How much change is too much in radio? ARN programming boss explains his controversial 2018 line-up decisions

When the radio ratings year kicked off, no one anticipated the changes ARN's national content director Duncan Campbell had in store. Zoe Samios sits down with Campbell and ARN's chief marketing officer Anthony Xydis to discuss what happened and how it fits into the wider strategy.

Contracts up for renewal and a struggling Melbourne station: that was how ARN’s national content director Duncan Campbell entered 2017.

The programming boss, who had been with the company for seven years, knew something needed to change.

Duncan Campbell, ARN’s national content director, needed to completely shake up the Melbourne offering

And so began the process of pruning the rosebush. In October, it started with the axing of Kiis FM’s Matt Tilley and Meshel Laurie from Melbourne breakfast, who had posted a 6.1% share at the end of 2016, putting them in fifth position in breakfast.

Campbell announced New Zealand duo Polly ‘PJ’ and Jase Hawkins as their replacements.

At the same time, Campbell revealed Dave Hughes and Kate Langbroek would leave the network, with Perth breakfast hosts Will McMahon and Woody Whitelaw to take over national drive.

Towards the end of October, Campbell said 96FM breakfast hosts Carmen Braidwood and Brad ‘Fitzi’ Fitzgerald would exit the Perth FM station, and would be replaced by Lisa Fernandez and Paul Hogan.

Then it was axing of Stacey June and Kristie Mercer – also known as the Thinkergirls.

As more shows were pulled, not everyone was going to be thrilled. And as for other programming bosses, some argued Campbell’s decisions – particularly to put Will & Woody in drive – were questionable.

However, Campbell stands by his decision, putting his tweaks down to one thing: a search for talent with chemistry.

He says the company’s “transformative change” strategy all began in early 2017, when he realised the Kiis Melbourne breakfast show with Matt & Meshel wasn’t giving ARN the “traction” it needed.

Matt & Meshel struggled with chemistry, according to Campbell

“They are two very talented high-profile personalities that just didn’t come together with any real chemistry through no fault of their own. I said: ‘Well what if we got teams that had chemistry, well-established chemistry?'”

Looking to reposition ARN for the future, Campbell said he needed a network with “established heritage” shows coupled with new, youthful shows.

After accepting Melbourne would need a new breakfast show, he went searching for new talent. His hunt took him off Australian shores to New Zealand in February this year. It was there he met New Zealand drive show hosts Jase Hawkins and PJ Harding, whose show was birthed by Southern Cross Austereo’s Gemma Fordham in 2014.

SCA was also in talks with the duo as the network prepared for a future without Hamish Blake and Andy Lee.

New Kiis 101.1 Melbourne hosts Jase Hawkins and PJ Harding

“What they [Hawkins and Harding] wanted and their values and what we wanted worked. They wanted to make sure the move was the right move and so we took a long time developing that,” he says.

Jase & PJ were in, Matt & Meshel were out. The shift was unsurprising, given Matt & Meshel’s continuing struggle with ratings.

Meanwhile, ARN’s Gold FM breakfast show in Melbourne with Jo Stanley and Anthony ‘Lehmo’ Lehmann was thriving.

In the most recent survey, Jo & Lehmo improved 0.7 points from last survey’s share of 7.7% to 8.4%, making them the most-listened to Melbourne FM breakfast show. The duo started the year with a 6.2% share, but have seen incremental growth each survey.

Many were shocked when the duo were then axed shortly after the survey. Their replacements are yet to be announced.

Campbell admits it was a tough call to pull the pair.

Gold104.3’s breakfast duo Jo (right) & Lehmo, who will be replaced next year

“Gold has been a very strong radio station and that’s been driven primarily by their music. And in order to really drive a radio station you need a breakfast show that rates at or above the radio station share,” he says.

“And that breakfast show, in whatever form, has never really done that. And even when they were number one they were still two points behind the radio station.”

“You have to make some tough calls and the decision was ‘Are we serious about being a major player here and returning back to number one and getting number one in Melbourne?’ The answer was ‘yes’.”

But what Campbell couldn’t anticipate was the sudden departure of Hughes and Langbroek. He had planned to re-sign the duo in 2018, but contract negotiations fell through.

On the day they announced they would leave the network, Langbroek took a swipe at Campbell. Hughes told listeners: “We’ll be sad to leave a lot of good people who work here at this network”.

Langbroek then interjected: “But luckily there’s not a lot of them.” She then introduced a “special shoutout to my favourite”, before playing a clip of Slim Dusty singing “I love to have a beer with Duncan”.

Campbell says he isn’t bitter about their jab at him live on air several weeks back, nor is he upset about Laurie’s description of her time with Kiis as a “deeply weird two years”.

