Top Anchor spills the beans (pt 1)
This article originally appeared on Radio Today in May last year. With news of Ian’s return to Brisbane radio we thought it deserved another run.
In September 2011, 4MMM’s breakfast show, The Cage, was let go. For legendary breakfast anchor Ian Skippen it meant that his 23 years with Austereo had come to an end.
Ian Skippen was one of the first to join the on-air team when, in 1988, Austereo purchased 4BK with the plan to convert it to FM.
In Part 1 of a wide-ranging, and open interview, Radio Today Director, and Commercial Radio Hall of Fame inductee Greg Smith sat down with Ian Skippen and discussed his career.
Greg: Tell us about the early days of joining 4BK in 1988 as breakfast anchor & why you left your role as PD & Breakfast Announcer at 4KQ.
Ian: When you rang me Greg, I remember you were driving through the Gabba, on the day Austereo purchased 4BK, and it was like I’d won Lotto. I had been at KQ for 16 years, had been the PD, and was up for a new challenge.
I was well aware of Austereo and the way they worked. When I was PD I was looking at using you as a consultant but it didn’t happen as KQ was sold to Wesgo. I also had a mate, Kevin Hillier, anchoring the Fox Zoo in Melbourne and I wanted a crack at the “Zoo” concept in Brisbane.
Greg: It was a major cultural change for the staff & management of 4BK. I remember the entire research team was fired after falsifying tracking that showed 4BK doing extremely well. Unbeknown to them we hired another research team to do parallel tracking to compare the results. Ian, did you get a sense of us & them in the early days of Austereo’s ownership of 4BK?
Ian: Early 4BK was interesting and exciting. I was, I guess, an “Austereo Outsider” but everyone in the building knew me from a lengthy time in the market, but you were aware that there were some who were suspicious and nervous, but most were excited to be part of a proven success story like Austereo and all that it brought.
There was a natural attrition as the turbulence subsided. A young bloke called Guy Dobson was doing mornings. He soon upped stumps for Canada. It turns out that he made a better CEO than a jock.
Everyone was up for a “go” though. You could sense that we had an opportunity to really make a radio statement. FM 104 had been riding rough shod over the market for ages with just a tad of arrogance that both advertisers and listeners were over. It seemed like the marketplace was ready to wreak retribution.
A good lesson to learn. Humility tastes better than arrogance.
Greg: 4BK became B105 on February 26th 1990. In June that year with Brad March at the helm, B105 knocked off 4MMM in its first full survey on the FM band rising from 11.8 to 26.7. 4MMM dropped from 27.9 to 16.8.
McNair Anderson, the official radio survey company at the time, was so shocked by the result that they delayed releasing the survey while they re-checked the survey diaries. What do you remember about that day?
Ian: I don’t recall that day at all. I think we killed many brain cells with the Power’s Beer at the time. Seriously everyone had been going hard at it for 18 months and there was no love lost at the time between the new kid on the FM block and the incumbent FM 104…Rock in Stereo.
I remember them at one time hiring a bus and driving past our building at Bowen Hills showing a line up of bare FM 104 staff arses out of the windows. That first result was sweet for all on air staff, and prompted the famous double page spread in B & T mag with two dogs doing the biz.
The B105 collared dog was giving it to the 104 collared mutt. The caption was…”Every dog has his day”. The day and night was euphoric.
Greg: Brad March did a stunning job of creating B105. What were the key things that Brad taught you in those early days?
Ian: Creating B105 is the word. Brad’s forte is the creative. He’d sell the sizzle. From the Morning Crew to the Hot 30 and all in between, when you tuned in to B105 you knew you were on THE station and if you weren’t you were going to miss out. A take no prisoner’s attitude, a winning feeling that permeated through the building from reception through to tech world.
We were so proud of our brand, what we were creating and how we were going about it. It was all about making noise, seizing the moment, going to the edge and sometimes over it, but most importantly having fun. As a “crew” we were encouraged to take risks. He also used to score our show out of “10”, which was pretty tough when we always knew we gave it “11”.
