Can international radio hosts ever crack the Australian market?

The news of UK radio star Christian O’Connell’s new gig on Gold FM has been described, even by the man himself, as ‘risky’. Mumbrella’s Zoe Samios asks the industry if international radio stars can ever succeed in Australia.

When Absolute Radio’s longstanding breakfast host Christian O’Connell told listeners he would not be returning in 2018, thousands reached out to him, questioning where he’d end up.

Late last week those questions were answered: O’Connell was headed to Melbourne to fill Gold FM’s breakfast show slot.

British radio star Christian O’Connell will enter the Australian radio scene in the coming months

At the end of the year, Duncan Campbell, ARN’s programming boss, announced Kiis FM breakfast hosts Matt Tilley and Meshel Laurie would not return in 2018, while drive show hosts Dave ‘Hughesy’ Hughes and Kate Langbroek would head up Hit network’s new drive time slot. Shortly afterwards, he announced Melbourne’s top FM breakfast show with Jo Stanley and Anthony Lehmann would also not return in 2018.

In drive this year, former Perth Hit network breakfast hosts Will McMahon and Woody Whitelaw are having their first crack at a national show. Meanwhile, Australia’s Jase Hawkins and radio co-host New Zealand’s Polly ‘PJ’ Harding have taken on Melbourne’s Kiis FM breakfast.

And now, on Gold FM breakfast, there’s Christian O’Connell – an international radio star, and one of the most awarded in the UK.

Of course, this isn’t the first time a programmer has poached an international radio host. In 2016, Nova’s group programme director Paul Jackson brought the UK’s Greg Burns into market. But still, the question remains: can an international radio host ever truly resonate with Australian audiences?

When Mumbrella spoke with O’Connell last week, he explained the “risky” decision by ARN was what appealed to him.

He said international recruitment doesn’t happen often, because “programmers don’t want to take risks” or get fired.

“They want radio by the lowest common denominator, and I’ve never done radio like that,” he told Mumbrella.

“I wanted to make sure that if I was going to come to Australia and take a big risk, and leave a show I’d built up over the last 12 years, it would be somewhere that is also going to do that.”

Mumbrella reached out to several industry experts to find out what they had to say on the question of international talent like O’Connell.

Ralph van Dijk, founder, Eardrum Australia:

“[O’Connell]’s a brilliantly witty and engaging communicator and I was a fan for many years when living in London. There’s no doubt bringing him to Australia is a bold move, but it’s exactly the sort of thing radio networks should be trying.

“Australians connect with US and UK TV talk shows and podcasts without thinking about where they come from. So as long as the music ratio on Gold stays about the same, he’ll add a new flavour and texture to the radio landscape.

“Melbourne audiences will tune in because of who Christian is, not where he’s from.

“And he’s the type to use his fish out of water experiences to his advantage. Just as John Oliver, Trevor Noah and James Corden do.”

Steve Allen, chief executive officer, Fusion Strategy:

“Imports don’t often work in air media, because they don’t understand the culture nor the landscape.  Smooth make it work because it is the stable of stars kind of thing, stars that their audience has grown up with or are terribly familiar with.

“More often than not imports are brought in to fix a problem… they don’t often! They have to start from scratch to establish credentials, personality and a reason for people to listen, and that requires a change in habit from what they are doing now. Tough!”

Craig Bruce, founder of Craig Bruce consulting:

“If anyone can make it work, Christian is a chance. The headwinds for him are the natural conservative nature of the audience, the Gold audience.

“The question is not can we make it work, it’s probably how long are they prepared to work with him to build an audience? Because there is absolutely no question it will take time.

“You have to hand it to ARN – it’s a really bold, brave move. It’s also incredibly risky and the risk reward component would have a question mark next to it given the brand had a strong year last year.”

“On the one hand you could look at it and say did they really need to take such a huge risk – which I think it is – and on the other I applaud of them for trying something different and seeing if they can create something that is going to give them a genuine point of difference.

“Jase & PJ – I know the show really well, I’ve worked with them in New Zealand. It’s a really good show, there’s no question about that and both of them are really talented presenters but it will take all of two years to build an audience just because of the natural headwinds.

“In a market like Melbourne, you are competing against Chrissie Swan and Fifi Box and Wil Anderson and Eddie McGuire, there’s superstars everywhere you look and from an outsider’s perspective I can’t see any audience that will be looking for a new radio station.

“It’s more likely Kiis and Gold will lose audience this year before they start to build maybe in 2019, but if everyone is on board with that and if the executive team and the group has a unified plan, then there’s potential for both shows to work down the track.”

Sean Pickwell, radio consultant:

“If you’ve got a great show, or a show that’s doing well in the market, you are nuts to blow it up in the sense that you work with it, you change it, you adjust it, there’s just not enough great talent to be throwing away a talented team that has great chemistry and has worked pretty well in the market.

“Christian is a fantastic broadcaster but he is really going to be up against it, up against a strong, funny local show that was much loved. Coming in and trying to rebuild on that, for anyone, following a show like that is hard, never mind coming in from the UK.

“Whether it’s going to translate? I think he’s going to struggle.

“Essentially, they are crazy for blowing up a well-established show. There aren’t enough great shows in the country, there’s not enough talent to put into shows and largely it’s because we built a lot of shows on that format of comedian reality show contestant and sport person which has become the model of breakfast shows in Australia.

“Good on them for trying to rethink that and re-do it, but they had a show which had chemistry and some runs on the board and got rid of it. Being innovative for innovation’s sake is not necessarily a good thing.

“I wish him well and if he does succeed then he’s clearly an outstanding broadcaster.”

Can it work?

Any radio host – be it O’Connell or New Zealand’s Harding – needs time to build an audience, and as O’Connell mentioned last week, local intricacies and cultural differences will always be a challenge.

Can they be overcome? Looking at the above, the answer is potentially. There’s no doubt O’Connell has worked hard and build an audience from the ground up, and there’s every chance he can do it again.

One of the biggest challenges O’Connell and potentially Kiis’ Harding face is moving the Melbourne listeners away from long-standing, well-respected radio hosts. Melbourne is an insular market. It loves its AFL as much as its radio and television stars and any individual who comes into the market will be tested.

While a point of difference is always a good thing in radio, what these experts suggest is that building credentials, moving past accents and intertwining into a new culture is no easy gig. 

However, Campbell’s bold decision to revamp his Melbourne offering was intentional, and while it’s been dubbed risky, it’s a gamble other programmers have been hesitant to make in the past.

Was it worth the risk? Only time will tell.


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