Nova 96.9 Turns 15!

Nova’s CEO Cathy O’Connor, Tim Blackwell, Kent ‘Smallzy’ Small, Ryan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald, Michael ‘Wippa’ Wipfli and Confidential on Nova’s Jmo & Elle.

On this day on April 1, 2001, Sydney commercial FM radio was turned on its head. Nova 969 launched with “Sounds Different”.

It was a $155 million roll of the dice by then CEO Paul Thompson, that spearheaded the start of what is now Nova Entertainment with Nova’s nationwide.

Nova 969 Sydney launched April 1 with Merrick & Rosso on breakfast and they were joined by Christine Anu as the first on air guest. Christine played the first song, a live version of her song ‘Coz I’m Free.’

But what actually went down literally the week beforehand, when the entire On-Air music library needed to be re-recorded? And who came up with the tag line “Sounds Different”, and was Nova actually the name they planned to launch with?


Many staff have passed through the Nova 96.9 doors in Pyrmont and we will ask a couple of them about their time when the station launched. But there are a couple of people who have been with the station since day one.

Nova 96.9’s longest standing employee is Sean Jenkins, who has been in the sales team since Nova 96.9 started 15 years ago.

Tim Blackwell from Nova’s National Drive Show ‘Kate, Tim & Marty’ is the longest standing Nova presenter – Tim has also clocked-up 15 years with Nova. And we will chat to Tim about his career a little later.

Other Nova people who have survived include Kent ‘Smallzy’ Small having served 13 years with the company, Fitzy is into his 12thyear with Nova and this year makes 8 years for Wippa.

Dean BuchananDean Buchanan, now Group Director – Entertainment at NZME was the Group Program Director that was part of the team that launched Nova into Sydney. We asked Dean a couple of questions.

What do you remember most about the day Nova 969 launched?

Dean: This is the start of something special. The story behind securing the licence against incredible odds and competitive manoeuvring is amazing in itself and the fact we made launch day was almost unbelievable at the time. April Fools day made it fun and my favourite tone setting quote was something along the lines of “we’re Merrick and Rosso and here’s how to flush 155 million down the shitter….”

The line “Sounds Different” who came up with that?

The words actually came from our listener research.  They said they were over the same old songs, long commercial breaks, radio was cheesy and hypey and did the same old promotions like the secret sound. (How ironic is that today, but it is the truth!) They wanted something different … we simply chose to LISTEN to them and create something new. Saatchi and Saatchi were instrumental in the logo design. We put the words “sounds and different” together, in a time when radio positioning was very traditional and formulaic.

Best thing you remember about being a part of the early days of Nova Sydney?

The people; I know that’s a cliché but we had a great team.  We were told we could not be successful as “all the best people in the industry were contracted to the other networks”.  And the fact the industry wrote us off – I remember quotes like “it is a known radio fact that you can not mix different genres of music together”. Being under-estimated was an advantage and we had a listener and client focus, not a competitor focus…a little secret that really worked in our favour.

What set Nova 969 apart from the other stations back then?

It was truly different, broke new ground and challenged conventional thinking.  Creative, fresh with new people and new ideas. “Never more than 2 adds in a row” was actually a sales strategy that helped us break through.  We took massive risks and got a lot wrong….we got a few things right as well. We had a “content first” philosophy and a boss in Paul Thompson who backed us to the hilt and encouraged us to go with it. People were empowered to have fun and do great work.

Paul Thompson, Keith Thomas, Kingsley Hall, Eriks Celmins, Steve Adler, Dan Bradley and myself – we were all very lucky to be part of it; great memories!

Dan Bessant, now the Group Content Director for Foxtel Music Channel Brands [v] and Max was Nova 969’s first Music Director. Dan landed the Nova gig after being the Group MD for DMG Regional Radio’s HOT FM Network in Queensland.

We asked Dan a couple of quick questions about when Nova 969 kicked off.

Dan BessantWhat do you remember about the day Nova 969 launched?

Dan: It was a bloody exciting day for everyone and the vibe at the station and launch function was amazing – there was a lot of champagne flowing!

Unfortunately for me we had a technical issue and I had to re-record the entire library of music from our spare room at home the week before launch.  This meant I was literally scheduling the music just 2 hours in advance on launch day so missed a lot of the celebrations!  There was a real buzz in the air for everyone on the day though.

Guessing you and the all the guys worked day and night leading in? 

See above haha!  The team did a bonding trip to Townsville the week before launch which I hear was actually pretty cruisy.  I missed it though to re-record the library due to that technical mishap – that was fun haha…I’m not bitter though ha :)…no really I’m not.

Best thing you remember about being a part of the early days of Nova Sydney?

I have so many great memories.  A couple of highlights include;

–              Making it to #1 FM in Sydney and staying there for 13 surveys

–              The week that both McDonalds and Channel 7 wanted to integrate Nova into their campaigns – you know you’re onto a winner when you are getting brand association like that!

–              Partying like it was 1999 and some pretty awesome junkets…the good ole days…

We know that Christine Anu I’m free was the first live song on Nova that day – what was the very next song you scheduled on the old Selector 12?

If I remember it was “Right About Now” – Fatboy Slim into “Pretty Fly For A White Guy” – The Offspring into “It Wasn’t Me” – Shaggy.  All songs that were missing from commercial radio at the time and certainly not played back to back.

Dan BradleyDan Bradley, now Director of international radio consultancy Kaizen Media, and a director of Connected Management, was the Assistant Group PD of the Nova Network when Sydney launched. We asked Dan for his memories.

Nova 969 launched on April 1, what do you recall of the day?

Dan: It’s a bit captain obvious but it really was extremely special. Not every day that you get to launch a new station in a metro market, so  it was a combination of excitement, tiredness and nerves…but an experience nobody who was part of the team will forget.

It was very secretive, there wasn’t much that leaked about it prior to launch as I recall.

That’s true, it’s not quite right to say that the team working on it were paranoid…but we kind of were a bit. All the announcers were trained on the gear in Townsville at the hub building, really for 3 reasons…firstly for confidentiality, secondly for bonding, and finally because the gear in Sydney wasn’t ready. The build went very tight, to the wire, and Steve Adler moved mountains to get it ready in time, but he did!

The old saying is that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan – is that true for Nova Sydney on it’s 15th birthday?

It would be fair to say that the DNA of the original Nova format was the result of much research, and plenty of long conversations, and there wasn’t any one person, but rather it was a result of a wonderful, cohesive team working together. That said, it wouldn’t have happened without Paul Thompson agitating for years for the licenses to be made available, and his influence on Australian radio through that (and everything else he did) is unsurpassed.

But the team was excellent. Dean Buchanan led the programming strategy build and the overall project, Eriks Celmins ran the research, and was heavily involved on programming strategy, and was a hugely influential part of Nova, Keith Thomas developed what was a compelling sales strategy, and without Stevo we wouldn’t have gone to air on time – so if that is ‘many fathers’ then I guess it did.

The planets aligned, with a great team who were all empowered and trusted to play our roles.

Is it true that ‘Nova’ wasn’t the first choice for the name?

(laughs) Absolutely true, in fact it was on an original list and got crossed off. We all thought of the car, the Holden Nova…and crossed it off. It only came back later on as we realised that the other names we liked weren’t available or didn’t work, and I think Paul Thompson was the one who reintroduced it. From memory Mark Stevens came up with the name, and it has proven to be a ripper.

Congrats to all who have been part of the Nova 969 team over the last 15 years. And to today’s team – well done!

The Nova 96.9 team will be celebrating their 15th birthday with a party tonight in the CBD. On Monday Radio Today will chat to Tim Blackwell on his 15 year career with Nova.

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