The difficulty of saying goodbye to Alan Jones

Nine Radio inherited quite the conundrum with Alan Jones. Sure, he can boast political influence and unrivalled audience share figures, but nothing comes without a price. So how do you say goodbye to somebody like Jones? Nine Radio’s Tom Malone speaks to Mumbrella’s Vivienne Kelly about the ‘intelligent, warm, witty, funny’ human being who’s been behind the microphone for decades, and whether this perception stacks up with reality.

At the tail end of 2005, I was sitting in the Year 12 common room at an inner-west girls’ school. I use the phrase ‘common room’ loosely as it was more ‘demountable building which schools so commonly rely on now instead of building actual infrastructure’ than it was ‘purpose-built room for 17-year-olds’.

While in there, a classmate began boasting about how her brother had been down at what we now know as the Cronulla race riots.

Living in the very insular world that I did at the time, I could not fathom why somebody based in the inner-west of Sydney would bother to travel all the way to Cronulla to “take back our beach” and scream about “ethnics”.

Looking back, I’m now further befuddled. The rioter was allegedly inspired to go down there based on comments made on radio by Alan Jones. 19-year-old guys listen to Alan Jones? That’s certainly not the demographic the media so often reports on when it talks about Jones’ rusted-on audience.

So when Jones announced his retirement on-air yesterday, it was hard not to recall the dark days of 2005, and the fact that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) found he had breached its Code of Conduct in his inflammatory broadcasts around the issue.

It’s no surprise then that yesterday many media observers also recalled the moment they believe the veteran broadcaster most crossed the line. Whether it was saying then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father had died of shame, or suggesting current Prime Minister Scott Morrison shove a sock down the throat of New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern.

There’s also the time he used the ‘n-word’ on air, and his dangerous and misleading comments comparing COVID-19 to the flu.

If you’re on Twitter, it feels like everyone has a ‘favourite’ horrible Jones story. None of us have time for me to detail them all here.

So, surely his departure means Nine Radio’s boss Tom Malone can breathe a little easier, and sleep a little longer? Fewer controversies, less backlash, no more advertiser boycotts, all must give Malone more time, and a lower heart rate?

No, says Malone.

“Talkback radio is about passion, and is about always making sure you’re putting a listener first. And that’s what Alan’s always done. And that means that often in talkback radio you’re having difficult conversations. So there’s a huge challenge ahead of us, for Ben Fordham [Jones’ replacement] and the rest of the team to continue Alan’s great legacy.”

Malone: There’s always going to be knockers. Photo: Eddie Jim.

Peter Costello, Nine’s chairman and the former Federal Treasurer, was equally emphatic about Jones in the farewell press release.

Why is it, I ask Malone, that there is such a discrepancy between Alan’s angry and inflammatory on-air persona, and what we’re constantly told he’s ‘really’ like – his philanthropy, his kindness, his compassion, his mentoring?

“Why do you think there is a dichotomy between his public and private persona?”

Again, Malone rejects my proposition.

“I don’t think there is a dichotomy between his public and private persona,” he rebuts.

“Alan is an intelligent, warm, witty, funny human being.

“And I think there are always going to be knockers. He’s been number one for 226 surveys, been number one in breakfast since 1991. There’s not many people left in Australian media that can say that. And of course there’s a great tall poppy syndrome that lives in Australia as well.

“But he does a lot behind the scenes as well, and you’re right, the work he does for charities is unmatched. It’s incredible.”

The praise does not stop there. Yesterday was about celebrating – not the departure, but the man, Malone says.

“It’s all about Alan and celebrating Alan.

Jones’ contract was locked in until mid 2021 

“He’s had an incredible career over 35 years, unmatched ratings successes, and it’s great to be able to celebrate his achievements.”

Outside the media and Twitter bubble, Jones is, apparently, less controversial. Instead, he is a companion, Malone says.

“One of the biggest things about talkback radio is companionship. And Alan has been a companion to millions of Australians for 35 years. Broadcasters are like family members, so they will miss him in that regard.

“They will also miss his advocacy for them. His championing of them. Alan’s always put the listeners first, and that’s what they’ll miss about him.”

These listeners, however loyal, are likely to come across to Fordham’s program, he says.

“What we’ve seen today on-air and the calls to the switchboard is that the listeners are also happy that Alan has passed the torch to Ben, and they know Ben well from his 10 years on drive, and they feel that same sense of companionship already with Ben too,” Malone says.

“Ben has done a great job in the drive slot for the last 10 yeas. He’s a terrific broadcaster, journalist, won five ACRA Awards as Best Talk presenter, and he’s the best placed to take on Alan’s terrific legacy of success, and to take the 2GB Breakfast program forward.”

Nine believes Jones listeners will stick with Fordham (pictured) 

With radio ratings on pause for the foreseeable future, it will be some time before we get to read a headline about whether Fordham has clutched onto Jones’ loyal and long-listening audiences.

Even if Fordham finds a new, younger demographic (angry 19-year-old men apparently already listen though), will they listen for as long? Much of the criticism of Jones’ high audience share from those with a less impressive number, stems from the notion that Jones listeners switch on the radio, and never switch it off. His audience share is so high because the older demographic have nothing else to do and leave the radio on for longer periods than equally loyal audiences of other programs, so the story goes.

So, popular, and perhaps less polarising, though Fordham may be, the audience share will be watched closely, and surely Nine Radio’s competitors are breathing a sigh of relief that Jones has hung up his crown, I ask Malone.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought of his competitors today.”

Again, it’s all about Jones.

“I think you would have seen in the statements today, [that we’re] full of praise and admiration for him, and sad that he is leaving,” Malone notes following a question about whether he wishes Jones was sticking around until the end of his contract in 2021.

“But it’s Alan’s decision. And this is something that he wanted to do. And of course the service he’s given the company for 30 years, is one we need to repay now with allowing him to go on his own terms.”


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