In nearly every part of the media and sports worlds, talent is exported and imported regularly. That just doesn’t happen though in radio. Until now.
Just ask the new immigrant.
“Once I arrived I appreciated the enormity of what I am taking on,” O’Connell told Mediaweek after his Tuesday program Gold 104.3 – show #17 in its fourth week.
“In England I was focusing on finishing my radio show after 12 years, the visa application process, kids in schools and where are we going to live.
“When we got here we realised just how big a change this was.
“Radio in Australia is a very big and very serious business and more intense than in the UK. I have never felt more excited to be on-air because I really have to work at this. When you have been doing breakfast radio as long as I have in the UK, you are known, you have an audience and they get the show and they get you. It is quite easy after a while to surf on that and just ride it.
“Here I don’t have any of that. In every link on every show I feel like I am auditioning for a job I already have. The audience is trying to get used to me, getting used to the accent. Is it too much hearing a Pommy on the radio? That is challenging but at the same time really, really exciting.”
O’Connell had been hatching a long-term plan to move down under.
“My wife and I have always loved Australia and we first came here 15 years ago.
“Getting to know Hamish and Andy for the last eight or nine years started me thinking about it seriously. Two years ago I called Andy Lee and asked him if he thought it would ever work.
“Would the accent be a turn-off? I understand… people are very choosy about who they let into their lives in their cars or on their headphones in the morning. Part of me wanted him to say it wouldn’t work so I could drop this stupid idea, this midlife crisis (which is what my kids call it).
“Andy told me there would be challenges big and small, but he told me there was no one doing radio like I do in Australia. He told me Melbourne would be a great place to do radio and that planted a really big seed for my wife and I.”
O’Connell has two of his former bosses working in Australia, both of them in Sydney – Nova Entertainment’s Paul Jackson and Absolute Radio co-founder Clive Dickens, now with Seven.
“Paul hired me 12 years ago to start the show I just finished in the UK,” said O’Connell.
O’Connell can roll off a long list of Australians working in radio he is familiar with. “I have been a fan of Marty Sheargold for a long time. I was a big fan of Martin/Molloy and I have their albums including Poop Chute. I also remember hearing Amanda Keller and Andrew Denton years ago.
“My first-ever boss in radio 20 years ago was a crazy Australian – Steve Woods – who used to give me tapes to listen to. I was so blown away by how funny and smart Andrew and Amanda were. I’d not heard breakfast radio like that. I didn’t hear them doing that cheesy rubbish about what’s on TV or what celebrity was having a birthday. That left a real mark on me.
“In radio we are always force-fed that American radio is the best in the world. Howard Stern is my all-time favourite presenter and there are some great other shows there. Australia doesn’t get enough credit though for some of the great radio that has come out of the country.”
When asked about Paul Jackson’s comments to Mediaweek recently that it might be hard for O’Connell to make it in Australia, O’Connell said he didn’t read it.
“Years ago I decided to never read any articles about me because you will find something you don’t like. My wife reads all of them… and I mean all of them. She’ll then say something like, ‘Paul Jackson said this about you.’ Part of me wants to know and then I’m going, ‘He said what?’
“But I get it, he’s in Australia and you play to win here. I was surprised by what he said, but I understand where it was coming from.”
It is ARN national content director Duncan Campbell who has dared to dream by entrusting a Melbourne station to O’Connell.
“I said to Duncan a number of times, ‘Are you sure about this? If this doesn’t work out it is bad news for my family and me, but you will be unemployable in the whole country. I will have to crawl back to the UK and try to find someone to let me on the radio. But you will burn. Are you sure I shouldn’t start on another daypart first?
“He just looked at me and said he loved what I do in breakfast. He understood it would be a long-term thing, which is why he gave me a three-year deal.
“He’s done a very bold thing and I don’t think anyone else would do this.”
The new Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show at Gold is more audience focused than at least O’Connell’s last few months on Absolute.
O’Connell agreed. “The first thing I wanted was to get Melbourne talking to me. I have always done very interactive radio shows and I always will.”
The breakfast host is also on the lookout for Melbourne people who can be turned into stars on his show. Last week it was an Uber driver; this week it is a poet and folk music enthusiast Frances. Next week it might be a listener’s beer club if O’Connell accepts the invitation to join them one night. And he did seem very interested.
“I love radio shows that feel like they are a meeting point for all kinds of misfits and characters. And I am one of those.”
By chance O’Connell hired former ARN producer Nick Daly on his UK show before he had revealed the Australian move and the two became good friends.
“After I told him about my crazy idea he decided to come back to help me set the show up for two or three months before he goes back to London because he is still enjoying time working over there. Having someone that knows the market and knows how I work has been invaluable.”
With a survey day next week that will only cover a few of the days O’Connell has been on air, he said he’s prepared for whatever story the ratings tell.
“If my show is going to work it will be a long-term thing. It won’t be easy and it shouldn’t be easy. I shouldn’t be able to walk into a city and then after four or five weeks get big numbers. It’s going to take six months, nine months, maybe a year – who knows? It might go down before it goes up – we will see.”
Although he plays more music after 9am, that’s because O’Connell doesn’t expect too many people want to hear too much from him in that final hour.
It is also a point of difference for the breakfast show. “I have been doing a breakfast show from 6am until 10am – that’s what I do. I totally understand if some of my rivals want to be on the golf course by 9.15am.”
O’Connell told us when he first sighted his ARN contract it specified he would do 6am-9am. “I said to Duncan Campbell: ‘Are you OK if I do 6am-10am?’ I think he thought I wanted 25% more money. I said I didn’t want any more money.”
Of his contract, O’Connell confirmed his three-year deal was linked to performance bonuses. “It is like a game show. ‘Here is what you could have won, but I’m afraid Melbourne is still undecided about you and you only get this.’ I have told the kids they might not be eating for the first year!”