There’s no safety in numbers on Australian breakfast radio

By Susanna Nelson

Marieke Hardy

The doyenne of DIY pop culture, Melbourne journalist and blogger Marieke Hardy recently gathered up her books and laptop and took off to Sydney to assume a post on national youth network Triple J’s breakfast show alongside two station stalwarts, like Myf Warhurst before her.

I can’t help but feel dismayed by her decision to throw herself into the often undignified maelstrom of breakfast radio.

Part of the problem is with the station itself. Though it grew out of radical, government-owned 1970s Sydney station 2JJ, it has since gone national and come under attack for its highly structured, youth-focused programming. In other words, it is renowned for flogging songs to death. What’s more, the narrow demographic it so self-consciously pursues makes anyone over the age of 20 squirm with discomfort at all the shouty youth references and the My Chemical Romance tracks on high rotation – it tries painfully hard to be ‘down with the kids’.

The other problem is the modern Australian breakfast radio format. It’s depressing to think that this was the result of comprehensive market research. One imagines it must be a very small demographic group indeed that confesses to enjoying inane patter, scripted and unfunny jokes, infomercials, celebrity gossip, Beat the Bomb competitions and the anecdotes of John from Bundoora as the first thing they hear upon waking for the daily grind.

The ratings don’t bear this out. The fact is, this formula is globally recognised as a winner. Radio is a welcome burr of background noise to many of us inhabitants of the modern world, who are so assaulted with sound and vision at every turn we actually can’t cope with silence. Being alive is to be crash-tackled by stimuli. Small wonder so many people choose to wake to the bustle of breakfast radio – start as you mean to go on, and all that.

Some stations are better than others. Community radio station PBS fm in Melbourne wakes the listener gently with an intelligent mix of new independent music chosen by charming hosts and old mates, Todd James and Lyndelle Wilkinson. It’s amazing what a difference true independence makes. Like fellow Melbourne community broadcaster RRR, PBS was a phoenix from the ashes of student radio in the 1970s, and prides itself on giving its announcers free rein.

Just this week, the summer substitute breakfast host ended his two week stint. He had never done even an intern or graveyard shift and no-one knew who he was. But he brought in his record collection and his unstoppable enthusiasm for everything from the Runaways to Chicago and let rip. It was joyous – and it would never happen on the commercial networks or Triple J, which rely on ‘personalities’, slick scripting and a rigid play list.

For those who don’t want to wake up to music, over on ABC Radio National, sole host Fran Kelly gets her teeth into the issues we should all be thinking about.

The common denominator seems to be that these shows are about something bigger than the egos of the hosts themselves – something unifying and interesting.

But there’s a certain configuration of breakfast show, hugely popular in Australia, that is impossible to abide. It’s characterised by what I call ‘the pack of comics’, and it’s actually worse than the familiar ‘Battle of the Sexes’ duo schtick – think Kyle and Jackie O – of most commercial radio. It’s safe to say that, within this format, the sole job of the crowd of hosts is to annoy you into wakefulness in the place of a blaring buzzer, and to keep you that way in the car on the way to work.

To some extent the blame must be shouldered by the Working Dog productions team and their enormously popular Channel 10 (Australia) TV show The Panel, a weekly round-up of current affairs where the premise was that a regular team of affable alpha people, all with comic or writerly credentials, sat there chewing the unscripted, knockabout fat. Often the gags were hilarious. Trouble is, when they weren’t, the laughter continued in an unabated flow of self-congratulation (or perhaps nerves) that left the viewer in the cold.

When transferred to radio this ‘pack of comics’ concept becomes intolerable. At best, it’s a scrabble of unidentified voices jostling for precedence, at worst it’s an unwelcome display of bruised egos and palpable hostility verging on workplace bullying. And there’s a formula – the strained laughter and dilution of personality seems to be directly proportional to the number of folk vying for a sound bite. It’s embarrassing to listen to.

Never was there a more apt moniker for the now defunct group of five clashing egos as the Austereo Network’s The Cage, broadcast in Brisbane and Melbourne. Forced conflict – not to mention forced laughter – and inane patter were the order of the day. At that time of the morning, who needs it?

And it’s striking how the men in these microcosms of the workplace dominate – by sheer force, not of wit, but of boorishness. Women are often forced to act as placeholders, playing it straight, or more often, playing it dumb. And time and again when ratings wane, the women on the team are blamed – when Sydney’s 2 Day FM breakfast show was altered, Peter Helliar was the last man standing in a team that included the abundantly funny and smart Judith Lucy and Kaz Cooke.

When Myf Warhurst decided to leave Triple J (where she had recently joined the breakfast team of Jay and the Doctor) and move back to Melbourne to take up a post with the Austereo Network, a Facebook group sprang up deriding her for selling out. But who can blame her for wanting to be one half of a comfortable duo, for craving the space to develop a relationship with her audience, however commercial, rather than playing odd girl out in an established gang – a gang that mocked her mercilessly for the heinous crime (on youth radio, at least) of forgetting the name of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Comments on Marieke Hardy’s popular blog have made mention of the strained dynamic between the new Triple J breakfast team. She has a strong internet following, a ready wit and an iron constitution, and in the few weeks she has been on air has managed to hold her own in the face of her competitive and at times humourless co-hosts. But we’re not getting the best of her as a breakfast host.

About the writer: Susanna Nelson is a trades journalist by day and a freelance pop analyst after dark.

© Susanna Nelson 2008