It’s no secret that many in Australia’s media industry sneer at populist TV shows such as Sunrise. Even Koch’s colleagues in Seven’s newsroom gave him grief when he joined Melissa Doyle as co-host in 2002, likening the program to a populist tabloid newspaper. “They saw it as a put-down,” he says, “but we saw it as a badge of honour.”
The sniggering stopped when Sunrise – co-anchored by Samantha Armytage since 2013 – became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, overtaking Nine’s Today in 2004 and winning every year since. (Nine is the owner of this masthead.)
Just because you don’t agree with someone, it doesn’t mean you don’t have them on.
In the first week of June, Sunrise averaged 281,000 metropolitan viewers, with Today on 223,000 and News Breakfast drawing 149,000 on ABC’s main channel.
But these averages don’t illustrate the true reach of early-morning TV, which viewers usually watch in short bursts before rushing out the door. In the eight weeks since March 23, about 7.9 million Australians watched at least a small portion of Sunrise, including the program’s weekend editions. Its website notched up almost 3.5 million unique views and the various posts on its Facebook page drew a combined 400,000 comments.
“We pivoted pretty quickly to ensure our [pandemic] coverage was straight down the line,” Koch says in a phone conversation two months after our initial interview.
Michael Pell, Sunrise’s executive producer, believes Koch’s appeal is typified by his interviews with politicians. Instead of asking how a policy might affect the fortunes of an elected representative or their party, Koch prefers to scrutinise its impact on voters. “He does that instinctively,” Pell says. “He’s been communicating across various platforms since the 1980s … his style is something that predates this show.”
In 1983, Koch launched Personal Investment magazine. Aimed at ordinary Australians intimidated by finance jargon, it included Cleo-style sealed sections (albeit with tax minimisation tips instead of novel sex positions).
Unlike most TV stars, Koch was in his mid-40s when Sunrise made him a household name. By this point, he’d raised four children and lost both his hair and his job. (He and Doyle hosted a 6am news bulletin called Sunrise in the late 1990s; Seven axed the program but revived the title.) He’d also survived the near-collapse of his small publishing business, Palamedia, during the dotcom crash, which caused tensions in his marriage and left him wondering how he’d pay his mortgage.
“Having that life experience was a big advantage for David,” says Koch’s wife, Libby, who joins us for lunch at a harbourside Spanish restaurant. “He knew what it was like to go through tough times.”
A presenter from a rival network agrees. “You don’t see David driving around in flashy sports cars or attending every red carpet event,” says the high-profile host. “He doesn’t generate a lot of scandals and while that might be a disappointment for the gossip columnists, the viewers don’t care. They want drama and controversy in prime time, not at 7am when they’re eating their toast.”
Not that Koch has avoided criticism entirely. In 2013, he urged women to be “discreet” and “modest” while breastfeeding in public, resulting in more than 100 people protesting outside Sunrise’s Martin Place studios. Last year, ABC’s Media Watch reported that he had not disclosed his investment in a financial advice website he’d discussed on air. “Your point is taken,” he said in a written statement to the program. “My shareholding is so minor that I didn’t think it worthy of disclosure but [I] will do so now.”
Despite having worked for most major outlets – including Network Ten, News Corp, Fairfax, Pacific Magazines, 2GB and Yahoo – Koch avoids what he terms “the media wanker bubble”.
“I’ll never forget being invited to this party when I did breakfast radio [on 2GB in the early 1990s],” he says. “It was some swanky thing in the eastern suburbs. As we were driving home, Libby said to me: ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ And I said: ‘If you’re thinking I never want to spend time with people like that again, you’re absolutely right’.”
“They were so rude,” Libby recalls. “They were interested in David but they had this ‘who are you?’ attitude towards me.”
In 2007, the couple – who celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary this year – founded Pinstripe Media, a digital production company that includes a suite of multimedia brands covering small business, personal finance and investment.
“We feel a bit guilty that we’ve had so many opportunities just by being in the right place at the right time,” says Koch, who is also chairman of his beloved Port Adelaide Football Club. “But if we can use our other jobs to get things achieved, it all becomes worthwhile.”
After the 2005 riots in Sydney’s Macquarie Fields, the Kochs became involved in Youth Off The Streets, founded by Father Chris Riley to help disadvantaged young people. In honour of their fundraising efforts, the organisation opened the Koch Centre For Youth And Learning in 2011. Libby is also a founding director of its Overseas Relief Fund, which provides food, shelter and education to more than 200 children in East Timor.
“Our kids are very involved in Youth Off The Streets,” Koch says. “They had a privileged upbringing so we wanted to make giving back a normal part of their lives.”
Of course, he doesn’t always sees eye-to-eye with his children. “They smashed me for having Pauline Hanson on Sunrise,” he says. “I said to them: ‘Just because you don’t agree with someone, it doesn’t mean you don’t have them on’.”
Far better to challenge a person’s argument than try to silence them, he insists. Indeed, Koch drew the ire of Hanson’s conservative base in the wake of last year’s Christchurch mosque attacks, which left 51 dead. After telling Hanson that the accused shooter’s manifesto “almost reads like One Nation immigration and Muslim policy”, he asked her: “Do you in any way feel complicit with this atrocity?” Hanson described Koch’s statement as “a load of rubbish”.
Learning to cop criticism on the chin, he believes, is essential for any public figure. After 19 years with Sunrise, he has no plans to move on.
“I still love this job,” Koch says, recalling an early attempt to negotiate a bonus if Sunrise substantially lifted its ratings during his first year on air. “The bosses knocked me back; they said it would be a disincentive because it was never going to happen.”
WHEN: 5.30am weekdays on Seven
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.