Daddy-o Radio Daze

(Thanks to Tony Tea of After Grog Blog non-paying fame for putting me on to this piece by ultra-long time Melbourne music radio presenter Peter “Gracie” Grace.

Before you stagger through the prize baloney below you need to read this.

Then I cut back in for my improbably long-winded account of where I agree, differ slightly, or disagree with the Gracie Version.)

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QUITE PROBABLY UNINTERESTING RADIO FACTS FROM BEYOND TIME

(Note: May also include some near-facts.)

Peter Grace’s account of MMM/Fox-FM life in the early-mid 90s is both interesting and irritating from my point of view, the latter quality in a couple of ways.

(a) He’s right about their weirdo belief in these kinds of magical computer rotas and charts, which make for an interesting comparison with the Nazi leadership folks and their fling with astrology in the 30s/40s. The unshakeable faith of the Triple M mob and, even moreso, the traditional Austereo (Fox, SA-FM, 2-DAY etc) half of the equation in this kind of oogah-boogah with numbers and print-outs was jaw-dropping, and would have been utterly hilarious if I wasn’t in the middle of it at the time. The number of times ratings showed this belief-system/nerf science/weirdo stuff to be flat-out wrong were legion. What they’d do under those circumstances was hypnotise themselves back into a calm computer-printout reading state by throwing in a whole bunch of new figures that “proved” they were right all along. So if the ratings (actually always a share percentage in radio – actual ratings, taken over the whole of the market, would be less than flattering, to put it mildly – were in the toidy, bring out the “cumes”. Any mention of cumes, or cumulative listening figures, is a logical and mathematical fresh-air shot – you ALWAYS know they’ve descended to sheer desperation when they crank up the cumes. Basically if a radio station had any listening figures worth bragging about, it would be evident in the ratings, the average listening figures over a timeslot, and the raw listening numbers during a timeslot. This ouija board stuff over how many millions (and if they thought they could get away with it, they’d say “billions”) supposedly tune into a radio station over a week are the bunk and the purest form of bunkum as well.

The other one they’d pull is sitting around 30 slightly portly young women in a somewhat small room with Kit-Kats and cups of tea and having them harrass people at home who are trying to make dinner and get baby-poop all over themselves at the time, by asking them what they think of some short sample of a musical track that sounds like everything else already on air. From the responses to this, and other questions concerning listening habits, the Nazi astrologer types running the station/network would then mysteriously extrude something called “tracking”.

Tracking was (and no doubt is) a collection of numbers and percentages that invariably proved:

(a) Whatever the station was doing was right, in spite of the quite possibly parlous ratings at the time. (eg “We’re tracking well for June.” Yep, it’s February now and we’re in the sh1tter, but sunny skies are right down the track, in June.)

(b) Whatever was obvious about the horrifying shortcomings of the music track in question, it had to be played as it was “tracking well”. (i.e. Had some form of mysterious approval from 17 people being bothered on the phone while trying to manufacture spaghetti bolognese and get cat poo off the couch.)

Basically whatever Gracie said about the days of change at MMM and how bringing this kind of thinking into commercial music radio killed it as both entertainment and in terms of any concept of creative expression, is right. And he’s also right in that the folks who came from the old, pre-merger Austereo/Fox were even worse in that regard.

By way of indication, I had real reservations about the music when we (Danger: Low Brow) went to Fox-FM and were doing the drive shift. I knew the deal going in there was that we weren’t going to be able to play any non-playlist selections of our own (we had at MMM, prior to Austereo’s involvement at that station) and we would be able to tailor their own playlist a lot less for our show than we’d been able to do at MMM (we had some minor influence, or at least the right to nag on about certain tracks we found unhelpful or inappropriate for our show, on Fox in drive, as I remember it) and the answer would invariably come that all the tracking, numbers and Sahara Forests-worth of perforated-edged computer print-out – remember that stuff? I think those execs used to eat it – said the music was “tracking spot-on”.

At the end of the year, the station was rating low nines, somewhere in the 9.2-ish area. Our show – something that they’d fought against tooth and nail being in drive for five days per week because comedy/talk in drive was anathema to their format (i.e. tracking says no) – was pulling low-mid 11’s, say 11.2 or 11.3. We were two full points over station average. Lord knows what we would have pulled for a figure if we hadn’t had an anvil tied to our exhaust pipe – i.e. playing the Eagles (in the mid-90s) and the hopeless soft-rock/pop hybrid they’d retreated to out of fear/ignorance/complete lack of innovation and ideas/tracking, at that point.

I remember saying at the time to one of the main exec stat gurus – “And there’s your tracking. There’s what it’s worth.”

