Get Kyle

Yesterday Kyle Sandilands and Jackie Henderson topped the Sydney ratings across both AM and FM for the first time. This exclusive extract from Tim Burrowes's new book Media Unmade, which is published today by Hardie Grant, tells the story of how the duo was poached from 2DayFM to Kiis.

In Sydney there was a big decision to be made by Southern Cross Austereo.

The contracts for Kyle Sandilands and Jackie Henderson in the 2Day FM breakfast slot were up for renewal at the end of 2013. And although The Kyle & Jackie O Show had been number one for the past six years, the management seemed to be half-hearted about re-signing them. 

The fallout from the 2012 prank-call scandal was reverberating and the radio network had retreated into its shell. As the lengthy regulatory process dragged on, the station was still facing the possibility of having its broadcasting licence suspended. Producers now had to use a risk-management app as part of their show-planning process. Every creative idea needed to be assessed for risk. Although the prank call had taken place on a different show, the network was now completely risk-averse, and Sandilands was nothing if not edgy.

There was also the problem that, although the show was top rating, its various controversies had turned advertising buyers against it. The on-air incidents – the lie detector, the ‘piece of shit’ attack on Alison Stephenson, and the Magda Szubanski concentration camp gaffe – had all been turnoffs for advertisers. One 2Day FM sales staffer recalls presenting to media agencies, and when Sandilands’s name was mentioned, the body language would change, and staff would fold their arms.

There had also been bad behaviour behind the scenes. In his autobiography Scandalands, Sandilands would recall how during his time on the Hot 30, 2Day FM’s general manager Cathy O’Connor had staged an intervention in which the show’s producers and Henderson had told him how his aggression and anger was affecting them. He reacted by losing his temper and storming out, but acknowledged in the book that his colleagues had been correct.

O’Connor: Staged intervention on Sandilands’ behaviour

And although his behaviour had improved, Sandilands was still hot-headed. Those close to him would talk of his personal generosity, but he remained a pantomime villain in the press.

Staff were also concerned about Sandilands’s drug use, his lifestyle when he was broadcasting from his home in Los Angeles and his general health.

His sick days from the show were generating more bad press. One person who worked there at the time recalls wondering whether one day he’d wake up to headlines about Sandilands being dead.

And there were financial realities. The Today Network’s revenues had slipped. The loss of the national Hamish & Andy drivetime show in 2011 had been one blow, and the fallout from the prank call was another. The company had also signed an expensive deal to keep Hamish Blake and Andy Lee connected to the network with shorter, pre-recorded shows as they took their first steps into the world of podcasting. It was no time to be writing blank cheques to Sandilands and Henderson.

The duo also had radio history to contend with. There was a concern in management ranks that the show would begin to fade in the ratings, just as Wendy Harmer’s The Morning Crew had. Behind the scenes, there were attempts to create a succession plan for the Kyle & Jackie O Show by trying to poach Ryan Fitzgerald and Michael Wipfli from Nova’s Sydney breakfast show to park them in the Today Network’s national drivetime slot. They’d then be ready to move to Sydney breakfast if needed. That plan fell over in August 2013, when Fitzy and Wippa signed on to Nova for another four years.

Sandilands: New management thought they knew it all

The renewal discussions went all the way to the top, with Southern Cross Austereo’s Rhys Holleran closely involved. Sandilands, who had been with 2Day FM since long before Southern Cross Media bought Austereo from the Kirby family, detected a change of culture. ‘With the Kirby family, we’d worked with them for years,’ he says. ‘They’d roll in in their cowboy boots and you’d make a deal. The new lot came in and they hadn’t been in metro radio before but they acted like they knew it all.’

Most concerning for Sandilands was the fact that although he and Henderson were offered a deal, it was a short one, just two years. With a settled show, most contracts are usually for at least three. ‘The chatter around the place was that we were coming up to ten years and they didn’t think we could keep going,’ says Sandilands.

There was also an unhealthy amount of self-worth tied up with what management wanted to pay him. ‘I think we were on two million then,’ says Sandilands. He wanted four million. ‘We were making them hundreds of millions a year. And they came back with an extra $875,000. They said it’s that or nothing. And it was only for two years – that was the bit that was really bothering me.’

‘I went home and got stoned,’ recalls Sandilands. He decided to make a big move. That evening he called Australian Radio Network’s program director Duncan Campbell, who he had worked for earlier in his career. ARN’s two networks were adult contemporary station Mix, which was targeting women aged 25 to 54, and the classic hits format Pure Gold network, which included WSFM in Sydney and Gold 104.3 in Melbourne.

‘I rang up Duncan Campbell who I had not spoken to since working in Perth. I was high as a motherfucker. I wanted us to have an option.’

