Sydney and Melbourne #1 FM stations celebrate seventh anniversary

• Tony Thomas and Paul Jackson on the cost-effective marketing coup

• Nova’s Project Tattoo nearly became Easy FM, but then smoothfm

Nova Entertainment’s chief marketing officer Tony Thomas and group programming director Paul Jackson are the key architects of the smoothfm brand. The Nova Entertainment stations in Sydney and Melbourne celebrate their seventh birthday this week.

DMG Radio bought the licences for the Sydney and Melbourne stations that initially started broadcasting as Vega FM. Lachlan Murdoch bought into the company in 2009 and was keen to improve on the failing Vega brand which had been re-launched as Classic Rock, again a brand that had limited appeal to listeners. New hires Thomas and Jackson created what was to become smoothfm and it launched in May 2012.

Seven years may not seem a particularly historic milestone, but when you consider the route the newest FM stations in Australia’s two biggest radio markets took to get to what was their third format in six years it takes on more significance.

Add the fact that both stations are now #1 FM in their respective markets, then examining the how they launched seems appropriate.

Paul Jackson

And who better to tell the story than these radio professionals who built the brand. They both joined Nova Entertainment in early 2011 and had no idea previously their paths would cross and they’d jointly help create a winning radio format.

These interview highlights come from a new Mediaweek podcast available here.

Paul Jackson: Neither of us worked at the company when it was Vega FM. I joined a couple of months after Tony when [the Sydney and Melbourne licences] were both Classic Rock stations. It was a very crowded market for Classic Rock stations with three similar stations in Sydney. [Triple M and WSFM seemed to increase their Classic Rock tracks after the Vega brand morphed into a rock station.]

Tony Thomas: When I was recruited I was talking with CEO Cath O’Connor about the work to be done on Nova. There wasn’t too much mention of Classic Rock and the need to do a hell of a lot of work to reinvent the station into something successful.

Jackson: We knew there was a station on another floor here, thinking somebody else owned it. One day we realised, ‘What…that’s ours too!’ [Laughs]

Tony Thomas

Choosing the format that was to be smoothfm seemed pretty obvious to us. We did a piece of research about the market opportunities in Sydney and Melbourne. We also realised it was hard to research something that didn’t exist. It did find a gap in the market and gave us a really clear focus for what we felt we should do.

Thomas: The benefit of Paul being new to the market was that he could come in with fresh ears. He saw the opportunity pretty quickly. I went through all of the old research documents and found out why Classic Rock wasn’t successful because it was an occupied space.

Jackson: The initial target audience was women 35-54. But we also found a lot of people just weren’t listening to radio because there was nothing for them.

We chose Michael Bublé to go after as launch ambassador because he had the biggest selling records for three years in a row. It was so important for us to get smooth off to the right start. There was a lot of cynicism right at the beginning, which surprised me. We needed to engage the marketplace, the advertiser and agencies, as well as the listeners.

Thomas: Michael Bublé just stood out for us. He had the sort of personality and character that we really wanted for the brand. He had unisex appeal – adored by women and admired by men. He was the right fit for the brand and the music format.

Jackson: We were very secretive about everything. The project name was Project Tattoo and there were less than a handful of people who knew what we were doing. When we decided about January 2012 this is what we would be doing we still had a research piece about the name of the station.

One of the first things we did was approach Tony Harlow, who was running Warner Music at the time, and ask him if we could get Michael Bublé and get him to do an ad for the station.

I went and met a lot of presenters who were well known for their work in Sydney and Melbourne with the view of potentially hiring them. They didn’t know why I was talking to them. They were thinking it might have been for a new big breakfast show.

People here who knew what was happening regarding the format included Rohan Brown and Peter Clay.

We then started hiring people. We hired Richard Wilkins to basically do an 80s show on a Saturday morning. About a week before launch we got him in and played him the TV ad and told him what we were doing and he was blown away.

Thomas: It was only two and a half weeks from launch when we told all the staff what we were going to do with the station.

Jackson: The original name we were going to use was going to be Easy. But in the research the name smooth dominated. It became very hard to argue with.

These interview highlights come from a new Mediaweek podcast available here.

Tuesday: Another one of the keys to smoothfm’s current ratings success

Top Photo: Tony Thomas (left) with Nova Entertainment CEO Cath O’Connor and Paul Jackson

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