"Go hard, go early," Ben Fordham on radio | radioinfo

"Go hard, go early," Ben Fordham on radio

Monday 04 December, 2017
Photo: Keynote Entertainment

Shock Jocks are often categorised as angry old men. Ben Fordham is neither. 

He's more measured, less combative than most of his  colleagues... his ideas more progressive.  ​At 42, he's younger than many of his counterparts on the FM band who cater to teens. Yet, 2GB listeners who tend to be older and more conservative put his Drive show at or near the top, survey after survey. 

In this chat with Peter Saxon, Ben Fordham talks about his career, life, family and the balancing act that goes with all that and where AM talk radio is headed. 

radioinfo: You were born into a sporting/showbiz family. Your father, John Fordham founded one of Australia’s pre-eminent talent management agencies, The Fordham Company. How did that impact on your up-bringing and your chosen career?   

Fordham: My earliest memories are of overhearing mum and dad in their office, which was our former garage. I think in those formative years I would have been doing a lot of eavesdropping and took a lot of it on board just by default.

radioinfo: Your brother, Nick, (left) now runs the company and you’re one of its biggest clients. How does that dynamic work at family get-togethers?

Fordham: I’m sure I’m not one of their biggest clients. They’ve got much bigger than me. My brother has done really well and is now running the business. Mum and Dad are still heavily involved. And the family dynamic is such that when we catch up, which is regularly at family things, you’re kidding yourself if you think you can separate the professional from the personal. We tend to get the business out of the way first as far as having a bit of a chat about what is going on with this and that and then we settle down and just enjoy a few laughs and then focus on family. 

I know some people have a rule of not working with friends or family. I tend to take the opposite  view. I think there’s a real argument for surrounding yourself with people that you genuinely like away from work.

radioinfo: And has an appreciation for fine wine also trickled down from the father to the sons?

Fordham: Very little knowledge about wine but a great thirst for it. I very much love my wine, like dad does, but I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I can write about it like he has through a lifetime.

radioinfo: No doubt you’d have a pretty comprehensive black book of celebrity names and numbers. Who is missing from your phone book that you’d love to have?

Fordham: Probably all the people I've pissed off. There's been a few of them. The truth is you can have some handy numbers in your black book but when they’re in the middle of a massive controversy they’re not taking phone calls anyway.

radioinfo: Your career has straddled both radio and television. But now you’ve established yourself in a rare position as the host of a major shift on the number one station in Australia’s biggest market. Do you see yourself doing this 20 years from now?

Fordham: I’ve got no idea. I don’t know. I’d only be guessing. If I was to take a punt on whether I’d still be doing this in 20 years? I think so. I think, I probably can, but I don’t think about it. I might find that thought depressing if I started thinking about doing it in 20 years time even though I love it today and I love it next year and the year after that.

But then again I’ve now done 6 years without even thinking about it. It’s happened in the blink of an eye and I’m just about to sign on to do another 5 years. I’m just sorting out the finer details on a five year contract at 2GB and then that takes me up to 11 years.

radioinfo: What would it take for you to walk away from it?

Fordham: If I could afford never to work again. You can never really guess what’s going to come up in this industry. You’d be kidding yourself to think, alright I know exactly where I’m going to be and things are going to remain the same forever. The truth is that from time to time your boss might decide, “hang on I’m sick of this bloke. I’m going to find someone else to do his job.” Or someone else might come along and tap you on the shoulder and say come and do this or that.

radioinfo: Interesting that you say that if you became independently wealthy, so that you didn’t have to work again, you’d give it away. There’s some, like John Laws, who certainly don’t need the money, have come out of retirement because they can't keep away from the microphone.

I love food, I love property, I love travel. I love plenty of other things like l love radio.

Fordham: People around me would laugh if they knew I was suggesting to you that I won't be working forever. I’m constantly accused of being a workaholic. I didn’t go to university. I did work experience when I was 15 and then basically they couldn’t get me out of the joint. One week of work experience and then when I was 16,17,18, even though I was still at school, I was in at 2UE answering phones and buying lunches and writing scripts and everything I was told to do, basically.

I’ve always taken the approach of "go hard and then go early." But hopefully there might be a bit of flexibility down the track. You never know. There’s a few other things I'm interested in outside of what I currently do. I look at my brother and think well there might be a time when we might work together one day. I love food, I love property, I love travel. I love plenty of other things like l love radio. So, I just wouldn’t rule out the idea of doing something else one day but I'm in no rush.

radioinfo: What’s the biggest buzz you get from your job right now?