He says Hughes, Langbroek, Laurie and Tilley had always planned to finish a week early. Mumbrella understands renovations to the studios began the next day.

So it turns out today was our last day on kiis fm in Melbourne. It's been a deeply weird two years, but our immediate team was so brilliant, they really made the daily grind survivable. Whippy, Brad, Whitney, Kieran and Matty boy – tight group who always had each other's backs, but I think all of us are pretty excited to embark on our new lives. As John Farnham would say, "That's freedom!!" Can you tell I'm stoked?

Posted by Meshel Laurie on Friday, 24 November 2017

“We always try when we are finishing up with a contract to always end things amicably and people are treated with dignity,” Campbell says. “Just because we aren’t renewing doesn’t mean we don’t think they’re talented. It’s just at the moment the time is not right and we want to try something different.”

In search for a replacement, Campbell went to Perth, where he found Hit network’s breakfast hosts Will & Woody. The pair had been running breakfast with co-host Heidi Anderson for three years.

“What I wanted was the sort of youthful energy that I got out of Jase & PJ and that became quite infectious,” he says. “[Will and Woody’s] agents spoke with me and we met them in Perth. I got that real sort of buzz.”

SCA’s Hit network content boss Gemma Fordham has previously told Mumbrella she would not have put Will & Woody (pictured) in drive, but Campbell remains confident

He’s confident the duo will successfully run across all of ARN’s Kiis network, including heritage stations 96FM in Perth, Mix102.3 in Adelaide and 97.3FM in Brisbane.

“The industry needs to bring in some youthful energy, if you like, and I’m glad we were the network that decided to do that.

“The heritage stations like Kiis and 97.3, and Mix – they are going to have a new national drive show but that new drive show is going to have a big breakfast show audiences spilling into that day,” he says confidently.

But with many stations, particularly those in Melbourne, losing their ‘book-end’ talent, it could be argued the Kiis brand could be torn apart by the change.

Campbell disagrees, arguing it is better to make the changes in one hit rather than pulling talent regularly.

“It was a time when there was lots of contracts coming up for renewal within our network, and lots of contracts in other networks coming up for renewal, so it was a good time to make any changes we were going to make,” he says.

“For the next three years we hope there’s no changes for us, and that’s a positive thing – it allows us to continue to maintain the current popular but also establish new talent as well.”

He refers back to the Melbourne market, pointing to a need for an “injection” of youthful energy.

“It’s a smaller risk because you’ve got the two ingredients you need – you’ve got the chemistry which is where the audience make their initial connection,” he says. “The next one is obviously the familiarity, and we have to invest more in marketing to ensure that happens but that’s something you can buy.”

He adds Jase & PJ – who will commence their show in Melbourne on January 8 – have already been doing preparation and production. According to Campbell, Jase & PJ’s dynamic, which includes the ‘always awkward’ brand of content, is different to anything else on Melbourne FM.

‘We’ve reached the limit of change’

With so many changes and a new youthful national drive show, it begs the question would ARN rebrand heritage stations 96FM, 97.3FM and Mix to Kiis?

Anthony Xydis, ARN’s chief marketing officer says it would be stupid not to consider it.

Xydis: “We’d want to put the right amount of resources”

“You have to consider that 97.3 in Brisbane and Mix are incredibly strong heritage stations and they’ve got great breakfast shows on them but they are very strong stations. So if you were to do that, we’d want to put the right amount of resources.”

Campbell agrees, pointing to the network’s sizeable amount of talent change.

“This year wasn’t the year. We reached the limit of our change.

“There were some senior people in the organisation who were a little bit nervous at the level of change, so for us to move forward and suggest name changes of radio stations would’ve been one step too far. Be we did look at it.”

Looking to 2018, Xydis says ARN is at the end of its first chapter of change. And with a new marketing proposition around energising brands yet to come, he’s looking forward to a strong 2018.

“Change is not just about making the changes. It’s cultural change, it’s getting our teams on board. It’s embedding those changes,” Xydis explains.

“The starting point in there is wanting to work in a place where they can be content creators and that is something that is very much led by Duncan [Campbell]. I really mean that.

“They [the talent] saw an opportunity to move in an organisation that doesn’t put too many constraints around their creativity,” he says.

“None of the marketing investment would work unless the talent is firing, the content is relevant and the stations are doing what they are meant to do.”

Campbell adds: “We’ve taken a forward-thinking holistic approach to the business rather than relying on cheap soundbites.

“This is a well-thought-through, forward-thinking approach to the whole business and that hasn’t happened at ARN probably since the first transformation back in 2010.”


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