I’m not going to dance on its grave. No one should rejoice when people’s livelihoods are on the line. But the station’s failure comes as no surprise.
It was conceived and born in unpropitious circumstances. Its progenitor was Magic Talk, which had grown out of Radio Live.
As I wrote at the time, that statement offended a lot of people. Being offended is one of the prices we pay for living in a free society, but the woke Left were outraged and demanded Banks’ head.
He was soon gone. MediaWorks chief executive Cam Wallace, freshly arrived from Air New Zealand and presumably keen to make a big impression, boasted that the former cabinet minister and Auckland mayor wouldn’t be back as long as he was in charge.
We learned from that episode that former airline executives aren't big on such nebulous values as free speech. Bums on seats is what they understand. MediaWorks quickly buckled in the face of boycotts by major advertisers Vodafone, KiwiBank and Spark, who weren't interested in free speech either.
Sean Plunket was the next to go. He too was targeted by vindictive woke zealots. Peter Williams lasted a few months longer. He walked because he felt his position had become untenable due to pressure over his stance on Covid and vaccine mandates.
By the end of 2021 Magic Talk had cleared the decks of its embarrassing conservative hosts and MediaWorks was ready to rebrand the station (at a reported cost of $9 million) as TodayFM, with a glowing roster of politically more acceptable hosts that included big names Tova O’Brien, Duncan Garner and Rachel Smalley.
Unfortunately it’s been pretty much downhill ever since. By the end of last year, TodayFM’s ratings had tanked to a derisory 1.4 per cent share of the market. Martyn Bradbury called it the worst result of any talkback station in New Zealand radio history.
Meanwhile, Sean Plunket had responded in the most effective way possible to his falling out with MediaWorks: namely, by setting up The Platform, which appears to have thrived in inverse proportion to TodayFM’s headlong decline.
But even as TodayFM’s ratings agony continued, it appeared to have learned nothing. It required its hosts Leah Panapa and Miles Davis to make an on-air apology and submit to a humiliating ritual called Rainbow Tick training after they offended the wokerati by making the outrageous suggestion that only women could get pregnant.
That sent a resounding message to the station’s dwindling audience, who would quite reasonably have wondered why a radio station should expect loyalty from its listeners when it showed none to its hosts. The punishment of Panapa and Davis would also have signalled that TodayFM was more concerned with pandering to carping objectors than with providing daring, stimulating and entertaining radio.
At that point O’Brien, Garner et al must have been feeling cold shivers, yet as far as we know they did nothing to support their colleagues. It now seems clear they would have had little to lose by taking a stand, since the whole shebang was obviously on the skids anyway.
By then Wallace had fled back to the airline business. He was followed by the wunderkind Dallas Gurney, MediaWorks’ director of news and talk – the guy who made Panapa and Davis walk the plank. Now, only two weeks later, the whole ship has sunk.
The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that MediaWorks didn't deserve to run a talk station in the first place. Even before it launched TodayFM, the company clearly had no respect for the idea that controversial and provocative ideas should be freely aired and debated in an open society, which is the very essence of talkback.
Another lesson might be that no talk station can survive by trying to ingratiate itself with people who never listen to the radio anyway. As the saying goes: “Go woke, go broke.”
Footnote: RNZ has gone big on the TodayFM saga but has been strangely reticent about another radio story of public interest - namely, the unexplained absence for the past few weeks (unconnected, according to the New Zealand Herald) of two of its most popular hosts, Jim Mora and Karyn Hay. Listeners' curiosity can only have been heightened by the PR smokescreen emanating from the RNZ head office, which seemed calculated to deflect attention from the subject of the paper's inquiries. Whatever the explanation, they are two of RNZ's most likeable presenters and I look forward to their return.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.