Christian O’Connell: Can the British import continue to lead radio ratings?

Christian O’Connell

• Had I known how hard it was going to be, I’m not sure I would have come’

British DJ Christian O’Connell has revealed the size of the challenge he faced when he arrived in Melbourne in 2018. O’Connell took over the breakfast show at ARN’s Gold 104.3 and was initially met by hostile listeners and industry observers who thought he would be a ratings flop.

This week however he will be waiting to see if will again be the host of Melbourne’s #1 FM breakfast show when GfK radio ratings are released. O’Connell first won that trophy last year and has kept a grip on it since. During his interview with Mediaweek, O’Connell revealed how tough things got before his ratings started to improve. He recently launched his own iHeartPodcast series plus he’s also close to finishing a book about his move to Australia – and he’ been pitching TV shows too.

O’Connell’s ability to cut through the crap is key to why he does so well on breakfast radio in his adopted home of Melbourne. ARN was clever building his team too – Hamish & Andy colleague Jack Post has been a breakfast discovery, along with the show’s news presenter Patrina Jones.

The breakfast show host knows how to engage audiences and avoids easy segments that O’Connell calls “filler”. On his podcast too, O’Connell didn’t want yet another well known announcer interviewing celebrities. “There’s enough of those out there already,” he told Mediaweek in a recent conversation. “The simplicity of the Stuff of Legends podcast is asking people to tell the story of their life with three objects that really mean something to them. We have been unlocking stories that you might never normally get from a guest. Each episode has been very different and it’s remarkable that these little objects virtually become time portals that transport the listener to a different time and place.

“I have been interviewing Ricky Gervais for about 18 years and when he chose three objects and started telling stories I realised I’d never heard any of them before. They were things he’s never told before because they were not the sort of things you’d talk about when plugging your latest product.”

See also: Christian O’Connell on making Stuff of Legends

Few celebrity interviews

“I cut back on that a couple of years ago because I realised when celebrities are doing the rounds there is then nothing unique to your show,” said O’Connell. “They are likely telling the same story they are telling your rivals and it is repetitive and boring. I would see texts coming in from the audience telling me they thought it was boring and I started asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’

One exception recently was O’Connell’s exclusive interview with Jerry Seinfeld. “I had the only radio interview for Australia. When we make an exception I can make a big deal out of it, give it some time, and do it properly.

There are some shows that just cram in guests and a lot of it becomes just filler. Who is interested in the life story or views and opinions of some reality star who’s got on TV? If I do an interview I want it to be with someone who has got something to say and is entertaining.”

O’Connell told us he would have loved to be able to do a podcast about Jerry Seinfeld’s Stuff. “We are doing more episodes of my podcast and if goes well then we will do a second season. I will do everything I can to get him on it. He is such a great talker and so intelligent. He has an interesting take on life…he’s almost Zen like. He doesn’t waste a single word, and that’s coming from someone who wastes a lot of words in the morning because I have three hours to fill. He has a laser like focus with his word, as opposed to the rapid-fire gatling gun like me spewing words out in the morning. His stand-up is like that – very precise and well thought out with every word. Anything not needed is thrown out.”

Christian O’Connell and Jack Post on air at Gold 104.3

ARN is getting its pound of flesh out of O’Connell with his three hours daily, an hour in the evening and now the podcast series. “I should have checked the fine print on that contract,” he laughed. “Even if I die, they’d somehow keep the show going like Weekend at Bernie’s. They’d prop me up in the studio.

“But they did bring me out here so I have to pay back that immigration investment for the rest of my life with them.”

His critics made O’Connell dig deeper

In a recent social media post, O’Connell reminded one of several industry pundits about comments made when O’Connell was appointed that he wouldn’t work in Australia. The former Absolute Radio breakfast host told Mediaweek that became an incentive for him to succeed in Australia.

“It was huge motivator, absolutely. It has happened many times in my career. [Laughs]

“I heard there was an internal meeting as SCA with a very big programming boss during my first week. They played out some bits of my show to people gathered in the boardroom and this person forecast I was unlikely to last six months. I wrote the word ‘unlikely’ on a Post-it note and put it on my monitor in the studio.

“Every morning I would look at ‘Unlikely’ and it spurred me on.” [Laughs again] “It was the best thing they could have done. Please, please, keep writing me off. It made me only want to dig deeper.

“I have now been here for two-and-a-half years and I still find it miraculous it did work. I get why [they might think that it wouldn’t]. It could easily have gone the other way. Melbourne is a very proud city and I came in as an outsider. And I was English…a pom.

“I sometimes look back and wonder about that decision. I keep saying to [ARN content director] Duncan Campbell he must have had balls of steel. If I had known how hard it was going to be I am not sure I would have come out. The first year was brutal and there were many time I thought ‘I don’t think this is going to work. This is a really big mistake. What was I thinking, that I could rock up to the other side of the world and be given the keys to the city.’

“What has been achieved shows off the heart of the city and Melbournians, accepting me despite initially indicating they didn’t like me. On the second show I got a text from a listener: ‘No one invited you’. So those were my two motivators – ‘Unlikely’ and ‘No one invited you’.”

O’Connell is grateful that the people of Melbourne gave him a chance. “It’s a great Australian trait. You give people a chance as long as you are not full of BS. I have been humbled by peoples’ reaction and how they have taken to the show. The fact I have a national evening show now means the world to me. I can’t believe now that radio I do is heard in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane.”

A look at Christian O’Connell’s social media also indicates he still has a substantial fan base in the UK dipping into this Gold 104 breakfast. “We have around 200,000 listeners in the UK. I’m not sure if they might see it as something of a science experiment, like a frontier DJ behind enemy lines.”

That sounds like a huge UK audience, but O’Connell reminds us that his previous radio show ran for 12 years in the UK with an audience of something like 3m. “People there grew up with me. They were forced to listen to me on the school run and then grew up and listened to me.”

Eight surveys year, really?

O’Connell: “In the UK ratings come out every three months which is much more civilised. When you are #1 there you a king for three months. Here it is every five or six weeks. It’s crazy how much more pressure there is here. At first it felt relentless, but now I have become used to it.”

Radio and beyond

Christian O’Connell and Jack Post

O’Connell: “I left England for a reason. I was feeling like I had lost my mojo personally and professionally. I came wanting something and I have been lucky enough to find it here.

“The last two-and-a-half years of radio here has been my toughest but also the most enjoyable of my life. But every year I don’t want to just do radio shows. I need to have other things going on. It stops me getting in a comfort zone.

“The podcasts help with that. I am also writing a book and am 60,000 words into it. It will be released next year and is about the first two years here, the radio show and moving with my teenage daughters. Maybe I’ll call it ‘Uninvited’.

There’s not much O’Connell hasn’t tried. He also been a successful stand-up comedian in the UK.

“I am missing doing stand-up and I’m itching to get back to a live connection with an audience. I am lucky in that I can still earn a living. But I know lots of comedians here and in the UK who are having a horrendous time and getting little support from the government.”

Christian O’Connell has also pitched a couple of TV concepts to local TV chiefs with a view to conquering another medium.

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