Absolutely true, and no doubt tremendously not appreciated by the titled numbat in question. However, not all that long after that, they had one of those Maxwell Smart type “Eureka!: ideas of theirs, and changed that (previously perfect) music format. No doubt the new version “tracked” just as magically well as the old version – they always did. Always. Thus, one can only assume, the figures and those who interpreted/smoked/ate/promulgated them must also have always been right, even, if not especially, when ratings comprehensively proved otherwise. (Bearing in mind that I’m sure the “cumes” were just delightful that year.)

And on a slightly different note, albeit one that is tracking 27’s as we speak.

Peter Grace is a part of radio history. (I know that sounds like I’m saying in a slightly perfumed way something like “In radio terms, Gracie has long since been history” but you’ll have to trust me I didn’t mean it quite like that.)

He has seen and lived through a ton of that history. So if a few facts, dates, causes-and-effects, and ornamental details have gone through to the proverbial ’keeper, it’s understandable in the grander scheme of things.

Here are some of the ones that dogs-ballsed their way to my attention, reading Gracie’s account of radio yesteryear, particularly the portions of it I was directly involved with at those times, as an employee of MMM in the early 90s, and Fox-FM in the middle 90s. (Times rounded off for good behaviour, but those are roughly right.)

– Don’t know how late onto the grunge train MMM was, but I think this is somewhat exaggerated in Gracie’s account. Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” were both released in 1991. I was at MMM from ’91 to around ’94 and they were all over them (well, within the few tracks they’d play, same as with any other album re playlists) from reasonably early into that time as I remember. Also, everyone in the mainstream part of the bizness was late onto grunge here. (Well, mainstream radio had already missed virtually all the Australian bands that were effectively already building to this kind of music in the 1980s. And virtually all of the US ones. And the Swedish ones. Etc.) Nirvana’s first album was released on an independent here, Waterfront from memory, and sold at a rollicking and bollocking old rate before the majors woke up, “Nevermind” happened, and “Bleach” (the first record) was quietly picked up by the relevant major (was it WEA?) for subsequent Aust distribution.

So MMM wouldn’t have been Robinson Crusoe, put it that way. And once they got a sniff, they were battering the second Nirvana album in particular. Three tracks were in constant rotation for a long time – “Come as you Are”, “…Teen Spirit” and “Lithium”. And plenty of other grunge era acts and the emerging “pro college rock” type bands (a kind of non-movement that probably ultimately devolved, via the partially listenable Live, into drek like Creed, Fuel, and all the one-word shamble-o bands, inc Nickelback.) Hell, even the Meat Puppets got played on MMM for a short while.

What is also, not unrelatedly, left out of the Gracie account is that people were there, and on the music committee, or whatever they called it at MMM, who actually cared about music, as late as the early 90s. The ones that stood out to me in those areas were Kate Mason (mentioned by Peter Grace as his assistant when he was music director, but she had a fair run as music poo-bah at MMM Melbourne after that, and she really cared about music and did about as decent a job as anyone could have under the job strictures there (i.e. tyranny of the computer print-out. The other was lifelong avowed on-air music nut and much-loved album show presenter of yore, Billy Pinnell.

So they did have folks fighting the good fight, and battling the tracking/computer printout hierarchy, even at that late date.

– When Gracie’s talking about how he sensed that folks from his comedy watering hole in 1993 were ripe for commercial music radio, he’s got the sheets of history a little twisted up around his feets, I reckon. When the Danger: Low Brow guys went on to MMM breakfast (R. Stubbs was the host then) Andrew Goodone and Tim Smith were the guys we effectively replaced, so they’d already had a run on commercial FM by the time Gracie’s talking about.

Don’t know about how new Denise Scott was then. Never heard of Amanda Blair. Gary Adams was from the old-school RRR – he’d been in the cast of “Punter to Punter” way before that time, presuming it’s the same Gary Adams we’re talking about.

– Someone in Commercial FMs-Ville was not only NOT playing strict rotation playlist in the early 90s, but they were playing tracks that went nowhere near playlist, although PG may have forgotten. It was the old show that I was a member of, “Danger: Low Brow”, we were on MMM, having taken over the timeslot formerly occupied by Tony Martin and Mick Molloy’s show, “Bulltwang”, and given the orientation of our show, which had come over from alternative radio RRR, it seemed important to me to distinguish the sound of our show from that of every other one on the station. Music was important to me, and I thought we needed the music on our show to be distinctive. (Some guys on the show – Dennis Twilight, Brett Duck and Double-A were my teammates – agreed with this more, others maybe a bit less, but they supported the idea, which was important. If it had just been me, I don’t think I could have got the result I wanted – a very unusual result for commercial FM that’s probably never been repeated since – and I probably would have had to have walked on principle and that would have been all-she-wrote, at least for me in paid radio, probably. So I owed the DLB guys for that one, probably something I could have acknowledged a bit more at the time.)