Greg: How long did it take for you, Jamie Dunn & Donna Lynch to gel as the B105 Morning Crew?
Ian: Time dims probably how crap we were when we started out, but I think the three disparate personalities came together pretty quickly. You had Donna the girl from Canberra radio who loved to party and embrace the listener, Jamie the “Agro” man who hadn’t done radio really, but is a funny bugger and entertainer, then me the “radio bloke”, who got used to Jamie’s hand.
Brad’s thing for us was to stick to the roles. That’s pretty hard when you have a quick brain and smart mouth that always got you into trouble in class, so I’d write a line down for Jamie, he’d deliver and we’d get a thigh slapping reaction in a Brad aircheck. Jamie would give me the look on the sly, but I didn’t care who got the laugh or the credit, as long as we got the laugh. It was the chemistry.
Greg: What about the infamous incident where you got into a punch-up with Jamie Dunn. What was that all about?
Ian: It was really over nothing. A “discussion” early morning about our crew “production guy” who I reckoned could work faster. It seems I pushed the “Agro” man’s button. Apparently I didn’t always push the right one but this time I did, resulting in Agro’s right hand man delivering a round house to the button pusher’s jaw.
Our producer just about “shat” himself as he came between us. I was more shocked than physically hurt, which probably explains why I never threw a return. I’m glad I didn’t because it probably would have ended a great radio relationship prematurely. It was over and done with pretty quickly.
Apparently having known Jamie for years I knew which of his buttons to push. On this occasion I pushed the right one. It must have been an accident as I wasn’t always known for pushing the right button. I do know that we did go on air that morning and have a great show. The show’s the thing.
Greg: During your time at B105 & later 4MMM, describe the planning process to create a great show.
Ian: If I knew how to create a great show I’d still be doing it. My next show will be a great one.
Our planning would be two part. The day before and the day of. We would plan every break from the get go to the show end.
That would entail having the show up on the whiteboard, placing benchmarks (Gotcha/Character calls/interviews/Cage Crusades/ Breakfast tactics) then work everything else around those.
We would decide what stories each had that were relevant, which ones could generate a good phoner. Is there anything to generate a “stunt”?
What’s happening in the world that we should be on, news/entertainment etc. Who should we be chasing on these…if it’s international is there any local who could offer a comment if getting the actual person is impossible. Sometimes Obama just won’t take your call.
Is there an email or letter we should be following up on?
This process could be quite lengthy depending on the tiredness/enthusiasm/obstinacy or whim of all involved, but wouldn’t end until all agreed, or agreed to disagree on the final look. This process would then be repeated (without the PD or CD) the morning of the show, usually with more focus and time economy.
Over 23 years and almost as many PD’s and CD’s (I still can’t get used to CD, I think it stands for crap decisions) and producers the process would change but the basics don’t. Be compelling. Be relevant to your listener and your community. Be interested in everything and everyone, not just your little patch.
Everyone involved in the show should be an absolute sponge for information. No one has a mortgage on creativity. Be real. AND be prepared to make the listener the star. OK that sounds like a mission statement or glib lines from Programming 101, but if all of that is wrung out and delivered through “your” elements in every half hour you’re going to tick the boxes.
Be flexible. Be prepared to totally toss the whole show you spent hours preparing after you got off the air the day before and for a couple more on the morning of the show, because the feeling in the studio was “we should run with this”. It’s right to have a plan to execute, but don’t be executed by sticking to the plan. If your gut’s telling you you’ve got something better, go with it. You’ve got to know that you can take a risk. You’re not always going to make the right decision, but the last thing you want to be doing is second guessing. The moment will be gone and great radio has gone missing.
In part 2 of Greg Smith’s chat with Ian Skippen, he lists the Top 10 things he learnt about Breakfast Radio whilst at Austereo. Read it here.