I’ve never been paid by anybody just to be average on the radio | radioinfo

I’ve never been paid by anybody just to be average on the radio

Monday 02 July, 2018
No guarantees: Christian O'Connell and Duncan Campbell

Peter Saxon gets inside Christian O’Connell’s head - Part 1

By now everyone, in radio at least, has heard of Christian O’Connell.

He’s the pivotal point of a bold new programming experiment unprecedented in Australian radio.

As conventional wisdom has it, when you have a poorly performing radio show and the only option left is to change the talent, there are two ways to go.

  1. Poach an already successful performer from a competitor and hope that they bring their audience with them. This strategy involves a huge cash outlay upfront, like betting it all on one spin of the roulette wheel. If it comes off, it can turn a station’s fortunes around almost immediately. But it has only succeeded with three major shows in modern radio history; John Laws, Alan Jones and Kyle & Jackie O.
  2. Build a fresh show from scratch. Although it has a much smaller price of entry, it might cost more in the long run as it could take years to find the right combination before audiences and revenues start to grow. It’s like poker: You gotta know when to hold ‘em… know when to fold ‘em.

The O’Connell experiment fits none of that convention. Like Laws, Jones and K&J he is certainly a successful breakfast show presenter and can command a salary in the millions. But there’s little hope of his Absolute Radio listeners tuning in to GOLD104.3 from London in any significant numbers - or for Melbourne advertisers wanting to reach them even if they did.

So, as a virtual unknown in Melbourne with all the baggage of a 10 pound pom, he’ll have to build an audience from scratch - except that, there’s a pretty sizeable one already there with an 8.0 share of the available audience in Breakfast on a station that is a close #2 FM, as of the latest GfK book released last month, perched on a highly respectable 10.7 share.  

O’Connell’s mission is nothing as wishy washy as to 'try to attract more listners' but more specifically to close the existing 2.7 gap between the Breakfast show’s current 8.0 share and the station’s overall 10.7. Because, according to conventional wisdom - which, in this case, is shared by ARN content supremo, Duncan Campbell - the Breakfast show is supposed to drive the station’s ratings not the other way around.

Increasing a Breakfast show by 2.7 share points is a mammoth task made mathematically even more difficult because the higher the Breakfast show rates the further it will push the station’s ratings up overall, albeit at slower rate. What everyone is hoping for is that at some point the Breakfast share and the station share will align. Although Mr Campbell tells me he hasn’t given much thought as to exactly what that magic number might be, he knows it will likely be high enough to seriously challenge even the impregnable 3AW for the number one spot, AM and FM, in Melbourne.

It’s an ambitious gamble, the success of which ultimately rests on Christian O’Connell’s shoulders. For all the marketing, the promotions and PR it all comes down to whether Melbourne likes him. There’s a lot at stake for both him and his employer. With so much personal skin in the game, is he feeling the pressure?

I don’t want to be that pompous pommy that everyone thinks I’m going to be.

radioinfo: On your first day on air, you joked, “It’s a long way to come just to get fired.” Was that statement as funny to you as it sounded to your listeners? 

O’Connell: Who knows? I’ve got no idea? All I wanted them to know is that I appreciate that there is no guarantee. I haven’t turned up in Melbourne thinking “Well, I’m going to smash this. It’s just a matter of days or minutes till I’m the number one hero here.  I’ve come to save radio.”

I didn’t want to be that pompous pommy that everyone thinks I’m going to be. I wanted them to know that I appreciate that this is going to be hard and there isn’t any guarantee that this is going to work. “This is new. It’s new for me. It’s new for you.” Let’s see if we can build something together over time. But, yes, OMG, it’s a huge ballsy risk for everyone involved.

radioinfo: Given the fate of your predecessors, you must be aware that you’re working for a pretty tough crowd who consider that reaching number one FM in Breakfast a poor result.

O’Connell: I know what the ambition is for the show. But I’ve never really been paid by anybody just to be average on the radio or to do okay.

It is more intense here. Radio is a big and more serious business here (than in the UK). However, I’ve done 20 years of breakfast radio and he only way you can really survive is by focusing on the show you’ve got - the link you’ve got with the show you’ve got today. That may sound a bit inane but that genuinely is the only thing I have. The only thing I have control over is that. The rest of it is whether Melbourne takes to it in time and I really hope they do because I’m starting to really fall in love with the city. I think it’s brilliant. 

How big was that lunch when we all agreed to do this?

You know how radio ratings work, it’s all about recollection… “What was that shamble who is that guy?" No one has any idea who I am. But I appreciate this is going to take time. Im a seismic change for people flicking around the dial in the morning. "A pommy at breakfast… wow! Really?"

radioinfo: So here you were, having established a hugely successful radio show in one of the biggest, meanest markets on the planet. Having established A-List celebrity status, you decide to chuck it all in, uproot Nisha the dog, and other family members, pitch a tent in a city where no-one knows your name and start all over again. To be impolite, what the fuck were you thinking?

O’Connell: More importantly what the fuck were we drinking? How big was that lunch when we all agreed to do this? Everybody is saying that this is as ballsy as fuck and it really is.

But I was looking at my career. I wanted a new challenge in radio. And wow, this comes along and it’s the challenge of all challenges. It’s the biggest challenge in my career and to have that when you’ve already had success is really, really rare because the better you do, the options get less. 

It was a family decision where everyone wanted a change. It was the potential for something new. And I think that’s what excited all of us.

radioinfo: What about your family? When you finally sat down with your wife and daughters, Nisha the dog and you all decided, yes, let’s do this, what was the core reason they were up for the change?

O’Connell: It represents a lifestyle change for me and my daughters and my wife. Dad’s got a new job and I would never do that to my family where I drag them half way around the world because I was having a midlife crises and wanted to get a bit more sunshine.

So, we all came over last summer (in England) and did a bit of fact finding. Spent a week in Melbourne. Did a lot of stuff. Went to my first AFL game. Started to get a feel for Melbourne. We really liked it. And it wasn’t even summer time then, it was winter so we could get a really good idea what it was like in the cold grey rather than in the sunshine. 

It was a family decision where everyone wanted a change. It was the potential for something new. And I think that’s what excited all of us. And I think we’ve found it a lot more  challenging, the kids having new schools, making new friends, the dog with 2 weeks in a lock down quarantine and my wife as well and me being here at work but it’s all very exciting too.

radioinfo: And while you were visiting Melbourne, during that discovery period, they didn’t let you near Sydney?

O’Connell: I’ve been to Sydney a couple of times. Sydney is a great city but in my early conversations with Duncan I thought that if I’ve got any hope of making a radio show stick and work, I think Melbourne is the city to start because you’ve got a lot of culture here. There’s an international influence in Melbourne and the sport - you could put a calendar around. You’ve got the grand prix, you’ve got the AFL, the horse racing, the tennis and comedy festival. This is a really lively, energetic city. I thought this is a city I would love to work in and be amongst.

I get the feeling that I’m auditioning for a job that I already have, it’s really strange.

Read Part Two of our interview with Christian O'Connell tomorrow when he talks about the steep learning curve, the auto edit in his brain and the chemistry with his on air team and how he chose them.

Peter Saxon


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