What evolved was kind of a bizarre triangulated negotiation procedure that actually worked out perfectly well, if not without hair-tugging stress on all sides. We’d play roughly half playlist stuff, picking the eyes out of it so it was fast and “up” to go with the comedy bits, rather than work directly against them by killing the energy, and the other stuff was non-playlist, or – and this is one I can’t believe mainstream FM has been dumb/scared/conservative enough not to rip off us in the intervening couple of decades – non-playlist tracks from albums that sold an absolute bomb over the years, where you pretty much know that the entire audience has already heard the tracks.

That was one part of the “triangulation” and the other part was the interpersonal part, consisting of me, music honcho Kate Mason and MMM PD Lee Simon. As mentioned elsewhere as diligent as she was in her duties representing the interests of MMM, Kate was also a huge music fan, so while we often disagreed at least you could see the other person’s point of view. Lifetime EON/MMM guy Lee Simon and I might, in some runs, be a constant disagreement looking to happen, but you could have a laugh with him, and a smoke, and an argy-bargy about what verbal pleasantry was sung on some Small Faces song, as well as a, ahem, “frank and thorough-going interchange of viewpoints”. When it came to dealing with the Fox-FM guys later on, it was like talking to a computer printout. You would have got more life, verve and information talking to the stack of computer printout.

MMM was, comparatively, like dealing with people. And it worked. We turned out a workable list each week. They might not have loved it, and I vaguely remember being told we’d do way better in the ratings if we just played their music as scheduled like everyone else, but, however grudgingly, they went along with my bloody-mindedness on the subject and negotiated away

Yes, we played some Screaming Pipniks and even whatever that Jon Stevens guy’s band was, but we also played Jerry Lee Lewis, the Ramones, and the MC5 right there on MMM. And just to confirm any suspicion you might have about what all that tracking and computer printout is worth, we went #1 in the timeslot. Not Number One FM – Number One in the entire market. We did that either once or twice. On at least one occasion, our follow-up show, Billy Pinnell’s album show, also went #1 in its timeslot, which is down to Billy of course, but was a delight to us.

(Incidentally, on a semi-related note that I’m proud of to an unseemly degree, we not only interviewed Kinky Friedman but had him play a few songs live to the MMM night-time audience  – I think this was when we had a weeknight show, maybe not the Sunday night version – including a rollicking version of “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”. Lord knows what they made of that in Rowville and Bayswater. Actually, they probably loved it.)

I guess the kind of underlying point here, as opposed to the general scenario in Commercial FMsVille accurately outlined by Gracie, is that to achieve something different from the normal computer runaround playlist, you had to fight for it. But it could also be said we were just the exception that proved the rule, and the circumstances were different for us. A little of column A, a little of column B.

– I just don’t know about the Gracie version of Martin & Molloy getting on to the Austereo radio of the time in the mid-90s. I don’t doubt his version of how thick the execs on both the MMM and Austereo side of the company were – I lived through it.

However, Tony had been part of the D-Gen breakfast show on MMM which was, and still is, the last time any comedy/music/talk format show on commercial FM won the slot clean and recorded a share figure anything like 18.4%. I can’t recall whether Mick was part of this breakfast show, but he was certainly part of “The Late Show” with Tony and the D-Gen/Working Dog guys on the ABC. The radio execs of the time were complete marks for guys who had been on television. I remember one particularly pointy-headed Fox-FM pen-pusher telling me pretty much that word for word, other than he also used the expression “profile” a lot.

The way this worked was that you could perform the hell out of a radio show, be proven as you like at driving laughs out of a radio show format, but when it came to the big deal slots and promotional push, they went for folks with “TV profile” all the live-long day. This was true not just of the commercial music stations, but also AM talk stations like AW and The Artist Formerly Known As 3LO, and, really other ABC stations as well. It still is true. And it makes perfect sense, when you drink about it. You want someone to do good radio, you naturally go straight over to television. Similar to how, when you want a toilet installed properly, you hire a really good carpenter, and when you need a little brain surgery done, you hire the best children’s party conjurer that money can buy.

Anyway, the fellows concerned would have been adjudged to have TV profile.

