What started as an ordinary Thursday morning ended when MediaWorks pulled the plug on Today FM.
Listeners who tuned into that morning’s Duncan Garner Today show got more (or less?) than they bargained for when the former AM Show host went rogue.
Along with one of the station’s other star journalists, Tova O’Brien, the pair made the shock announcement that Today FM was going off the air.
“I don’t know how much longer we’ll be in the air,” O’Brien said.
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“It sounds like it’s over. We didn’t get a chance.”
She said the team had previously been told they had the support of “everyone” at MediaWorks, including the CEO and board.
Queen of the media sphere, O’Brien gave confused listeners and eager journalists the perfect sound bite to herald the end of Today FM.
“They fed us… We’re all going to lose our jobs and the station will go off the air,” she said.
Garner, audibly furious, left a gash on the MediaWorks machine’s throat – “this is treason”.
“We’re now off the air,” Garner said.
“Without even getting a chance,” O’Brien said, before the hosts disappeared and the music took over, 25 minutes into the 9 a.m. news show.
Today FM wasn’t like that anymore – the definition of lunchtime gone.
As the public scrambled to understand what had just happened, Today FM employees were drawn into a station-wide meeting to discuss their future – even a reporter who attended the press conference for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ unveiling of new options for a second harbor bridge crossing was forced to pack up and leave.
As the madness in the studio wore on, new tweets from O’Brien’s producer Tom Day began to gain traction.
“I am gutted. @TodayFM_nz was what gave so many people hope. I love our team,” Day wrote.
“Mediaworks said Today FM was a five-year plan. They completely lied.”
20 minutes after his first tweets, Day followed up with news of the stark reality for Today FM employees.
“The board of MediaWorks has made a proposal to close Today FM. They have only given us until the end of this afternoon to submit entries. I have no words.”
Audio leaked from the meeting to Stuff reporters revealed that financial woes were the scarcity for Today FM’s discussions.
“The board was clear that we needed to find significant savings,” Wendy Palmer told the assembled staff.
Palmer said Today FM was the “baby” of former CEO Cam Wallace and former station boss Dallas Gurney, both of whom must have gotten the closing notice early because they had already left MediaWorks in the past two weeks.
“The fact that Cam and Dallas aren’t here probably didn’t help since I’m interim,” she said.
When O’Brien asked if MediaWorks would be sold, Palmer came back with a blunt answer.
“They’re bankers, aren’t they… I think that’s going to be their plan, they’re not here forever, okay, they came here to buy assets and then sell them,” Palmer replied.
In a statement released Thursday morning, Palmer said Today FM was taken off the air “at the request of the MediaWorks board”.
MediaWorks consulted with the team “about the future of the station,” she said.
“This is a difficult time for the team and our priority is to support them as we go through this process.”
Leaving the Today FM building on Auckland’s College Hill, the staff did what anyone at risk of losing their job would do: they went to the pub.
As they left, Day watched the media outside and said he was “gutted” and “disappointed”.
“It was a big shock, but it wasn’t a surprise,” Day told the press.
Cheers could be heard in Ponsonby’s historic bar The Cav as the workers banded together and hopefully didn’t get too excited about the booze before their last-minute submissions to save their jobs could be submitted – though, as labor lawyer Kimberly Jarvis told Stuff, Today, FM employees deserved more time to respond.
Meanwhile, songs like P Diddy’s I’ll Be Missing You and Europe’s The Final Countdown were played over the air.
After the early morning spectacle, a banner appeared on the Today FM website saying that an official announcement would be made about the fate of Today FM at 5pm – but by that point the station’s staff had all but confirmed that their work was done.
At 4:40 p.m., 20 minutes after Today FM’s official statement, Tova O’Brien finally broke her silence with a tweet.
“Devastated. Love our strong Today FM whanau. Thanks for your messages,” she wrote.
During the intermission Oscar Jackson, Today FM’s digital boss, and a team of other contributors spoke their last words to MediaWorks by sharing their own statement.
Jackson posted that they wanted to thank everyone for the past year and the show’s producer Duncan Garner was now crying in their arms “as the harsh reality of cold corporate decisions set in”.
“Love us or hate us, we fought for you and your stories.”
While the post was quickly deleted from Today FM’s social media accounts, a screenshot of the post has been immortalized on Jackson’s Twitter page.
At 5 p.m., Today FM’s final broadcast sounded over the air: “This station is no longer Today FM … a new station will be launched on this frequency in April.”
In the grief of jobs lost to private greed, at least one thing could remain of the station: their Black Caps radio would continue to play on the frequency, as the station still has rights to several in the summer matches.
The radio message made no mention of personnel who worked at the station in the past year, or of its listeners.
An equally gloomy statement appeared on the Today FM website: “Unfortunately, the MediaWorks board has made the difficult decision to take Today FM off the air.”
Later that night, Today FM host Wilhemina Shrimpton shared her fear in an Instagram post, accompanied by a photo of station staff putting on brave faces for the camera.
“Last year has been amazing – and it’s because of the incredible people in this photo. The past year has built me up, gave me back my confidence and made me feel like myself for the first time in a long time,” Shrimpton wrote.
“I was given opportunities, support, and most importantly, I was allowed to be myself… and that made me thrive and grow. The broken person as I arrived was slowly put back together and shone brighter than ever before.
“Devastated is an understatement, heartbroken can’t even describe it, and unexpected is just starting to surface.”
Another leak this time a confidential MediaWorks document list of 30 Today FM employees lined up for layoff and rundown of news to come that could claim another 20 jobs also came to light.
“This proposal will enable MediaWorks to realize significant fixed cost savings by 2023 and immediately improve the company’s financial position,” the document said.
“This move would also allow the company to leverage current Today FM frequencies to extend the reach of current MediaWorks brands, while removing the ongoing cost base for the news and talk division.”
On Friday morning, Rachel Smalley, who hosted Today FM’s early morning news show First Light, lashed out at the private investors who dug Today FM’s grave in a paywalled article on the National Business Review website.
“Earlier this month, Quadrant hitmen walked through the front door of MediaWorks with a swagger in a shiny suit that suggested they were here for a short time, not a long time,” Smalley wrote.
“They had the same approach for Today FM. The men looked at the numbers and left with orders to close the station as soon as possible.
“Today FM ended with a fierce and confrontational brutality that only Private Equity can handle.”
She lamented the loss of her year’s worth of work and vanished into thin air.
“The website was gone, and with it a year of my work, including 12 months of investigating Pharmac and holding the drug agency accountable,” Smalley wrote.
“None of my social media links worked anymore. Links to stories on LinkedIn and Twitter were gone. The last year of my journalistic career has been wiped out.”
Personnel and countless stories gone — including O’Brien’s highly publicized interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — the station’s Twitter and Instagram accounts have been made private, and the grim farewell message is all that remains for the short year that made Today FM present in the media landscape.
At least we still have the Black Caps.