Talking Melbourne: Talking Neil Mitchell

Named by Brad March as one of the 40 Most Influential people, Neil Mitchell has been part of the Melbourne media landscape for more than three decades.

At 34, he became one of the youngest ever editors of a major metropolitan newspaper, Mitchell has been a reporter, a columnist and a TV host.

He joined 3AW in 1987, first as a weekend host and then as a fill in for Derryn Hinch. The last 20 or so years has seen Mitchell locked in a hotly contested battle with 774 ABC’s Jon Faine.  Survey 7 saw him claim another win.

But what makes him tick?  What keeps him motivated? And just what does he think of Sydney radio?

Radio Today’s Nikole Gunn spent some time with the broadcaster.

Nikole Gunn: You’ve had phenomenal success at this radio caper and have been described as the ‘hardest working man in radio…

Neil Mitchell:  Only because everyone else is slack.

Nikole: It’s not paint by numbers radio.  What keeps you going?

Neil: Tomorrow. We’ve got three-and-a-half empty hours tomorrow.  How do you make it sing? That’s what keeps me going.  “Challenge” sounds trite as it’s more than that, but it’s one of the most demanding forms of journalism and the most rewarding.

Nikole: Rewarding in what way, do you think?

Neil: The interaction with the audience.  When I was in newspapers as editor of the Herald in the mid 80s, readers would ring after the secretary knocked off.  I would dread that, but I could never ignore them.

That was one of the silliest things I did: avoiding the audience as that paper was dying.  Now it’s the audience that keeps you alive. They’re a big part of the content.

Nikole: So, when you start your day, do you have an idea what will be the hot trigger topics?  Or does it just evolve?

Neil: In the end, I think instinct is a big part of it.  What’s really makes my day is something fresh that we can break, that is obviously going to touch lives and get people talking.  It can be something particularly emotional.

A couple of years ago, there was a little girl called Mikayla, who was dying of leukemia.  Her family wanted to bring Christmas forward.  I interviewed them and just lost it, we were all crying. 

And the next thing there was this magnificent reaction from the audience.  It made them feel good, made the family feel good and this terminally ill child had Christmas early. And then died. 

Now you can’t do that every day, personally or for the audience, but that was one of the most satisfying things. You don’t go out looking for those – they come to you.

I try to avoid politics, which is hard because we have never ending election campaigns.  I try to have a bit of a fight occasionally, just for the sake of it, to fire things up. 

Some of the Sydney approach is to interview people you agree with and I think that’s just dull. What’s the point in me doing an editorial I saying “I think black is black and here’s Joe, who thinks black is black”.

Nikole: Melbourne is a very different beast than in Sydney.  Why is that, do you think?

Neil:  It’s probably the question I get asked the most.  I was interviewing  2UE’s John Brennan the other day and I asked him; and he didn’t know.  He’s been the doyen in Sydney for a long time.

Justin Smith doing drive on UE and it’s very much like in Melbourne. Is that un-Sydney?  I don’t know.  But it’s very Melbourne. 

Even the breakfast program now on UE is modelled on our breakfast show.  Alan Jones is a totally different beast to that.  I couldn’t see Jones working in Melbourne, brilliant broadcaster that he is.  Maybe he would, but I don’t think so.

Nikole:  I don’t know that they would accept him straight up.  Maybe if they’d grown with him, but not switch it on and there he is.

Neil: They didn’t accept MTR all that well did they? Jones is better than MTR, but there was a similar philosophy, in a sense, at MTR.  Especially in breakfast.  And it didn’t work. Big slabs of talking.  Big slabs of right wing talking that we just don’t do.

Mitchell is at an interesting point in his career.  A contract signed in 2012 is about to expire.  He’s in active negotiations to extend it.  But does he still have the drive to keep stoking the fires of talk radio?

Thursday Neil discusses the impact of Social Media on journalism, the future of talk radio and whether he sees himself continuing this ‘radio caper’.

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