One on One with Ron E Sparks – pt 2

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

There aren’t too many music jocks that are living legends.

Ron E Sparks at WSFM (left) is one of them.

If you missed part 1 of Greg Smith's chat, you can read it here.

Today we find out why he moved from 2MMM to 2Day FM in 1994 and how he still manages to sound as excited about his job today as he did in the 70's.

He will also reveal the story behind how he turned down a lucrative McDonalds franchise to be a music jock.

Greg: By 1986, AM music stations were in trouble because of the growth of FM. You decided that your radio career was over. What happened ?

Ron: One day I said to a jock "hey do you realise you didn't play the station sweeper between songs 3 and 4 last hour? He said "oh well, there goes the next survey!" It was at that moment that I knew I was suffering from a common affliction of PDs, "paralysis by analysis".

Through my media work I knew quite a few McDonald's executives and after a bit of pushing by me, they offered me a Macca's franchise.  So I "retired" from radio. 2UW GM Johnny Williams threw a fantastic retirement party for me. Everybody should have one.

Greg: Why didn’t you go ahead with the McDonalds’ franchise? Surely you turned your back on a secure financial future just to get back on air doing casual shifts at 2Day FM

Ron: I dunno Smithy, once you're driving around the city listening to other people on the radio, something happens to you! You gotta get back onto a transmitter! While I was waiting for my burgertorium, I called Cherie Romaro at 2Day FM (the days of the laid back 2Day FM with clouds floating through the logo) and asked if I could do a few casuals.

Greg: Ian Grace offered you a job at 2MMM. How did that come about?

Ron: Gracie heard me make a lame crack about one of the other 2Day FM jocks one day (keep in mind I was only a "guest" jock on the station, it was a bit cheeky) and he thought I had a bit of attitude. Me? Attitude? Who woulda thought?

Ian was building Triple M on the momentum of Doug Mulray's breakfast success. Gracie knew he could fatten up those daytime figures with the right music list and maybe jocks like me who were well known to the targets he was after without alienating Triple M's core of 18-24s.

Greg: 2MMM was a powerhouse at the time with Doug Mulray delivering dominant breakfast figures. What was it like working there?

Ron: There's an old saying that you can tell a number one station by simply walking the corridors. Well you sure knew it at Triple M. Ian Grace & Charlie Fox were able to pull off the balancing act of hiring a disparate and sometimes bizarre group of people, giving 'em creative freedom but somehow keeping them on target at the same time. Not as easy as it looks.

Greg: In 1994 Brad March (left) offered you a job at 2DAY FM. Why would you leave 2MMM when it was so strong?

Ron: You'll have to cop some of the blame Smithy! (More laughter). You and Brad were breathing new life into 2Day FM with the next generation of research and the first real CHR sound on Sydney FM. It was bloody exciting.

I bumped into Brad at a US radio convention and we got talking. For a guy hitting the 40 year old mark, it was very flattering that you guys would even consider me for that station at that time.

Greg: What are the key things you learnt from Brad that you still use today?

Ron: When I think of my time working with Brad March the PD, I think of how he handled one of the most difficult tasks faced by PDs or Content Directors every day. I've never seen a guy so good at telling air talent the plain truth but keeping them onside at the same time.

His enthusiasm for the product has a lot to do with it. He doesn't kick ass the old fashioned way, he challenges you EVERY DAY to KEEP UP with the momentum he creates. That's a powerful way to motivate people. And branding, I still use his branding philosophies.

I gotta say though, the two of you are a perfect combination. You Smithy, I picture you sitting on top of a misty mountain somewhere, crystallising the philosophies and strategising the battlefield positions. Then I see Brad running up & down the station corridors putting it all into play with arm-waving enthusiasm.

Greg: In 2001, 2DAY FM let you go. What got Cathy O’Connor so fired up?

Ron: For the complete answer read the chapter headed "I'm A Prick" in Kyle Sandilands’ book. You'll laugh, it's funny.

Greg: In 2002 you joined WSFM where you’ve remained ever since. How did that come about?

Ron: Another serendipitous moment. I was out of work; WSFM was looking for a jock to fit their 40+ target for the workday.

Greg: On-air at WSFM, you still sound as excited & passionate as you did in the 70s. How do you maintain that?

Ron: Well, it starts with loving what you do. But here's how I explain it…

Y'know when you're watching a favourite band at a big concert? In between songs the lights go down and the place goes quiet for a moment. Then the guitarist plucks out the first few notes of their biggest hit. The crowd erupts and you find yourself automatically cheering too, feeling those goosebumps of enjoyment.

Well if your station's playlist is on target, something similar should be happening to your radio audience every time you punch up another hit. A slight exaggeration but you know what I mean.

That's what I love about hit radio! Old songs or new, it's all the same. With that scenario in the back of your mind, along with well-targeted prep, you're heading for ANOTHER GREAT SHIFT!

Greg: Describe the planning process you undertake to create a great show.

Ron: Classic Hits strengths are also its liability. That is, we're playing nothing but big hits, but we're playing them over & over.

So I really get off on making the songs sound fresh & interesting by coming up with new bits & pieces about them. The net is a dream resource, but I often go back over old interview tapes or magazines that I've kept. Even cable TV specials. If you have a great tease + payoff each hour you're off to a good start.

Add some topicality (there's the voice of Brad March again) and the shift begins to take shape.

Greg: What advice can you give PDs or Content Directors on how to get the best out of their on-air talent?

Ron: Try to let the air talent in on the whys and wherefores of what you're doing. Once people understand the reasoning, they'll make better moment- to-moment decisions especially in the often chaotic environment of a breakfast or drive show.

Rod Muir's famous quote still rings in my ears. "You can break the format as much as you like…as long as you can justify it in my office after your shift."

He was only half joking. Rod actually encouraged us to break any barriers we felt were in the way of entertaining the audience. Once everybody on the team understood that, people made some pretty good decisions, and no one ended up jumping out his office window.

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