Gary Roberts on making 96FM a better station, and he’s impatient

• But it will take time, and ARN won’t act until new research is in

The new managing director of ARN’s iconic Perth licence 96FM, Gary Roberts, had never planned to return to radio just nine months after leaving Nova 93.7.

“It was never intended, nor was it part of the plan,” Roberts told Mediaweek just eight days into his new role.

Roberts left Nova 93.7 in July 2018 and had a non-compete clause making him off limits until January 2019.

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Game on in Perth: Gary Roberts saddles up again to run 96FM

“I was lucky enough to be part of the team that launched 96FM. I came back as the program director and had a wonderful 12 years. After four I also became the general manager. It was a sensational period to be honest and we achieved a lot. We established FM in the market, launching better than any other FM station in the country. It was only when ownership changed again I decided it was time to move on. It was bloody hard to leave.

“It’s a bit weird to find myself back again. The opportunity to reignite what is the best heritage brand in the marketplace was to good to let pass.

After his time at 96FM, Roberts ran the Perth duopoly 94.5 and 92.9 and was the launch MD at the then new Perth licence Nova 93.7, which is a JV between ARN and Nova Entertainment. He was also chairman of Commercial Radio Australia for three years.

Roberts said he thought most people were surprised to learn of his new role, but added: “I have had no negative reactions to it. It might have made a few people feel a little uncomfortable.”

Roberts had discussions with ARN for some time about contract details, something he didn’t want to share with our readers!

He did however say one non-negotiable was an overseas holiday for Roberts and his wife Wendy, which will see them out of the country in May. “We are off to Europe for a month. It would cost a lot to cancel it, plus I don’t think I could afford the associated divorce.”

In the meantime, Roberts said there would be no major decisions about the future of 96FM made until he has new research data.

There are some very good people here and I have enjoyed the contact I have had with the network. They have known me for a long time because of the joint ownership of Nova 93.7. We sat on a lot of board meetings together over 16 years.”

Roberts thought it doubtful he would now sit on that board as an ARN representative.

Roberts had high praise for his new colleagues including Duncan Campbell who previously worked with him at 96FM. “Ciaran Davies [CEO & MD] is great, Michael Harvey [COO] is great and we know what we are talking about and we are all on the same page.”

While Roberts said he had not planned this comeback, he explained: “I told everyone when I left Nova, I was resigning, not retiring. I thought I would be doing something else, but this was not on my list of those things.

Roberts said it was premature to speculate who 96FM would compete with most in the future. “Nobody should have any concern about 96FM until we sharpen it into a better product than it currently is. There are things we have to address. I would expect we are being watched by Nova and SCA. Up until this point I don’t think 96FM was drawing a lot of attention. But it will now.

He did elaborate a little, noting he didn’t think 96FM would be targeting Nova’s core audience.

Roberts laughed when we asked if he wanted improvement sooner rather than later, given he is not a young man.

“Of course. I’m not a patient man either.”

Without detailing exactly what, Roberts said there were a number of things he would implement to make 96FM a better station in the short-term without needing research.

That doesn’t mean 96FM is a bad radio station, it just needs to be a better radio station.

With just eight working days under his belt when we spoke, Roberts admitted he was still on a sharp learning curve.

He has been holding one-on-one meetings with staff since he arrived on day one. “I knew a couple of people when I walked through the door so I need to get to know everyone else.”

Roberts added staff are pleased to see the station getting the attention it deserves. “We aim to get 96FM back to where it should be…and we will.”

Brand Value

Roberts must have been wondering if we were not listening properly to what he had already said about the heritage value of the station when we asked if a name change was at all possible. (We just wanted to double check!)

I just told you it is the best heritage brand in the market. Why would you change it? If you asked Nike or Apple if they wanted to change their brand name, would they be receptive? Probably not.

“There are lots of brands that do have great heritage and 96FM had it. It dominated the market place from 1980 until 1992. Lately it has had ups and downs, but there is nothing wrong with the brand.”

As to the amount he has to invest in returning 96FM to the top, Roberts said: “We will do everything that we need to do to get us where we need to be.”

How soon should we expect results? “I expect the station to be judged in 2020,” Roberts told Mediaweek. “Instant change doesn’t happen overnight and radio doesn’t move that quickly unless it’s like the special circumstances involving people like Alan Jones.”

He suggested they wouldn’t be making any “monumental” changes, instead making improvements to the product.

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