“I left familiarity and comfort because I wanted a new challenge. I was going, ‘Is this a really bad mid-life crisis?'”
In April’s survey results the ratings couldn’t have been more different. O’Connell commanded a 9.4 per cent share of Melbourne’s breakfast radio market, maintaining a healthy lead over his competitors at Fox and Nova, tied on 7.8 per cent, Smooth on 7.1 per cent and KIIS on 6.8 per cent. (Surveys have been on hold since April due to the pandemic, however data collection resumed on Sunday with the results expected to land in September.)
ARN, the owner of Gold, KIIS and WSFM, has given O’Connell a national platform off the back of the ratings turnaround. For the past few months he has been hosting an hour-long “feel-good” show that is broadcast from 7pm on weeknights in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
“People have said, ‘You must be over the moon’,” O’Connell says. “I say, no, I feel like I’ve finally breathed out for the first time in 18 months. This has been the biggest challenge of my life, but also the most exciting and rewarding one.”
O’Connell says his success comes down to ARN management giving him time to build a loyal audience. Advice from Australian radio royalty Hamish Blake and Andy Lee didn’t hurt, either.
“Andy was like a cultural ambassador,” O’Connell says. “He was like, ‘You really need to start watching AFL.’ I said, ‘What about the [local] history?’ He goes, ‘AFL.’ So that was a big learning curve. I had to [adopt a team] otherwise I’d be the wicker man. I’d be burnt in an effigy.”
O’Connell suspects his style of radio is popular in Australia because there are listeners who have become disillusioned with traditional FM radio but don’t necessarily want to make the jump to 2GB, 3AW or the ABC. (Nine, the owner of 2GB and 3AW, is also the owner of this masthead.)
“Too often commercial radio does cookie-cutter radio where they hire a former reality star and just throw them on air and expect them to make a radio show because they have a set number of Instagram followers,” O’Connell says.
“I [think] it’s lazy. You should turn up every day and have an angle and have something to say. Not just turn up and talk about last night’s TV. Anyone can do that.”
However O’Connell says he isn’t the only one bridging the gap between traditional AM and FM radio. He cites WSFM host Amanda Keller, as well as broadcast veteran Andrew Denton, as hosts who resist easy classification.
“There’s always been some great talkers on Australian radio,” he says. “Everyone’s trying to be funny. But what I’ve learned over the last two years is speaking from the heart and being real is just as powerful.”
An example of O’Connell doing FM radio differently is when, last year, he invited a man with terminal cancer to co-host his program.
“A few people were like, are you sure? Talking about cancer in the morning? But my job is to have those conversations. We talk about the power of radio … it’s about human connection. He [Peter Logan] saved lives.
“You can do radio in a different way and it will get ratings. I hope it inspires other presenters, other radio bosses to give people a bit of freedom.”
The Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show airs on weekday mornings on Melbourne’s Gold 104.3 FM. The Christian O’Connell Show airs on weeknights from 7pm AEST on Melbourne’s Gold 104.3, Sydney’s 101.7 WSFM, Brisbane’s 97.3FM and 96FM in Perth.
Broede Carmody is a culture reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald