Dallas Gurney: The brains behind Today FM

As Auckland emerged from the winter of 2021 only to enter severe restrictions as it began fighting a Delta outbreak, Peter Williams decided to retire from Magic Talk after nearly half a century in the media industry. This followed the the acrimonious departure of other talk show hosts, Sean Plunket, and John Banks.

With Discovery having purchased the television arm of channel Three owner MediaWorks, this left the radio side of MediaWorks in need of rejuvenation.

It was with this in mind that board member and New Zealand media icon, Louise Bond, discussed the issue with veteran radio man Dallas Gurney, over a cup of coffee. Dallas has plenty of experience with talk radio, having been General Manager Talk and General Manager Group Content Marketing with NZME, where he spent almost fifteen years of a successful career.

Despite having moved agency side as Managing Director of the content, PR, activation, partnerships, and events, at New Zealand’s biggest media group, PHD, in 2016, Dallas still had a love of the radio business and listened intently to the issues facing MediaWorks.

Bond was keen to see his talents utilised and persuaded Gurney to talk to Cam Wallace, Chief Executive Officer at MediaWorks.

“What was really clear from the outset,” recounts Gurney, “is that he wanted a competitive talk station. He wanted a station that would compete in this area properly and I guess I was enthused by Cam’s excitement.”

The meeting resulted in a job offer, and as Director News & Talk, Dallas went about setting up a new talk station Today FM, which launches on Monday March 21.

“I told Cam we’d have to learn from the mistakes of the past,” he says.

“We’d have to, blow everything up and start from scratch. And then it was going to be a long time before we saw any significant [financial]results. So, there was no quick fix. That’s a medium- to long-term-project. And he understood all of that. So, I thought, well, you don’t get an opportunity very often to build something from scratch. And so, I came on board.”

For the past five months, Gurney has been bouncing ideas off veteran broadcaster Paul Henry, who is now the voice of the station.

In a little under six months Gurney has put together a formidable team of heavyweight, former political reporters, and broadcasters. First Light with Rachel Smalley kicks us off between 5 and 6.30am, followed by the big new name in talk radio, Tova O’Brien, who goes head-to-head with ZB’s Mike Hosking.

Today FM OOH campaign.

Duncan Garner returns to radio with a show from 9am until midday, and then it’s the turn of Leah Panapa and Mark Richardson in the early afternoons; Lloyd Burr Live with Wilhelmina Shrimpton until 7pm; and Polly Gillespie hosts her own show from 8pm to midnight.

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been given flexibility and a blank sheet of paper,” Gurney told StopPress.

“You can’t have a talk station without a newsroom. You need a newsroom because a lot of the content that happens in programmes on a talk station will be news. Bringing news back in house was essential. It’s a small newsroom but critical to our success.

“We do have a partnership with Radio New Zealand, and they provide a wire service for us. We’ve also got partnerships with other media owners in the works. But you need to have some of that capability in house to be able to turn around your news.”

This has had to be done on a shoestring. Where NewsHub has about 230 people. Dallas has to make do with a much smaller team. About three quarters of the news team were the radio team that was supplying news under the Discovery banner, and ex-Discovery man, Gary Denvir, is the news editor.

Despite limited resources, investments are being made in other areas, including a whole podcast team, with Gurney seeing podcasting as both the future and an opportunity for some unique content.

“We’re great at audio storytelling, but radio hasn’t done that particularly well in the digital space. We see it as being a real opportunity. Radio New Zealand do it well, but we’ve, got to take a leadership role in that space. We’ve also invested in a digital website team,  an expanded version of what was the radio news team that came out of Discovery. There’s a big market gap in high quality digital podcast audio storytelling. I think it’s worth it for the future.”

Finding a space between competitors RNZ and ZB will be a challenge. In a polarised world, those two have captured the left and right respectively. Today FM will have to drive a wedge between the two that captures those who want to consume unbiased content.

“We play a straight bat on everyone. It doesn’t matter what your political allegiances are, whether you voted blue or red or yellow or green, we’ll give everyone a hard time where they deserve it,” says Gurney.

“I think the loud people are in different camps. I don’t think the majority of New Zealanders are. Most New Zealanders are respectful of a good idea. The loud people are on the fringes. We really want to be a balancing force, especially in this moment in time, where Covid has filled people with anxiety. We want to help restore the equilibrium in the conversation, not come from a particular perspective or angle.

“Balance is what we’re talking about. It’s not just political, either. It’s across all types of news. People want to hear somebody be given a fair go and for them to be judged on that basis. That’s what we intend to do.

“The station is founded on journalistic principles and we’re lucky enough to have as part of our line-up, three credible political journalists, in Duncan and Tova, and Lloyd, who’ve been in the (parliamentary) gallery for a long time and come with all of that experience. That’s an area of strength. We don’t necessarily want to be focusing on the five percent we know are going to get clicks. We want to focus on the stuff that is going to progress conversation and help us come up with solutions.”

Gurney understands it’s going to be a long hard road. It’s easy to have values but it’s harder to do it every day, sitting, looking at a dashboard showing how many people are listening in real time.

One of the things he has worked on changing, is how success is measured on the station.

“If you ask any kind of traditional talkback host, whether or not they had a good show, they will usually respond based on how many callers they got. That kind of the traditional metric is understandable because you’re getting an instant reaction to what you’re doing. However, that’s unhelpful because all it does is lead a host to talk about topics they know are going to hit an emotional hot button. Unfortunately, that can be quite unhelpful, and talkback has a bad name as a result of it. We want to restore some credibility.”

Today FM is targeted at 40- to 54-year-olds, an audience Gurney thinks is under-served by talk radio. It gets away from the traditional older audience, which is going to die, literally.

“Unless we want a natural end to talk radio in the future, we have to continually reinvent and look to appeal to a new audience. A station of the future – that hasn’t happened for a long time. The station is completely different to Magic Talk, and we’ll burn off some of that audience because it’s not what they’re looking for.”

Success will have as much to do with the producers as it does with the hosts and getting executive producer Carol Hirschfeld is a coup.

Carol Hirschfeld.

“Hosts and producers form really formidable teams and I want them challenging me,” says Gurney.

MediaWorks hasn’t competed that well in talk radio for a long time. To succeed it requires resourcing, funding, and investment. It requires getting good people, and it needs consistency. It means doing the same thing every day and becoming part of the audience’s lives, becoming habitual. If everyone sticks to the plan, Today FM will grow an audience that will get bigger and then who knows, in ten years, the talk radio market might look a bit different to what it is now.

There are going to be a lot of ears on the station at launch. For that reason, certainly in the short-term, it’s a very good investment for marketers and advertisers, if only because there’ll be a lot of interest as listeners try the new kids on the block. It’s the most exciting moment in this category for a long time.

“I’m sure that that we will be competitive in terms of rates, and I’m sure that we’ll be hit a different market in terms of audience, says Gurney.

“Give us a go. I’m sure you won’t regret it.”

About Author

Graham Medcalf is a freelance writer and owner of Red Advertising.

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