Sandilands was ‘high as a motherfucker’ when he called Campbell

Campbell was concerned that Sandilands was not serious about coming across. There was no place for them at WSFM, where Brendan Jones and Amanda Keller were performing strongly at breakfast. And it was hard to see why they would want to go onto the Mix network, which had been struggling, particularly in Sydney. In the industry, Mix was seen as a bit of a joke. The station had started with an adult contemporary format, playing music from the 1970s through to the 1990s. It went through a series of relaunches, trying to find a younger demographic, but never seriously challenging Southern Cross Austereo’s 2Day FM in Sydney, or Fox FM in Melbourne.

‘The first thing Duncan asked me was whether I was just trying to start a bidding war,’ says Sandilands. ‘I told him, “Austereo thinks we’re at the end of our career.” If they feel in their heart of hearts that we’re at the end and want to do a two-year contract instead of three years, then they’ve already made up their minds.’

Sandilands had a bigger idea to put to Campbell – close down Mix and start a new station, Kiis FM, which would chase a younger audience. The Kiis brand was an iconic one in US radio. It was owned by Clear Channel, which in turn owned half of Australian Radio Network in a joint venture with APN News & Media.

Campbell promised Sandilands he would take the idea to ARN’s CEO Ciaran Davis. Davis, who had been in the job since 2010, had been trying to figure out what to do about the Mix network, and particularly the Sydney station. ‘Mix 106.5 was our big challenge. We had had two or three iterations that had not done the trick,’ he recalls.

Davis was also unhappy with the top-heavy management structure he had inherited, which included a general manager in each market, which he was already unwinding. ‘I wanted to invest in the content side of the business instead. We had not been investing enough in talent.’ With each new set of survey results, ratings got worse. Mix was the number six FM commercial station in Sydney.

In breakfast, Mix 106.5’s new pairing of Sami Lukis and Yumi Stynes had not been firing since going to air at the start of the year. The duo had inherited a poor 3.5 per cent audience share, and slipped to 3.3 per cent.

yumi stynes sami lukis

Stynes and Lukis: Failed to rate on Mix

‘The day after the results came in, I wrote on a yellow note: “Get Kyle,”’ says Davis. ‘An hour later, Duncan came in and said, “I’ve just had a call from Kyle”. I flipped over my note and showed him what I’d written down.’

Like Campbell, Davis was concerned he was just being used by Sandilands to strengthen his hand with Southern Cross Austereo. ‘I never thought it was going to happen. They were recognised as one of the best breakfast shows in the world. We were either being used in their negotiation or we were being stitched up for a big prank.’

Cautiously, Davis agreed to meet. Aiming to keep it under wraps, they booked a conference room at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Sydney’s The Rocks.

Davis and Campbell took a taxi, to keep it low key. They stepped out to discover Sandilands’s Rolls Royce Phantom Coupe parked ostentatiously at the entrance to the hotel.

Henderson did not come to the first meeting. Sandilands says he had not yet told his co-host about his plan. ‘Jackie’s great, but she’s a worrier,’ he says.

Most of the conversation was between Sandilands and Campbell. ‘I spent my time looking for hidden cameras,’ says Davis. ‘It was a good meeting, though, and we agreed to take the discussions further.’

At the next meeting, which took place in October, Davis walked in even more convinced that it was an elaborate prank. They met at the Rydges Hotel in North Sydney. Thanks to a booking mishap, the five of them – Davis, Campbell, Sandilands’s manager Andrew Hawkins, plus the two presenters – were given the Jacaranda Ballroom rather than a conference room. They held their meeting around a single table in the biggest room in the hotel. It went well. ‘We thrashed it out in about an hour and a half,’ says Davis. They agreed the outline of a deal which would see Sandilands and Henderson get their $4 million – in the unlikely event that their show topped the ratings.

Sandilands insisted that they would not join Mix – that was a dealbreaker.

It had to be a brand new network. ‘Kyle had very strong views on not having Mix, which I fully agreed with,’ says Davis.

With the next board meeting of ARN’s owner APN News & Media not due until December, Davis could not afford to wait. A special board meeting was called to approve the secret plan. On top of the presenters’ salaries, the network would need to invest more than $5 million in marketing and a refit of the studios. ‘We knew we had to go hard, but the board backed it one hundred per cent,’ says Davis.

Meanwhile, the plan remained top secret, not least because the presenters were yet to sign a contract. Even after the negotiations fell over with 2Day FM, Southern Cross Austereo did not guess what their star presenters were up to. When the pair announced to listeners on 1 November that they would be leaving 2Day FM, Southern Cross Austereo thought they were leaving radio. Sandilands and Henderson had – truthfully – promised that they were not going to Mix. So 2Day FM kept them on air for a month-long victory lap, which only served to alert their listeners to the fact that they were on the move.

