Building workplace culture in radio and what to look for in new employees
Some radio students asked me recently about culture-building in stations and why stations seem to always change teams at the end of the year. Looking from the outside in, it does seem this business can be a little unstable. Yes, stations change teams all the time. This is usually due to ratings or costs.
Two of my friends lost their gigs just before Christmas – never a good feeling, and not nice when staff come in the next day to find a couple of workmates they have known for many years are no longer there with little or no explanation from management. But my friends would still encourage anyone to pursue a career in radio. There are more good days than bad.
It would be churlish of me to mention the ways I have been fired over the years – and equally churlish not to mention how I have done the firing at times! It’s tough at the top when management must make the hard call, even if the reasons aren’t always apparent. But the culture question is a good one. It’s been said that most stations reflect the PD’s and GM’s personality. Often you can hear it in the writing and the production values. And you can see it in the way management interacts with staff and handles a station’s rises and falls.
If your station is owned by a big company, chances are the culture comes from the top, which may or may not be a good thing. Smaller, independent stations can have a great vibe when management is vested in cultivating a great culture. My best example of one is Hot Tomato on the Gold Coast. Hot is owned by Hans Torv, who is a passionate radio guy, former programmer and a great leader. He has presence in the building. The staff love him. I will always remember how this station (through Hans and Graham ‘Milesy’ Miles, the GM) treated me when they became aware of my illness in 2016. They could not have done more for me.
I was also on the Gold Coast at Sea FM when it was programmed by Rod Brice – also a great PD, leader and a decent human being. Both Sea and Gold had a great vibe in the corridors, driven by Rod and the then GM David Langsford.
Back in Melbourne in the mid-90s, Rhys Holleran was my GM at Gold when he was also GM and TTFM (pre-Mix) – after starting his radio career as accountant at the legendary 3DB before it launched to the new TTFM and before rising through the ranks to CEO of Austereo. From those early days, Rhys encouraged staff at all levels to go after their radio goals. He cultivated incredible morale because he actively engaged with and empowered every staff member.
My first job as a PD was in the late 80s at The Eagle in Perth. Greg Smith hired me and gave me lots of good advice. The rest I had to work out by myself. One thing Greg told me was when you hold a staff meeting or announcer meeting, always ensure everyone leaves the room feeling good about themselves and about the station. I never forgot this and took Greg’s advice wherever I went on to work as a PD. I may have even taken the concept to new heights, holding impromptu meetings with breakfast teams at 4am in running shorts before heading off for a run. The team thought I was crazy, and maybe I was, but they also knew I was passionate about the station and their show.
I was at 96fm when I became an Australian citizen in 1981 and GM Gary Roberts gave me a meat pie with Aussie flags on it and all the staff sang Waltzing Matilda. It was memorable and I thought at the time, ‘yeah, I’m going to like it here’.
Whether the station is big or small, if you are doing the hiring place passion at the top of your criteria for potential talent – in fact, for all employees. Not just passion for radio, but people passion, too.
So here’s my quick summary on crafting a great culture in a radio station:
- passion is the number one thing to look for in staff
- as a boss or PD, be generous about recognising contributions
- be authentic when appreciating
- surprise people – and really take an interest in their lives: are they about to become an Australian citizen? What are their kids’ names? Do they have pets?
- say more than ‘good job’; say exactly what you liked and why – talent need this
- thank people often, and if the ratings go up say your thanks in front of the whole team – this feeds self-esteem and breeds a culture of success
- inspire folks to move forward – if you are not moving forward you are not going anywhere
- own your failures too; it’s no big deal
- be honest and keep your word
- keep HR away from talent – this is a tough one in the corporatised radio environment, but HR know about processes and not about how to create a vibe, unless they’ve been on-air
- take the job seriously but not yourself.
Above all, have fun and be honest. You will get your next gig on your reputation, so leave a good impression everywhere you go, always.
This piece has been written by retired content director Brad McNally.