Cathy O’Connor: How failure ended up driving me to radio success


When Vega 95.3 FM in Sydney and Vega 91.5 FM in  Melbourne were launched back the early 2000s, Cathy O’Connor says it was the biggest professional failure of her life.

O’Connor – then the Managing Director of DMG Radio – makes the revelation in an interview with the Financial Review (subscription required).

O’Connor – now CEO of oOh! Media – remembers anticipation had been high.

“These were the last two commercial FM stations to be launched in Sydney and Melbourne, and we had won the licences at auction.”

Vega launched. O’Connor says it was ambitious.

“It was music and talk, it was old, it was new, and it didn’t perform.”

“From memory, it got about 3 per cent to 4 per cent in the Sydney and Melbourne ratings, but it had a lot of talent on the air.”

“With those sorts of formats, because of the cost of the talent, you’ve got to rate 7-10 per cent.”

But, she says, it lost money. And in the end, they had to change direction.

O’Connor remembers the CEO at the time told her This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you because, it’s all gone too well up until here”.

It certainly didn’t feel that way. But O’Connor – who would go on to be Nova’s CEO for over a decade – says she was fortunate to be given another chance.

“I said to myself, I’m going to learn and make sure next time that I don’t settle for answers that I don’t agree with, that I don’t get sold a research proposition if I don’t believe it, and that I have the right people.”

With that in mind, she brought in somebody from the UK.

Having looked at successful stations around the world, O’Connor was of the opinion an easy listening format was the way to go.

In other words: the music should be the star.

“So the failure ended up driving me to the biggest success of my career, which is Smooth FM.”

On reflection, O’Connor puts the original failure down to overconfidence and not challenging decisions enough.

“Ultimately, you make your decisions, you get on with it. But I had an element of doubt with some aspects of it and I didn’t fully challenge it.”

O’Connor’s radio career began in the mid eighties, working as a sales manager for Sydney’s 2GB and 2SM.

She went on to hold a number of executive roles at Austereo in the nineties, including General Manager at 2Day FM and Triple M.

She has served on the board at Commercial Radio Australia since 2006.

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13 Jun 2024 - 11:32 am

Smooth FM was a great idea and the success was well-deserved. It’s just a pity they didn’t get the 97.3 licence in Brisbane as well (and not in the JV with ARN). Smooth 97.3 would be a phenomenal success in Brisbane if given the chance. As it is Brisbane is now stuck with 3x CHR stations in a market of four FM stations. Makes zero sense.

Yes it’s on DAB in the other cities and doing ok there, but it’s still a lost opportunity not being on FM. DAB uptake is still glacial. If you asked 10 people in the street what DAB is, 8 would have no idea.

13 Jun 2024 - 11:43 am

Hmmm. Well really it was the right people who created the hugely successful Nova brand who also created Vega, so suddenly they are the wrong people ? Btw how is it going at oOh media ??

Ty Mentemp
14 Jun 2024 - 12:50 pm

Heard Smooth whilst in Sydney a few days back, “less talk more music “ that tell me the jocks must be boring, and the jock on air was . Shouldn’t radio be entertaining ?

Bennie Gee
14 Jun 2024 - 6:39 pm

IMO Vega was the best of Australian radio. I listened to Vega every waking minute and loved it. Agree with MJ that Smooth 97.3 would be a massive step up from what we have in the Brisbane Market today.

Unpopular opinion, Vega may have done extremely well in Brisbane, considering ABC Brisbane and 4BC are not of of the same calibre as their Sydney/Melbourne counterparts (my opinion only)

16 Jun 2024 - 10:31 am

The Nova network has never been the same since Cathy left. Well done to her for identifying and launching the Smooth AC format. Anyone could see there was a massive format gap for a soft AC format but she backed it 100% and it has been a great success.Smooths success is a testament to her professionalism and radio instincts.

16 Jun 2024 - 11:24 am

Cathy O’conner would never have allowed Ryan ‘ Fitzy ‘ Fitzgerald to broadcast breakfast from Adelaide. Enjoyed your article.

Mick C
16 Jun 2024 - 5:48 pm

Never heard of her.

Audio guru
17 Jun 2024 - 2:11 pm

Nova stalled when she left, it’s a real shame. Many people joined as a result of her leadership then the batton fell to the wrong hands. They’ve since become stale and boring in a world of endless possibilities

17 Jun 2024 - 8:04 pm

To be fair Mix owned Soft AC around the time of Vega and DMG had more of an innovative approach’ which may have even worked if given time, certainly Melbourne had reasonable numbers and was well positioned between Gold & Triple M. Not take anything away from Cathy and the programming team who did an excellent job at creating Smooth but there was an element of timing to it.


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