If I’m not live then I’m not alive. 

Fordham: The biggest buzz is being live. I don’t think you can beat the live element of anything in broadcast media. But it’s horses for courses. I always wanted to be a 60 Minutes reporter and then I did a few stories for 60 Minutes and I really enjoyed doing them. But I discovered that that lifestyle wasn’t for me. I was sitting on a plane at one stage going to Portugal to film a piece to camera - 60 seconds worth of footage - and I remember sitting there on the tarmac waiting for this plane to take off, thinking this is madness because it was a long way to go to get a small piece of that story. But that’s the art-form of telling those longer stories and I always wanted to do that. I had the taste for it. But then I realised this doesn’t suit me very much. 

Then I got to do live TV on the Today show - and a lot of it. And then I realised that if I’m not live then I’m not alive. 

The danger element of it is so much higher. The risk element is present at all times. Doing a live three-hour radio show every afternoon where you wake up every day with a blank canvas and it's your job to come up with what is going to be exciting to the audience but also yourself… there’s something about that that’s good fun and also never knowing what’s just around the corner, is the thing that separates radio from live TV. The talkback element - when you’ve got someone ringing you you never quite know what they’re going to say or what you’re going to say.

Left: Ben visiting the upstairs neigbours, Fitzy & Wippa

radioinfo: Having started your Drive show on 2GB just a few years ago, you are an intern compared to the seasoned professionals around you like Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Steve Price. What are the key things you’ve learned from them?

Fordham: I’ve learned all different things from all of them and elements from many others as well.

I had been given a cadetship in the newsroom off the back of my 3 years hanging round the station doing other things. I basically finished year 12 and wandered into the newsroom. On my first day I said to (the News Director) Murray Olds “Well mate, what do I do?” because I’d already been hanging out weekends at the sports department but I had never worked in the newsroom before. 

He advised me to sit down and watch everyone else and if you really like something copy it and if you don’t like something don’t do it. Basically, have a look at the people around you. They’re all very talented and whatever you see that you like you might want to do that too. 

So I’ve always taken that approach. Apart from being just me because that’s what you are first and foremost, you’re going to take on some of those traits and if you really study it.

radioinfo: Your colleagues on 2GB are often referred to as shock jocks. Do you feel that that label applies to you?

I don’t see my role as trying to convince people to vote one way or another

Fordham: I don’t know, it can apply to me as much as it can apply to anyone else. I’m not really fussed about labels. I’ve been called a lot worse so I'm not really too fussed about it. It doesn’t bother me.

radioinfo: A generation or two ago, nobody would tell you what they earned or how they vote. It was considered impolite to ask. John Laws would never tell you how he voted. Now most talk announcers nail their colours to the wall. But I don’t get that impression listening to you.

Fordham: I kind of separate my vote from my show. The same-sex marriage thing was a classic example of that. I’m a long term supporter of SSM and have been advocating for SSM on 2GB since the year I arrived, which would have been 2011. But I didn’t feel the need during the SSM survey to campaign on my show for the Yes vote. My listeners know where I stand on it. I’ve told them many times where I stand on it. I don’t see my role as trying to convince people to vote one way or another, whether it’s SSM or who they’re going to vote for in the ballot box. 

I’m not saying I would never do it. There have certainly been times when I’ve campaigned for people like retired General Jim Molan. I tried to get him into the senate at the last election and I’d do the same next time around as I think he’d be great in parliament. But whatever you are campaigning for or getting behind, your listeners know it. It's not like there’s any secret about it. 

radioinfo: Some talk presenters have built successful careers abusing callers they don’t agree with, yet you make an effort not to do that.

Fordham: Well, I think that might have had its day. (The late) Stan Zemanek was a classic for that. Stan was a great mate of mine. He was great to me in my younger years. And I’m dear mates with (Stan’s wife) Marcella

But I used to occasionally take him to task over the way he spoke to some callers. But that was part of the entertainment of his show. And people knew what they were getting into when they called in. People knew if they were calling in as a greenie or an unemployed bong smoker to talk to Stan Zemanek, they kind of had a bit of an idea what was going to be coming their way -  they were going to have it dished it out. 

I try to be as realistic to the bloke you see in the street as I am on air. And the truth is that if someone came up to me and had a different  point of view in the street I wouldn’t start abusing them - I would have a conversation with them about it.

radioinfo: This business has ruined a lot of relationships of many of its practitioners, do you put a conscious effort into work-life balance?