Tony and Mick were good at radio as it happened, and the folks at those stations could not help but be well aware of it, no matter how deeply their heads were plunged into their fundaments, jostling their lower intestines. They’d presented the Sunday evening show on MMM, “Bulltwang”, as Gracie mentioned. And Tony had been part of a sky high-rating breakfast show on one of those stations.

I’m finding it just a little difficult to conjure with – not saying it’s impossible, mind – that there was NO interest in Martin & Lewis, err, Molloy, at Fox at that stage prior to Gracie stepping in, saving the day and saying “Never fear, chaps – I’ll produce a demo!” I don’t know that they would have even been in those offices if there was no interest.

But I wasn’t involved personally, and if Tony and Mick agreed with Peter’s account, if anyone cared to ask them, I certainly couldn’t contradict that.

The other source of irritation for me is partly related to the Martin-Molloy scenario as outlined by Gracie. In his version, he produces the Martin & Molloy demo, and then it’s all a rollicking freight train of unstoppable comedy history leading to them becoming the biggest most successful show in Australian FM history, and so on and so forth, all down the back of your grandmother’s paisley shawl.

There’s something left out of this account, well any given number of things really, but one in particular. Me. More to the point the radio comedy team I was part of, “Danger: Low Brow”.

It’s kind of business-as-expected, as we’re left out of every official commercial FM radio history going.

The timeslot Martin & Molly inherited at Fox-FM was our timeslot – the one we’d had rating 2 full points over station average when that station didn’t want us there five weekdays per week in the first place. We didn’t invent the idea of putting radio on in drive-time, but for commercial FM purposes in Mell-Born Town, we were directly responsible for a comedy-talk-music hybrid show happening in that timeslot. Not Fox-FM – we had to fight and fight and stick to our guns to get Monday-Friday drive. We had to hold on to our dead-end night-time slot at MMM and hold out while Fox offered us one drive slot per week then two, then three, because they were so deadly knee-knocking scared that the exact same mix of comedy/talk/music their listeners heard in the morning driving in, would put those same listeners off driving home in the afternoon/evening.

It was nonsense, it was ludicrous, it was patently the same cringing, pathetic conservatism that marks all the other decisions these hopeless numbats make – or, mostly, avoid making – so we held firm and we effectively made the programming decision for them. And it was proven, by ratings, to be the right one.

They needed a new breakfast show after that, we were moved into that slot, and Martin & Molloy had a slot ready-made for them, with the best audience figures on the station already waiting for them.

That’s what happened, in case anyone cares, which, one gathers, they don’t.

After this, the station quickly fell in love with the idea of having the “TV profile” guys on and we, even though we were in the most-listened-to timeslot in radio, breakfast (very much the case in terms of raw numbers – remembering the “ratings” figures you see are only shares indicating the percentage of the overall audience listening AT THE TIME, not as a percentage of the available population/market, so an 18 in drive is all but certainly NOT the same audience as an 18 figure in breakfast) found ourselves back in the ruck, with Martin and Molloy as the station’s heavily pushed superstars, soon going nationally.

(Meanwhile we had to have arguments with management for stuff as small-potatoes as trying to get our comedy sketches mixed by production staff. This is true. Didn’t mean we’d necessarily get them mixed though. When we asked for some promotional budget consideration re advertising to counteract advertising by other stations for their breakfast shows, we were told it was a management decision not to spend any money on advertising for any individual show, outside of Martin-Molloy. Within weeks ads appeared for the MMM breakfast show. We called the reptile-like execs on their patent slime-bag lie. We were given something like a large line of type in the newspaper sport section intermittently over a week or two, from memory. The couple of things I remember some of those execs being genuinely good at were patent slime-bag lying and misreading the barrel-loads of computer printout they’d hypnotise themselves with on a daily basis.)

“The Grill Team” on MMM and all subsequent palaver of that ilk on commercial drive-time radio, came after our show, “Danger: Low Brow”. The four of us – Brett Duck, Dennis Twilight, Double-A, and little me – along with the guy better known as an integral part of Working Dog, but then our manager as well, Michael Hirsh, were directly responsible for that kind of radio starting on commercial FM drive in this market. Possibly the country for all I know.

I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt have bountiful occasion to say it again, but no-one else, particularly from commercial radio-dom (and –dumb) then or now or in any likely future scenario, will ever acknowledge that what I said in the previous paragraph is true, but I’m here – and I was there – to tell you that’s exactly what happened.

At some point, I’ll probably lay out the other stuff we, as in DLB, presented as innovations, in commercial radio terms, that were vehemently resisted, decried and laughed-at by station and/or network executives which they later turned Maxwell Smart again, and “invented” for their own use after we’d done so in the first place, and/or after we were already gone.

