Gary Roberts – Survivor (pt 2)

Yesterday in Part 1 of Greg's chat with Perth's Gary Roberts, we discovered some of the important lessons he's learnt during his long radio career and what are his main career highlights.

Today, in Part 2, we speak to Scott Muller on the multiple times he has worked for Gary, and radio legend Paul Thompson explains why "there are no safer radio hands than those of Gary Roberts"

Greg: Paul Thompson (below), founding CEO of Austereo and DMG/Nova networks had this to say about Gary...

Paul: ‘I think it is well known that I love genuine “radio people”.  People with passion for radio’s unique, versatile, broad yet intimate communication capacities, and the intelligence and strength to harness them. And people with the commercial acumen to maximize the profitability potential of those qualities.

Although I have known Gary for a number of decades I was reminded that he is such a person when I met with him just a couple of weeks ago after not being in contact for some 2/3 years.

And it was those qualities which led me to ask him to launch what became Nova 93.7 when I was putting together the Nova network in the early 2000s.

Perth is a great city but it is a long way from where I was living and if ever a CEO needs a safe pair of hands it is in Perth….and there are no safer radio hands than those of Gary Roberts’.

Greg: You’re known as a tough boss, especially on programmers, but at the same time you show a softer side by doing things like making sure that all female staff have a rose on their desks when they arrive for work on Valentine’s Day. How would you explain your management style?

Gary: You need to ask the people who work with me.

I know I'm demanding but I like to think I am fair.

I never apologise for having high standards as the people who really want to achieve in this industry will always rise to achieve them and go on to take it to the next level.

Greg: Do you see yourself as a benevolent dictator?

Gary: I wish!

Greg: You’ve seen many staff with different skills come through your stations. What are your memorable success stories and those memorable moments when staff just haven’t worked out?

Gary: I am so grateful to have worked with some brilliant people and to have been part of their career.

Many have credited me along the way for contributing to their career but at the end of the day without their unique talents nothing would have happened.

As for the ones who didn't work out, that's best forgotten. We all make mistakes!

Greg: There is incredible staff loyalty at the stations you’ve managed compared to other stations I’ve observed. What’s your secret?

Gary: The secret? Just make sure you hire the right people in the first place. I'll hire energy and enthusiasm over a degree every day of the week. Most of all we hire for fit. If you are not part of the team then you have no place in it!

Greg: Scott Muller (right) was Austereo's first PD of 92.9 when 92.9 & Mix94.5 were sold by Jack Bendat to Austereo in 1997. Scott worked for you twice as a Program Director. The first time ended in tears so why did you hire him back in 2009?

Gary: I don't remember the tears, just that Scott had to answer to two masters and I was the one who was there every day! My problems were with his other master!

When I had the chance to work with Scott again I couldn't believe my luck.

He is without doubt one of the best programmers ever to step foot into a radio station. I loved working with him. His clarity is amazing. He is also one of the funniest people I know. I miss his emails!

Greg: Scott Muller recalls that 1997 period :-

Scott: ‘It was a time of great, great change, and a huge culture clash between the two companies. Bloody awful experience for everyone involved, but best learning experience ever. Couldn't have done anything in the UK without that experience.

The 2nd time I worked with Gary as Program Director of Nova 937 was from late 2009 to early 2011. Initially, DMG asked if I could fill in for 8-10 weeks, and help find a new Program Director. Pretty quickly I found myself saying to my wife “I’m supposed to be helping Gary find a PD in the next few weeks – but this station is amazing, Gary is great, the team is great – I want to do it myself”. But I had other commitments – so Gary and I came to an arrangement where I half lived in Sydney and half lived in Perth, and was flying a lot.

Gary runs radio stations that remind you of what’s great about working in radio stations. That’s increasingly rare, and it’s an addictive environment.

Nathan, Nat & Shaun

Bear in mind that just before I arrived, the station had dropped to under 8% – its lowest share ever. Despite that, my observations were that Gary had Perth’s 2nd longest running breakfast show (soon to be the longest running, when Fred moves off Mix breakfast to drive). And it seemed obvious that with a few tweaks to the strategy, Nova 937 could achieve #1 25-39 and start working towards a #1, or very strong #2, breakfast show for the long term.

Many of the things I’ve done in Australia and the UK have been audience turnarounds of some sort or another, and those always come with risks of dipping further or plateauing before showing growth. In that situation, senior execs (CEOs, MDs, and GMs) generally fall into two camps. They’d either respond with “I don’t get how this could be #1 25-39, but if you say so, I’ll go with it” – which isn’t ideal as it usually means that when the going gets tough, as it inevitably will, they’ll lose their nerve for fear of losing their jobs. Most people are motivated more by avoiding what they fear than by taking on the uphill battle towards success. The other normal response would be “I don’t have the strength to put forth an argument for even trying that direction – it’s such a departure from what everyone else in the network is doing”.

Gary is different. He’s fearless, and he’s one of Australia’s great programming minds. And he seemed to think that direction was a no-brainer, too. (I sometimes think those growth opportunities had already crossed his mind, and he was just waiting for someone – anyone – to come along who could also spot the bleeding obvious). With the change in focus to move the station into a position from which it could win 25-39s – and, of course, 18-39s – Gary wasn’t just on board: he was leading the charge. And, as usual, was across every detail – from what had to be done at breakfast, with music, imaging, promotions, announcers, news, traffic, localism, the works.

