• ‘A pommy in the morning? No thank you – why have they done this?’
• His one big fight with ARN – and it was a good one!
Gold 104.3’s British import is hoping to celebrate his first birthday at his new radio home next Tuesday.
That is off course also survey day and Christian O’Connell didn’t want to jinx anything by doing his lap of honour too soon.
“One slip on Twitter or on Monday’s show and you could be writing a different article,” he told Mediaweek.
This time last year O’Connell had just finished hosting breakfast on the British FM station Absolute Radio. Now he is celebrating his first 12 months at ARN.
Speaking about the decision to pack up and leave the UK just over 12 months ago, O’Connell said there had been several periods of self-doubt. “We didn’t properly realise until we got here about the enormity of moving to the other side of the world. Everything is new.” He then rattled off a list of everyday chores that they needed to sort out – from Wi-Fi (“slower in Australia than in some African villages”), to doctors, schools and accommodation.
He has the latter finally sorted as O’Connell and his wife Sarah have just bought a home in Melbourne and they take occupancy in two weeks time. “Melbourne is home now, so the radio show has to work!”
He recalled how audience acceptance took some time.
“After the first few shows I started to get a sense some people were wondering what they were listening to. ‘A pommy in the morning? No thank you. No one asked for it and we don’t know who he is. Why have they done this?’
“I see all the texts and messages that come in – it’s my focus group. I read the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s the only way you can get a true measure of how you are going with your audience.”
There was plenty of bad initially.
“The first message within the first 20 minutes of the first show was ‘Go back home’. It was then I realised I wasn’t going to be given the key to the city any time soon.
“But what has been a really nice thing are some of the emails I have had from people apologising (which they don’t need to do), admitting they hated me when I started, but have now changed their minds.”
One recent correspondent told O’Connell that he rang the station to complain when he started. “Now he tells me he loves the show and listens every day. I am going to get that framed. I love the fact he went from hating me, thinking I was as dull as bat shit, to going completely the other way. It says something about the Australian spirit. They will give you a go even if they are not sure at first.”
ARN broke the breakfast mould with O’Connell by not having a comedian, a reality star or a former football star on the show.
That moved him to admit: “I have been doing breakfast radio for 20 years. The last 12 months have been the most challenging, and the most rewarding, in my whole career. It’s been the best thing I have ever done.”
O’Connell had an idea of what audiences liked in Australia. He knew Hamish and Andy and he listens to shows all over as almost a professional hobby. “Australian radio has had some brilliant presenters. I was a big fan of Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, also Kyle and Jackie O I was familiar with.”
He noted that he landed into a tough market. “This is so competitive in Melbourne. The regular ratings felt almost relentless and too stressful. Now though I have embraced it and I look forward to it. When you are new it is good to get regular reports on your progress.”
Excuse the pun, but the breakfast star seems to have struck gold with his on-air team – Jack Post and Patrina Jones, aka Pats.
Appointing Post was one clever piece of insurance ARN bought for its new breakfast show. Post was known to a generation of younger listeners after 10 years with Hamish and Andy as Cacklin’ Jack. It automatically gave O’Connell and the station a link with Australia’s most successful radio duo.
O’Connell: “Any radio show is the result of a good team, and they are a great team. It was a big risk for them as I could have damaged them if I go down. I feel they might have learnt a lot from working with me and they enjoy being part of something that is new and different.
“I said to Pats she had been under used, she had been hiding in the shadows and I thought she could do a lot more. I said to her, ‘I’m not interested in you telling me what you think I should hear. I want you to tell me what you actually think.’
“We argue quote a bit, most recently about Frank Sinatra, who she said couldn’t sing, he just spoke the words!
“What I don’t like is the fact that so many women on radio are cast by male programmers to be a giggling woman. Pats is way more than that. She is funny, articulate and opinionated which is exactly what you should be hearing on breakfast radio. Pats is a secret weapon for the show.”
O’Connell said he and the team have got most of the content right. “Although sometimes we don’t and I can feel the collective backside [of the audience] tightening up!” [Laughs]
One topic he misjudged was giving the Australian cricketers some stick. “In week one I went too early on that and I now realise it was too soon.” [Laughs]
O’Connell says his Gold breakfast show now gets was more calls than any of his previous UK programs – including his time at Absolute where he broadcast nationally on a handful of music formats.
A lot of listeners also admit to enjoying a British accent at breakfast.
Although smoothfm is doing very well in Sydney and Melbourne at present, there’s still a big audience that enjoys the talent talking. “I just don’t want to be an iPod,” said O’Connell. Although he reminds the team each day how lucky they are to have the opportunity to talk to people. “But let’s not waste their time. Let’s make sure we have something to say.”
Reality TV is a no-go zone usually on his show. “The sweet spot for me is our listeners stories and their real life.”
ARN seem to have given him quite a bit of rope. “Every radio boss I’ve ever had told me initially they were going to leave me alone. I have pushed ARN a few times, but only once have they said no.”
O’Connell revealed that happened after he argued with ARN’s programming boss Duncan Campbell about a fire engine!
“I found a second-hand fire truck being sold in Sydney for $6,000. I wanted to get it, put Gold all over it and pay some kid to drive it around. I wanted $6,000 and I was going to fly to Sydney and drive it back.”
Campbell said “no”, after asking O’Connell if he was trying to wind him up.
“I eventually accepted his decision. But we have agreed if the show ever gets to #1, they will get me the fire truck. Duncan told me if the show gets to #1 he will drive the fire truck from Sydney to Melbourne and give me the keys.”
Top Photo: O’Connell with the man poised to deliver his fire engineer – ARN’s Duncan Campbell