However that’s enough banging on about this stuff for now. I’ll just add that in my opinion that some of the executives concerned (emphatically NOT including Kate Mason, Lee Simon and Ian Grace of MMM) were, are, and in my estimation, always will remain, utter scumwads. Thank you.

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14 thoughts on “Daddy-o Radio Daze

  1. Great FM radio history Leaps. I wonder if anyone remembers a show on PBS on Friday nights in the early 1980s. I think it was called “The Non-Music Show” and was presented by a couple of guys called Vern & Allan.

  2. Complete agreement. What happened to DLB was disgraceful. God I still miss that show, and the way one liners would fly out of the radio like ninja knives.

  3. Leapster, I remember that Kinky Freidman interview, and the performance of They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore blew my mind sitting in my bedroom in Mooroolbark. It remains one of my favorite radio moments of all time!

  4. Can remember the quality music that Danger Low Brow was playing back on the nights at MMM. i am pretty sure you even played songs of the self titled Motley Crue album – ya know the one without Vince Neil. the balance did work. and the album tracks were always appreciated. i dont want to always hear the latest Black Crowes single. i actually want to hear what else they do!
    Alas my old “Triple Rocks the Clacker” sticker the DLB did disappeared many eons ago.

    Radio these days is a sad joke. its a dying business model. Podcasts, ipods and anything and everything in between make the actual need for a radio pretty damn useless. Its been stuck in a research/playlist mind for too long. and it cant survive the way it is.

    In the radio station i work in off in a far distant land of Canada the programming director actually said “we are happy with our choice of music, we dont play the new music, we pride ourselves on that, we wait for other stations to break the songs and then we jump on them if they work”

    i was shocked at that statement. yet the station is number one consistently.

    • I always think that that type of result reflects on the quality of the competition. Either the mob you work for has the most brilliant balance ever, or, more likely, the other stations working in that market in the same content areas are pretty ordinary.

      It’s kind of like breakfast radio here in ol’ Poo-Town. It’s not really a function of whether the AW breakfast show (Ross Stevenson, remnant of Lawyers, Guns and Money) on approx 20% share are that good, or whether Red Symons on The Artist Formerly Known As 3LO, on roughly 15% share, is that good, or whether they so specifically fulfil the itemised wish-list of breakfast radio listeners in this market. They have 35% of the market (between two stations) because the commercial FM stations doing the talk/music/comedy format in that slot are turning out drek. If you’re over a certain mental age and can put on your own clothing/shoes with a reasonable success rate, and also still listen to the radio, and are after something not particular sober-sides oriented at that time of day, your choices are realistically pretty limited.

      I really don’t think it’s a function of whether the shows (let alone any executive genius thinking behind either of them – my suspicion being that any exec influence on what actually makes those shows work would be absolutely non-existent) are that damn good.

      My suspicion is that the LO breakfast show with a distinctive presenter will always pull a figure in that ballpark due to incredible rusted-on generational listener loyalty to that station (so long as the person on air doesn’t start advocating that Hitler was a pretty cluey leader or that “Weary” Dunlop’s reputation was all a big scam job, or anything along those lines). Also, that Ross Stevenson has hit a certain chord with the AW listeners a long time ago.

      But when you’re effectively operating in a vacuum the listening figures get sucked right over to your house. Thus 35% for two stations and the remaining 538 babbling prune-heads slicing up the other 65% very thinly.

      I have to say, I reckon it would be an exceptionally easy breakfast radio market in which to come in and make a decent impact.

      Of course, the hard part wouldn’t be setting up, writing or presenting the show that could do it. The hard part would be finding a radio station executive you could sit down and successfully explain all that to, in a white-board presentation with lots of pictures, in under the time occupied by the normal human lifespan.

  5. On MMM and grunge, I can remember Mobbs and Fletch playing Nirvana’s In Utero in full upon its release in 1993.

    And yes, DLB was indeed a favourite in the outer eastern suburbs back in the day!

  6. I still have a Triple M Rocks The Clacker sticker somewhere.
    My favourite memory of the night time shift was Brett Duck saying he had “a recording of Rolf Harris doing Two Little Boys”. I’m pretty sure that everyone else fell off their chairs laughing, you had to go to a song and you still weren’t quite right when you came back from it.

    • Again! Of all the MMM Danger: Low Brow moments that has long seemed the consensus pick as the most memorable one.
      (I probably should point out to anyone reading this who doesn’t remember the show or the on-air incident cited, that this was around 1991-2, long before there were allegations circulating re Rolf Harris, and even longer before he was charged, tried and convicted.)

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