what rivals are meant to do. But it’s worth remembering what was said when Wallace announced Today FM way back at the start of 2022. He told the Today FM team not to even look at ratings for two years, and always emphasised that this was a long-term, strategically motivated play to expand the range and scope of what Mediaworks stood for. It asked everyone from the company’s owners to staff working on other brands to trust that in a decade’s time this would all make sense, and that the dividends of a digital-forward brand which cut through into news and politics would echo throughout the business.

Former Mediaworks CEO Cam Wallace (Photo: Supplied)

It always was a tall order – the best way to have a successful talk radio brand is to have launched one decades ago. But the whole point of having a CEO is to allow them to lead. Multiple sources at Mediaworks have made it abundantly clear that at least one senior executive led a year-long campaign to undermine the station, using all his talent and energy to destroy something his colleagues were desperately trying to make work. He has won that battle, but the cost to Mediaworks will be very high.

It now is married to its music brands, which despite having dozens of brilliantly talented people working on and off air are showing signs of age. Music has been brutally disrupted by social and streaming, and an over-reliance on it is riskier than it might seem. More than that, any media company, even in radio, requires an adroit and open leadership to navigate this very different era. The 2021 Dew report into workplace culture has its echoes in Today’s axing. It revealed appalling behaviour, yet only on-air personalities ever wore the consequences for that. 

Radio is a very specific microclimate within media. Parts of it want to pretend the party will never be over, and that this internet thing is overblown. The way its brands keep ageing up – playing older and older catalogue music – reveals the lie at the heart of that proposition. Younger audiences, ie the 50%+ of the population under 40, have long since been lost to everything from podcasts to TikTok to YouTube. 

If you want to have a business which is not happily heading into the sunset, you need a plan. Today FM was that plan – an attempt to create a new multimedia brand from a standing start. It was always focussed on creating a layered content experience, with podcasts, adroitly-clipped TikToks, fired up opinion pieces and a real emphasis on video, all wrapped up in a beautifully expressed brand. The intention was to create sustainable long-term attention which would ultimately be monetised in a fundamentally different way from the music radio approach. That relies on dozens of small-town offices, many with their own hosts and sales teams, which historically made radio the small business miracle it has always been.

It was and remains effective in that narrow space, but has high fixed costs and very little opportunity to grow beyond that base, and reach that vast segment of the market which wants news, information, analysis and debate across multiple platforms. Today FM has been scuttled, with an almost gleeful speed long before its owners had anything like enough data to know whether it was working, or ever likely to. 

Those who had worked to undermine it from the start will be feeling triumphant right now. They hit play on an old Naked and Famous song after finally prying O’Brien and Garner from their electric closing minutes. ‘Young Blood’ was an irony-drenched choice, given the deliberately retrograde decision shutting Today FM represents. But in some respects it’s apt – a banger from the GFC era, the last time that any legacy media forms felt like they still owned the culture.

Once the redundancy payments are swallowed, there’s no doubt Mediaworks will be able to bask in a few quarters of profitability again. But the bill will come due over time. Try recruiting anyone interesting when they know this is the kind of stickability you show as an organisation. Try telling a story about growth when you’ve deliberately chosen to retreat. 

Most of all, imagine looking back on this decade from 2030, with your AM/FM networks, and trying to get excited about another batch of outrageous stunts to gin up the numbers for survey week. There were no guarantees with Today – but at least it was a big swing to build a bridge to the future. Its summary execution leaves Mediaworks marooned in the past.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.

Declaration: The Spinoff has a small content sharing agreement with Today FM. It absolutely had no influence over this column.

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