And with Gary it can be intense (though we also spent an awful lot of time laughing). The good news is it’s a two-way street: if you’re even a slightly better programmer than one of the “I just reckon / trust me on this” types, you can earn the right to scrutinize back.

There’s too many good things to say about Gary, so I’ll end on these thoughts…

Nova 93.7 launch staff

If you get a chance to spend time working with the team at Nova 937, you’ll pretty much “get” what makes Gary standout above so many others. Nova 937 is a lean, tight ship. Everyone works hard and, for the most part, everyone enjoys working hard, having fun, being challenged, and being creative – and being part of a close-knit, united team with a clear sense of direction. Programming and Sales are a united front, far more so than any other station or network I’ve come across. And people have a life outside of work, too – Gary has set it up that way. What’s interesting is that many people there haven’t worked at another station, so they’re not even aware of what a miracle that is! Yet, despite the team’s work-life balance compared to other stations, Nova 937 is very successful – it’s the most consistently successful Nova of the last 3-4 years.

I’ll end with this thought on that much-used cliché, “the magic of radio”. That particular cliché is about the listening experience. But there’s another kind of “magic of radio” – the magic of working in radio. It doesn’t happen at every station, and many people who work in radio only experience it once, at a particular, special station – or for a particular, special period in time. (I’ve been fortunate enough to experience it time and time again, though that may be because I’ve moved around a lot). When you find a workplace like that, it is ridiculously addictive.

What’s incredible is that Gary has created that working environment – the “magic of working in radio” – at station after station. I was privileged enough to be invited to 96fm’s 30th anniversary in 2010, with so many other people who were originally at 96fm in the 1980s under Gary’s leadership. Talking to the people there – some I knew from when I was the cartboy in 1988, some were legendary names I’d heard of but had never yet met, both on- and off the air. Well … spend time with the team at Nova 937 now, or spend time with the team of 96fm from the ‘80s – same vibe, trapped in time – magic’. 

Greg: Gary you do tend to clash with the parent company group executives. Do you see that as robust discussion or unnecessary interference from the East?

Gary: Really, I just consider it rigorous discussion.

Seriously, I just think that great ideas can come from anywhere but just because it was right for one market doesn't mean that one size fits all! I'm lucky enough now to work with a national team that recognise that and I think DMG is a role model for tailored markets solutions.

Greg: You could have easily become the CEO of one of the three major commercial radio networks. Did staying in The West rob you of that leadership? Was it something that you actually desired?

Gary: I was approached to be the CEO of a national network some years ago.

I thought long and hard about it and went through the initial process but ultimately made the decision to live in the city I love. Perth has been great to me and I have been able to achieve everything I have wanted to do professionally here.

One of the things I realised about myself years ago is that the most enjoyment I get from my role is the day to day interaction with the team. While I can do the senior roles, I really enjoy the reason I got into radio in the first place and that's what comes out of the speakers.

Greg: At the time you & I discussed the folly of the Vega FM format in Sydney & Melbourne & how it reminded us of the launch format of Fox FM in Melbourne. Why didn’t senior DMG executives listen to your point of view?

Gary: Well they didn’t ask until after the format was launched and by then they were committed to that direction. It’s worth pointing out that Smooth is now doing really well and has carved out a great niche in both the Sydney and Melbourne market places.

Greg: Insiders tell me that when Illyria took control of DMG, your leadership skills were initially underestimated but Nova Perth’s financial results turned that perception around very quickly & you became the favoured son. Being underestimated, is that something you’ve enjoyed in the past that you can no longer get away with?

Gary: I'm not sure where that came from but I've never felt underestimated by Illyria. I'm enjoying working for an aggressive company with ambitious goals. I'm also not sure about being a favoured son, I'm just enjoying the support and trust they have placed in me.

Greg: What’s your read on the Perth advertising market? What effect has the slowdown in the mining sector had, if any?

Gary: It's not as good as everyone outside the market thinks. It's good but I don't see major growth in the next couple of years. It will be solid but not sensational now that the mining boom has plateaued.

Greg: To what extent have you personally embraced social media?

Gary: I've just been locked out of Facebook today!I have no idea why but yes I am active on Facebook and Twitter.

I think radio as an industry could do a much better job with social media and it will but we need to get our act together now! Cath O' Connor and I were at Convergence 2013 this year in Silicon Valley. It was inspiring.

Greg: Recently you’ve been running DMG Adelaide as well as Perth. What kind of shape was it in when you got there? What have you accomplished at FIVEaaA & Nova Adelaide?

Gary: Nova 919 is in great shape. Lewis and Lowe have real momentum and Dave Shearer is doing a brilliant job with the team.

It's no secret that FIVEaa needs some work but we are well on the way to setting the station up for greatness in 2014.

Peter Maynard (right) has been appointed as the new GM and is just the person needed to take the station back to where it should be. I've really enjoyed working with the Adelaide team over the last 2 months and they are very focused on what is needed to win.

Greg: You have a passion for great cars & clothes. What gets you excited away from work & how do you relax?

Gary: My wife and great wine. If my wife is reading this they are in the correct order!



Greg Smith is an inductee into the Australian Radio Hall of Fame, and a Director of Radio Today



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