Recently, someone asked me, “Surely you’d like to do Breakfast one day?”

Fordham: Yeah, I do. I have a home office setup but I’m not important enough to have the studio setup at home - as yet. But I’ve got the office set up at home and that allows me to do a bit of both. 

This morning we had an introduction day to my son’s pre-school for next year. That’s two days where they can go and learn the ropes and see what it’s all about. Today was day one, so I wanted to be there this morning. And that’s what I was doing this morning. 

It allows me to get up early, read the papers, work out what’s going on, do a conference call with my team at the radio show so they can start planning and putting out invitations for people I want on the show this afternoon. Later I’ll ring them and see who said yes and who said no… and of those who said no, can we twist their arms to say yes?

Left: Ben's wife, Jodie Speers with Freddy and Pearl and Santa.

I think it’s a must to have that balance right and I made a decision a few years ago. I gave up breakfast television because I wanted to. My wife and I were starting a family and it turned out that we kind of timed perfectly that I finished four years of being on the Today Show and our firstborn Freddy arrived that December. I’ve now got Pearl, Freddy’s turning three in a couple of weeks and Pearl’s just turning one. 

Recently, someone asked me, “Surely you’d like to do Breakfast one day?” And I said well it takes a special kind of person to be able to do that and to do it well. And I’ve got great admiration for people who are able to do it but I’ve also got other things going on in my life, like a little daughter who’s in that golden age at the moment where she’s starting to talk and learning how to walk and I don’t want to miss out on those moments with her as I had them with Freddy. It would be unfair of me to all of a sudden go Okay, I’m not here in the morning where Freddy and I had the beauty every morning of wandering up or jumping on the bike and going to the cafe and getting a babyccino and I want Pearl to have those things too. Once you know what you like and what you don’t like as much and sometimes its only through trial and error you learn more about yourself. 

FM will always be music and AM will always be talk.

And I also learned about my drive shift. Be careful what you wish for outside what you know and what you love. I know and love Drive. Drive time allows me to have a really good amount of interaction and time with my family. Most days I get to have breakfast with my wife and children and lunch with my wife and children and then go to work and there's not many people who can do that. 

radioinfo: Finally, what do you think the future is for talk on the AM band? Will younger listeners migrate from say Triple M to 2GB or FIVEaa or will FM become the new talk media?

Fordham: FM will always be music and AM will always be talk. There are exceptions to that rule around the place. Triple M introduced a national talkback show hosted by Luke Bona and a mate of mine Jessica Issa is the executive producer. They do talkback overnight at Triple M. So, there are breakouts. There are exceptions to the rule like that. 

And there are music shows on AM including the Ray Hadley Country Music Countdown on a Saturday night on 2GB. So, there are music shows on AM and talkback shows on FM but AM is talkback HQ and it always will be. There wont be much change to it. 

It’s always been the way that younger people tend to migrate to AM at various times of their life. Some of them, like me, it happened really early in life for others it will happen later in life and I guess there are a few that it wont happen at all to but I don’t think there any general changes. 

The thing about AM and talkback radio, if you have a look at 2GB, it’s the reliability and the stability that people like more than anything. It’s the familiarity of the voices - I’ve learnt that by sitting in a thousand taxis and Ubers where I talk to anyone I get into. I ask them about radio, if they’re listening to radio, and you realise people listen to stations and people because they know them more than anything else. 

So, it’s that knowing them, that same reliable voice and opinion that I think people tend to stick to more than anything when it comes to talkback. Listeners like that reliability.

Photos from benfordham9 Instagram page.


Peter Saxon

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Mark Bergin
4 December 2017 - 12:39pm
I wish someone had proof read this before posting.

Some errors. I didn't know Ben ran for senate.

I tried to get into the senate at the last election and I’d do the same next time around as I think he’d be great in parliament. But whatever you are campaigning for or getting behind, your listeners know it. It's not like there’s any secret about it.

Good pick up! I tried to get "him" into the senate. Luckily most readers would have realised from the context that Ben wasn't talking about himself. Now fixed. Ed.
4 December 2017 - 8:54pm
Ben Fordham is less combative .... his ideas more progressive?
This is the same Ben Fordham on 2GB?
He is very combative ... annoyingly so.
And his ideas are certainly not progressive.
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