The departure of key station management in recent weeks was an ominous sign – but staff were still blindsided by the way Today FM’s fate was delivered, reports Stewart Sowman-Lund.
If you tune into Today FM right now, the only voice you’ll hear, spliced between classic hits from the likes of Madonna and Elton John, is that of veteran broadcaster Paul Henry. He had been involved with the station as a consultant since it began and provides the network’s interstitial “voice”.
As the station remains off-air following a dramatic morning within the Mediaworks’ offices, Henry’s ads are the only reminder that Today FM was a news and talk network. “I hope none of [the staff] take this personally,” Henry told The Spinoff this morning following news the station was set to close. “There are going to be some who feel bitter, sad… it’s a huge shame.” The closure, claimed Henry, had been triggered by “a dramatic change in financial fortunes”.
It was business as usual at Today FM this morning, until suddenly it wasn’t. Tova O’Brien, at the helm of her breakfast show, segued from a discussion about business into a discussion about the business she worked for. Joined in studio by her broadcasting colleagues Duncan Garner and Carly Flynn, O’Brien dropped the bombshell that Today FM, little over one year old, was on the brink of closure.
“It sounds like it’s over,” O’Brien told her audience. “We haven’t been given a chance. We’ve been on air for just a year. We were told we had the support of everyone, from the chief executive through to the board, and they have fucked us. And we’re all going to lose our jobs. And the station is coming off air.”
From the moment the broadcasters went rogue there was no chance of a quiet end to Today FM. Producers and hosts from across the network were, within minutes, tweeting their thoughts on the impending closure and sharing leaked updates from inside Mediaworks’ central Auckland office.
“I am gutted,” producer Tom Day said. “[Today FM] was what gave hope to so many people. I love our team.”
An emergency all-staff meeting was brought forward from lunchtime to about 9.30am. Management must have known what would happen. Today FM’s journalists treated it like they would any other secret meeting – by tweeting out key details and leaking audio to competing outlets.
“Mediaworks has proposed to close down Today FM,” revealed newsreader Brin Rudkin, adding that interim CEO Wendy Palmer said she would never have taken on the role had she known how bad the station’s books were.
Absolutely heartbroken for my brilliant Today FM friends ❤️
— Jenna Lynch (@JennaLynchNZ) March 29, 2023
While the recent departure of Today FM managers Cam Wallace and Dallas Gurney indicated that the station’s numbers were limited, staff were still blindsided by today’s decision. One of the network’s high profile hosts told The Spinoff they’d been promised a “five-year runway” for the station. “Air traffic control lied to us,” they said. A producer similarly told The Spinoff that they’d expected more time and that there was some “disbelief” from staff at what had been decided this morning. “Especially heading into an election year with Tova and Duncan and Lloyd [Burr],” they said.
Dave Letele, another of Today FM’s on-air broadcasters, said he had no idea of what was about to transpire this morning – that is until his phone buzzed. “I’d started getting text messages saying ‘aw sorry to hear’ and I said – ‘about what’?” he said.
“It was a complete shock. I had no idea. I saw the ratings and I was wondering how long [the network could stay on air]. Mediaworks, at the end of the day, they’re a business.”
Such awful news regarding Today FM – both the decision to pull the plug so early, and the terrible way the news seems to have been handled by MediaWorks. So sorry for all the great journos, producers and other staff there who have been caught up in it all.
— Sam Sachdeva (@SamSachdevaNZ) March 29, 2023
Letele said he’d been speaking with management only last week about taking his Friday night show “Buttabean” even further and potentially increasing his hours. “They said ‘give me a week’. And today’s a week – and here we are,” he said.
It’s not the fact that his show was likely ending that saddened Letele. It was the loss of a platform to discuss important issues and speak to people often ignored by other mainstream media, he explained. “It was really giving a platform for these issues we see on the ground,” he said. “The biggest thing I’m sad about is this was a mainstream channel and a lot of our issues that our community face don’t get on mainstream media unless they’re really bad.”
Speculation within Today FM is that the network will soon be replaced by another music channel with long-serving Mediaworks’ radio boss Leon Wratt in line to take on the operation. “He has never been a supporter of Today FM,” one staff member told The Spinoff.
Today FM employees have been given until this afternoon to make last-minute submissions on the network’s future. The public, it appears, will find out the result shortly after. “A full update on Today FM will be announced at 5pm,” a banner on the station’s website reads. It’s understood staff have not had a heads up yet on what will be revealed.
In the meantime, the afternoon’s music roster on Today FM has featured tunes like ‘The Final Countdown’, ‘Money’s Too Tight to Mention’, ‘Don’t You You Forget About Me’ and ‘Bye Bye Bye’.
And Polly Gillespie, another Today FM host, shared a lyrical note of her own on Facebook: “Today is now yesterday. Sad but alive.”
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