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Tova and Duncan
(Image: Tina Tiller)

MediaMarch 30, 2023

‘This is betrayal’: Duncan Garner and Tova O’Brien taken off-air as Today FM faces chop

Tova and Duncan
(Image: Tina Tiller)

The broadcasters let rip live on air ahead of an all-staff meeting at which the shutdown of the year-old station was announced.

“It looks like the end of us,” said Duncan Garner shortly before 9.30am this morning on Today FM.

“We’re being pulled off-air right now. Without even being given a chance,” said Tova O’Brien.

That exchange seems set to be the last heard from either of the two high-profile broadcasters on the station. They told listeners that the fate of Today FM appeared sealed – and they weren’t inclined to go down quietly.

At the start of Garner’s show, O’Brien arrived in the studio accompanied by her news team. “What’s the deal?” said Garner.

“It sounds like it’s over,” she said. “We haven’t been given a chance. We’ve been on air for just a year. We were told we had the support of everyone, from the chief executive through to the board, and they have fucked us. And we’re all going to lose our jobs. And the station is coming off air.”

Garner said: “This is betrayal.”

Shortly before 9am, O’Brien had told her audience that the show, and the station, were at risk: “We came into this organisation with this promise of a long-term strategy. We were going to go for at least five years and that’s when we were going to start seeing results. They had our back, from the CEO, to the executive to the board. And when I met with the acting chief executive I could not get that same assurances.”

She said: “We don’t know anything. We’ve gone off-piste, we’re hoping we’re not going to be dragged out of here by security guards because we’re supposed to be doing debate club right now but we thought it was important to share with you what’s been going on for us behind the scenes.”

After O’Brien joined him on air, Garner said: “This is going to be over pretty quick… we’ve been instructed to play music. I don’t think anyone is going to let Tova and I keep just gobbing off here.”

Producer Tom Day said in a tweet: “Mediaworks said Today FM was a five year plan. They have completely lied”.

A Today FM source told the Spinoff that O’Brien had led a delegation into the office of Wendy Palmer, interim chief executive, at the end of the breakfast show. There were high emotions at the meeting, with Palmer saying she could not discuss the decision until an all-staff meeting was held. That meeting, originally scheduled for noon, was brought forward to 9.30am. “There are a lot of very upset people,” said the source. “It’s off I’d say.”

According to Day, tweeting following the meeting, the Mediaworks board had approved a proposal to “shut down Today FM”. Staff have been given until this afternoon to make submissions in response.

At the meeting, Palmer told staff that since the end of last year the company had confronted “a massive block in terms of revenue”. She indicated that Today FM was likely to be a net annual cost to the company of more than $1 million. “The decision around Today FM that the board have come to is that we will close Today FM,” she told staff, adding that the digital division would remain intact.

In a statement to the Spinoff, Palmer said: “This morning at the MediaWorks Board’s request, we have taken Today FM off air while we consult with the team about the future of the station. This is a difficult time for the team and our priority is supporting them as we work through this process.”

The development comes after the resignation of chief executive Cam Wallace, who championed the station as an important new part of the radio mix in Aotearoa, and is on his way to a role at Qantas. That was swiftly followed by the announcement that Dallas Gurney, director of talk, would be departing.

Garner said this morning: “Dallas is a brilliant radio man. I think you’re right, Tova, there is something going on. We’re exposed, we don’t have a line of defence any more.”

The launch of Today FM, just over a year ago, was delayed following an employment dispute between O’Brien and Newshub, where she was formerly political editor. The station has struggled to make an indent in audience ratings.

A MediaWorks source characterised Today FM as having been hamstrung due to internal opposition from at least one senior executive, saying that the project had required nerve and tenacity.

At the end of O’Brien’s show, during the “debate” segment, Garner said: “Do we have to do a show at 9?” O’Brien replied: “And tomorrow and the next day and the next day because we will keep fighting for what we believe in at Today FM. We’ll keep fighting for our whānau, for our newsroom, for our teams.”

“People who own companies are brutal,” Garner. “If they need to make cuts, they’ll make cuts.”

O’Brien: “We’re talking every morning when we come in, what’s it going to be, what’s going to happen. We’ve not been able to get those assurances. What’s the board looking at? Are we coming back, are we the one?”

O’Brien said she remained optimistic. “We have to be because they will see sense,” she said. “People have to see sense. We are, as far as I know, the books are pretty good for us, the numbers they tell the story. And hopefully that is the story. Money! And there’s you. You, our listeners. I have every intention of staying here, and staying on air, but we really felt it was important for us to disclose what’s been going on here behind the scenes. We’ve tried to be professional and come in here every day, and enjoy it and we’re still enjoying it now.”

Garner announced he’d just received a text message from CEO, reading, “Could we have a catch up when you get off the air this morning please? Just pop into my office.”

O’Brien said: “That’s a few of us now who have been summoned into the chief executive’s office, the acting chief executive, and when I asked her last week for an assurance about …”

“Your job?”

“Our jobs. Our station, I couldn’t get anything,” said O’Brien.

“That’s a pretty unsettling text message to get three minutes before you’re going on air, isn’t it?”

“I’m hoping she’s calling us in to tell us we’re getting that assurance.”

“‘We think you’re doing really well, we’re gonna extend your contracts.’,” imagined Garner, sardonically.  

“In no reality that I live in do we go from getting 100% support of everybody for a long-term plan to lights out, so I can’t believe that anyone would be so short-sighted and so brutal and so ruthless, but …”

“Badly. Trust me, we’ve seen this before. It’ll play out badly.”

“We’ve all experienced it before.”

“In any universe, we’re buying quite a fight with certain sections of society.”

O’Brien said: “We’ve broken from regular programming, we’re hoping we’re not going to be dragged out of here by security guards, because we’re supposed to be doing Debate Club right now but we thought it was important to share with you what’s been going on for us behind the scenes. So whatever the decision is, hopefully a good one, nobody is going to be blindsided by it in our Today FM community.”

Addressing Garner and newsreader Carly Flynn, she said: “We love you guys, we love our newsroom, I love you two …”

Flynn said: “We love what we get to do here. It’s always such a privilege to get to talk to New Zealanders and share stories of cool Kiwis and what they’re doing, and I’m so proud of what we achieved in this last year.”

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

This post was updated to include breaking news.

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