MediaWorks brings in the grumpy old men

MediaWorks brings in the grumpy old men

Mark Jennings, Auckland, January 21, 2019

(Picture for Newsroom by Lynn Grieveson)

MediaWorks’ decision to hire Peter Williams and re-hire Sean Plunket for the latest incarnation of its talkback radio offering shows that it hasn’t given up all hope in its battle with Newstalk ZB.

When, just prior to Christmas, the company said it was scrapping Radio Live and handing over its Auckland  and Wellington FM frequencies to its music station Magic, it appeared to throw in the towel after years of taking a beating from its heavyweight opponent.

The announcement that Magic would become a hybrid of talk and music seemed to lack logic and smacked of face-saving for various hosts and managers rather than a thought-out strategy.

Power Struggle

Over the past couple of years, Radio Live became something of a power struggle between Newshub boss Hal Crawford and MediaWorks’ Head of Radio Leon Wratt.

Crawford, who had charge of the station, quite sensibly wanted to re-brand it as Newshub Radio and integrate it more with the news team.

Wratt wanted Radio Live’s FM frequencies for Magic, which was handicapped by broadcasting on AM in the key Auckland and Wellington markets. AM and music are not a happy mix.

Wratt won – probably because he convinced CEO Michael Anderson that he could make more money out of Magic, which plays music from the 1950s and 1960s, if he got the FM frequencies than could be made from a struggling talkback station like Radio Live.

Music and Talk Magic

The essence of Wratt’s plan has now become clearer. Magic has become two stations – music on the FM frequencies and talk on the AM ones. The talk station will carry a full schedule of news and chat during the week but will switch to mostly music at the weekends, saving it a considerable amount of cash.

Wratt has a reputation as a Machiavellian operator but he is also the smartest Radio Manager in the country and has been for a while.

Under his watch, MediaWorks stations like The Edge, The Breeze, The Sound, More FM and Mai FM have seen the company get on top of its competitor NZME in the highly profitable music market.

Now, it looks like Wratt wants a crack at talkback too, and he might have got his timing right.

Newstalk ZB changes

The changes at Newstalk ZB this year open up a window of vulnerability, albeit a small one.

Kerre McIvor’s move from the afternoon show to replace Leighton Smith and the arrival of Simon Barnett and Phil Gifford to take over her previous slot will change the complexion of the station. Fans of Smith’s right-wing musings might be unsated and if any of them summon up the energy to move the dial, then Magic Talk has a chance.

The combination of Peter Williams and Sean Plunket, if they can replicate a ZB  ‘pace’ and not the rambling delivery that bedevilled Radio Live, might have enough of ‘the grumpy old white man’ factor to draw some of the audience that is looking for reinforcement of its own worldview.

It will be interesting to watch Williams, who is now nearing the end of his career.

He was a highly professional broadcaster at TVNZ but remained a rather grey, robotic figure who brought little spark to his news-reading role.

Those who have worked with him say he holds strong opinions – Wratt will be hoping these come to the surface quickly and articulately.

Williams replaces the highly likeable but rather bland Mark Sainsbury. Bland does not work on talkback where provocation and outrage are the main audience drivers.

Plunket is a very good broadcaster but he has a habit of burning bridges with his employers, often by openly criticising them.

When he parted ways with Radio Live three years ago, he had pretty much run out of broadcasting options and ended up spruiking for former political aspirant Gareth Morgan and his TOP party.

Whether he holds it all together this time round will depend a lot on Magic Talk’s new Station Manager, Kim Blair. If Blair and Plunket get on the same wavelength then the former RNZ Morning Report host could yet be a major asset in the fight against ZB.

Plunket, Williams and early morning host Duncan Garner are all ‘names’ but the drive-time host Ryan Bridge is not.

No hint of curmudgeon

The 30-something, ponytailed Bridge seems to be the odd man out (the line-up is all male apart from Leah Panapa from 7 pm to 12 am) in that there is no hint of curmudgeon about him.

If Wratt really wanted to give it a red hot go, he would have tried to get Mark Richardson into the drive-time slot occupied by Bridge.

The reality TV host has become skilled at upsetting the PC types. He would have probably thrown too much cost into the mix and upset the balance of the AM show for Anderson’s liking, but he would be a drawcard.

Plunket and Williams would not have been expensive acquisitions but they won’t draw publicity like Richardson would.

Enforcing cross-promotion

Wratt has another thing in his favour – he controls the marketing budget of the radio stations and he can enforce cross promotion.

Radio station programme directors don’t like promoting other radio stations for obvious reasons but Wratt and Blair can start with Magic’s own music programming which is aimed at prime talkback targets – older males.

MediaWorks will also use its unsold television inventory and potentially the billboards of QMS – the out-of-home advertising company it recently took a stake in.

Herald advantage

Newstalk ZB’s hosts enjoy a near-constant presence in the New Zealand Herald through a combination of the editorial columns they write and straight-out advertising.

How strongly MediaWorks counters this will reveal the seriousness of Wratt’s intent.

A strong marketing effort could see Magic Talk become a formidable force; a feeble one will send it down the same meandering road as Radio Live.

The Radio Live experiment lasted 15 years. One way or another the Magic journey will be a lot quicker.

Mark Jennings is the Co-Editor and Co-Founder of Newsroom,  which advocates and practices high quality Journalism. The above article and picture, which appeared in the Web Edition of Newsroom on January 17, 2019, have been reproduced here under a Special Arrangement. 

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