On the Monday morning of their final week on air came a leak to Mumbrella of an advertising agency’s work on the Kiis launch. ARN put out a carefully worded non-denial denial. ‘There are multiple scenarios for ARN next year but we will confirm that nothing has been agreed. We’re reviewing a number of talent and station options and Kyle and Jackie O are one of these. While our marketing team are preparing for every eventuality, the sharing of one of many draft concepts isn’t ideal.’

On the Friday, ten minutes after Sandilands and Henderson said goodbye to their listeners on 2Day FM, ARN called its staff together and turned on the radio to Mix. At 9.40 am the station played a promo announcing that it was the new home of The Kyle & Jackie O Show. It would be replayed constantly in the days that followed. ‘The staff reaction was extraordinary,’ says Davis.

‘Nobody knew until it was announced. There was five seconds of silence followed by an eruption.’

Radio is a tough business. Mix breakfast hosts Sami Lukis and Yumi Stynes only found out that day that their show had been axed after just eight months on air. ‘While planning for Kyle and Jackie, we had to run a scenario B for if they didn’t sign,’ says Davis. He also had another diplomatic issue to deal with: the Jonesy & Amanda show on WSFM was his company’s star performer, and he needed to reassure them that he had not adopted a new favourite child. ‘They were mature about it,’ he says.

Behind the scenes, ARN needed to put in its own risk-management process. Asked later whether Davis ever felt that he was taking a commercial risk based on Sandilands’s reputation, he replies: ‘No, we didn’t. We knew we could put protections in place and there would be a censor.’ Radio is broadcast on a few seconds’ delay, which gives the censor – more formally known as the ‘on-air content adviser’ – the ability to hit a dump button to stop an offensive comment from going to air. The Kyle & Jackie O Show would be unusual in having somebody whose main job was to be ready to press that button.

The Kiis marketing push was probably the most ever spent on a station launch in Australia. There was a TV commercial, ads across railway stations, billboards and on the sides of buses.

Most people in the industry predicted it would be a long, slow process for Kiis. On 14 January 2014, the morning the show launched, I wrote: ‘Retaining the number one FM slot of more than a ten per cent share of the breakfast audience feels like a big (impossible, actually) ask.’ That day – the first of the 2014 radio ratings year – marked the biggest reset across the radio industry in a decade.

Over at Southern Cross Austereo, 2Day FM’s new line-up – Merrick Watts, Sophie Monk, Jules Lund and former Spice Girl Mel B – was already on air, having started a week early. On AM, Fairfax’s talk station 2UE had gone for yet another reboot, ditching Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson and novice presenter Sarah Morice for talkback veteran John Stanley and Fairfax’s new news boss Garry Linnell. ABC 702 also had a new breakfast show, with Robbie Buck taking over the Sydney breakfast from Adam Spencer.

There were big changes in Melbourne as well. At Southern Cross Austereo’s Fox FM, Dave Thornton and Fifi Box took the breakfast slot vacated by Jo Stanley and Matt Tilley. And Nova ushered in a new breakfast show with Meshel Laurie and Tommy Little picking up the slot previously occupied by Dave Hughes and Kate Langbroek.

The ratings results arrived on 10 March 2014. The Kyle & Jackie O Show was the number one FM breakfast show … and so was the Jonesy & Amanda show. In the space of a single survey, the newcomers had tripled their timeslot’s share from 3.3 per cent of the audience to 9.3 per cent. WSFM’s Jones and Keller grew their audience too. Remarkably, they also landed on 9.3 per cent. It was a dead heat. ‘I couldn’t have planned it any better,’ says Davis. The images that made that evening’s TV news were of all four ARN presenters sharing champagne.

Meanwhile, across the whole day, Kiis FM jumped from a 4.9 per cent share for Mix FM to 8.8 per cent, taking it from last to first FM station. WSFM was second with 8.3 per cent.

At the end of 2014, ARN had recorded the most commercially successful year in its history, with revenues up by 18 per cent to $180.9 million, while profits rose by 14 per cent to $66.5 million. ‘In Sydney, ARN considerably grew audience share. Its WSFM and KIIS stations finished the year as the number one and two FM stations from being number four and six in 2013 – a rewarding result in the country’s most commercially lucrative market,’ said the company’s annual report to shareholders.

Across town, 2Day FM’s new line-up was obliterated in the ratings, falling from a share of 10.4 per cent to 3.8 per cent. The radio station went from top FM breakfast show to dead last.

Holleran: ‘We were thoroughly and completely humiliated’

‘I probably gave Ciaran the greatest gift he’s ever been given,’ admits former Southern Cross Austereo boss Rhys Holleran. ‘It was the flagship show of the company and we were thoroughly and completely humiliated in every survey that year.’

  • This is an edited extract from Media Unmade by Tim Burrowes, published by Hardie Grant (paperback, RRP $34.99), available in stores nationally.

Cover of Media Unmade book


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.