“The funeral I wish was my own”: a tribute to The Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show

The news broke in January, death was at the doorstep, yet not until late April did we know the final day. This week the body was prepared, Thursday the lid was delicately attached ready for the final service on Friday. It’s not a person that came to an end, it was a show. The listeners were the family that outpoured emotion of their loss, I should know, I was one of the mourners.

Friday was the last day for Absolute Radio’s Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show, where the presenters, Richie Firth and the namesake said their final goodbyes to their family of more than two million across London, actually, the United Kingdom, wait, all around the world. There were laughs and tears, calls and well wishes, but most of all, the genuine love and appreciation from two radio veterans poured out to the listeners that they never once took for granted.

With clockwork regularity, the “Flush Hitler’s Toilet” segment would tell the tales of bizarre and probably useless information that we all enjoy bringing up at the dinner table. Initially the name seemed rather jolting; however this segment attracted its title by the story of Adolf Hitler’s boat being wrecked many years ago, some pieces sold off. An American mechanic bought the toilet from the vessel, having it installed for his clientele to take a crap, whilst they awaited the repair of their car. The segment brought stories of suicidal Australian marsupials, that fornicated themselves to death, rats as big as cats and other nonsense that brought us a smile, without treating us like a fool.

The success formula of this and other highly popular shows may seem mythical, however the key ingredient is respect for the listeners, show them respect and they respond with loyalty and love. Feed them light hearted information and keep them stimulated, nourish them with humour and engage with them genuinely, only then, you’ll keep them for life. Hamish & Andy, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Bert Newton, Graham Kennedy, love them or hate them, they all offered these qualities to their listening family. Surely this explains why we still listen to them, or still miss them from our day to day lives.

As the final hour of Britain’s most popular FM breakfast program began, signalling the end of a stellar 12-year run, the carefully crafted Music Master algorithm was left outside the studio door and hosts chose the playlist, not for themselves, but for the listeners they genuinely love and heartbreakingly were going to miss. Twitter went berserk with well wishes for Christian and demands for Richie not to leave; you see a real emotional attachment had occurred between the family, some in the studio, the others on the other side of the speaker. The respect for each other was clearly evident, perhaps this explains why this man is one of the worlds most awarded broadcasters.

Whilst a funeral of this type would normally end at the conclusion of the show, the genuine relationship created a wake, which kicked on for another 13 hours in the Twittersphere, until Christian O’Connell boarded a flight from London’s Heathrow, bound for Melbourne, the new home for his immediate family.

The questions this event conjures are plentiful, why are so many broadcasters regurgitating the same content, not engaging with the audience, disrespecting the listeners with intellectual diarrhoea. The listening audience is not stupid; treating them with contempt doesn’t breed loyal relationships, certainly not the love that’s needed between the broadcaster and the listener, to truly make it a family that lasts a generation.

The award winning show had structure and meticulous planning, the few really great ones all do. Content was fresh every day, not simply a rehash of last night’s television. Listeners were treated to fun and frivolity, still with intellectual stimulus at its core. Will this new dawn mark a change in our FM programming? Listeners are seeking content, which explains the explosion in Podcast popularity. Genuinely engaging with the audience, reading and responding to their correspondence and of course immediacy, these are the advantages that radio still has, a broadcaster needs to use it, or lose it.

Can we finally appreciate that in order to gain a greater share of a diminishing audience, we need to return to basics, chemistry is essential, but content is key. Remember, it is more than just our job to lift the spirits of our listening family, it’s our obligation. That’s if you want to be mourned at your own radio funeral.

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