CB unburdens to Peter Saxon.
We all know that after he left SCA as Head of Content, overseeing both the Today and the Triple M Networks, Craig Bruce rebuilt his career through the Radio Game Changers podcast series which became an overnight success. Of course, it wasn’t near as easy as that.
Success didn’t come without a lot of soul searching, some self-doubt followed by a skills audit and ultimately a willingness to “back himself in” to a new reality.
With so many people losing their jobs, not just in radio, but all kinds of industries, CB’s latest podcast series, I’m out, now what? provides advice from a number of people who have been through that daunting experience and have come out the other side the better for it.
However, the biggest name missing from the series is Craig Bruce, himself. He agreed to speak exclusively to me on radioinfo about his journey out of radio and into the unknown.
In this remarkedly candid interview he answered every question I put to him as well as some I didn’t.
Here are some of the questions CB answers.
Did he jump or was he pushed?
Did he have a plan B when he left?
Did putting Rove on breakfast seem a good idea at the time?
To what extent did he define himself by his career?
What does he really think of other national CDs such as Duncan Campbell and Paul Jackson?
As Head of Content, was he up to every aspect of the job?
And, as we say in radio: much more!
Note: the following transcript has been edited to scan better on the page. A raw edit of the audio is embedded below.
radioinfo: It’s just on five years ago you left Austereo. So, tell us about the day you packed up the personal items in your office, the awards, the mementos the picture of your family… what went through your mind as they asked for the key to the carpark back?
CB: It was actually nothing like that. I was in Perth and it happened in a hotel room where we made a decision to pull the pin. And there was a discussion around “do you want to work through till the end of the year?” And I said, “No. We’re good, we’re done.”
So, I got on a plane back to Adelaide and had a couple of hours to think about what had just happened. We’d been building up to it. I knew it was coming. I think Grant (Blackley) had been in the role for maybe three months and I’d had just the one meeting with him. So, you don’t need to be Einstein to work out what’s going on. I don’t hold any animosity towards Grant at all. He was the CEO. New CEO, coming in. Content was underperforming.
We had this weird arrangement where I was head of content and Guy (Dobson) was head of Metro. Guy and I were good together. We shared similar skill sets and he (Blackley) didn’t need two of us. So, it was always going to happen at some point. And really my only meeting with Grant in that three months when we were at the company at the same time was when he told me that he was going to hire Rove (McManus) for breakfast on 2Day-FM. I knew then that that was it… for two reasons. One I didn’t think that Rove was going to work on breakfast and that I couldn’t afford to have another failure in Sydney on my hands. So, it was obvious that I needed to move.
And because I’d been there for so long, I just wanted to make it as easy as I could for everyone including myself. But as I said there was no animosity. There was nothing nefarious about me going, it was just a case of, okay well we’re going to go in a different direction with a new CEO., I can look back on it now and think that was a perfectly normal and a smart decision on Grant’s behalf.
radioinfo: You, being a senior executive, who had probably done that process of out placing people many, many times… So, when it came to your time. if you like, and they send out the media release and use the usual euphemisms like Craig’s going off to pursue personal interests. And the average punter like me thinks, “Who the hell does that? Leave highly paid, highly respected position with no particular place to go?”
CB: Let me give you the red-hot tip, Pete, no one does it. No one leaves the job like the one I was in. It was the dream job and I’ve had this incredible linear career at Austereo, from a mid-dawn announcer at Fox in 1998 to Head of Content and each step was closer to that role. It was the perfect job and I loved every minute of it.
There were some really tough days, don’t get me wrong, and there was a lot about the job that was that was really challenging but I loved it.
It’s funny I spoke to Brad March (former SCA CEO) about this a while ago and he said that the key to this sort of job is that you’ve just got to hold onto it. “You’ve got to know that the power is in the title.” It sounds a bit icky when you say it like that but it’s true.
So, no, I would’ve stayed SCA if I’d felt as though I had the backing… and as I said I totally understand the decision that was made.
I guess you one of the reasons behind the podcast “I’m out, now what” is that for me, what felt like, at the time, the worst thing that could happen has actually turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. And it took me – I didn’t work that out straight away. It took me 12 to 18 months to get to a point where I could just start to see what a future outside of being a radio executive might look like.
The work is similar that I’m doing, but it’s a very different life that I’m living, a much more rich and fulfilled and interesting life, that I’m living now. Not that I didn’t enjoy my previous time.
I can imagine for so many in radio now there’s two things going on. One: there’s that concern, that kind of sword of Damocles hanging over so many of us thinking, am I next? Or what does the next round of cuts look like and how could that affect me? So, that that plays on you all of the time. And all of us, whether you’re 53 and have done radio for 25 years or you’re 23 having just started out. We all feel it. I mean, I talk to my peers who’ve been in radio for a long period of time and we all think okay let’s just see if we can get through the next five to seven years. I’m not suggesting that Armageddon is coming for radio but it is changing and it’s changing really quickly.
Then obviously there’s that moment where it actually does happen. And my own personal experience is that when I left it was a much easier process than thinking about leaving – because you have to find a way to deal with the circumstances you find yourself in, catch your breath think about what’s happened. Think about the mistakes you’ve made – which I tend to do a lot. No one has beat themselves up more over what has happened 2DayFM over the past seven years than I have. I couldn’t possibly put the amount of negativity onto that situation more than I had personally.
You get a chance to sort of reflect on all these things and think I have a what would I do differently what would I do next and what am I interested in?
If you do it right, if you take your time don’t rush into anything straightaway and try and back yourself in, that you’re good enough and smart enough and have enough skills to transfer or transition or move to another company, then the process is actually part of it. I think you grow through that process. I certainly have.
radioinfo: You didn’t have a Plan B ready, did you?
CB: Not at all. I’ll tell you what my plan B was. My plan B, and the reason I didn’t feel any sense of trauma, there was nothing dramatic about me leaving SCA, in the moment, because I just thought overall ARN would pick me up. So, I had to eat a really large slice of humble pie after I left because I just assumed the phone would ring pretty quickly – not because I rate myself as the world’s best programmer – but I just thought, surely that there’ll be something come up. And nothing did.
Once again in hindsight and thinking about it now it’s obvious that Paul (Jackson, NovaEnt) or Duncan (Campbell, ARN)weren’t going to hire me because I wouldn’t have hired them. Not because I don’t like them but, hey you’ve been the head of content, why would you want to run a radio station?
There aren’t many jobs after the job that I did. There was a moment I texted Cath O’Connor (Nova Entertainment, CEO) and I remember texting Cath about a month out from my non-compete wrapping up. I’ve never met Cath. Never met her, which says a lot about how poor I am at networking, which is probably a whole other discussion we could have around the importance of building relationships. But I’d texted Cath saying, “hey my non-compete finishes in a month and it would be great to catch up for a coffee.”
And I didn’t even get a reply to that text message, and nor should she have to. But it was in that moment I thought, “oh shit, this is probably not going to work out the way I thought it might.”
But it forced me to think about, “okay what else can I do?” And ultimately, that’s been good for me.
radioinfo: Did you think about going overseas because you couldn’t get hired here because you were too big a fish in a relatively small pond? You know Duncan had to go away (overseas) and then come back and the opportunity had to be right too. You’ve never done that. You’ve been in the same company for how many years?
CB: Twenty seven. Yeah, too long. I had a really unhealthy relationship with Austereo in the end. I mean I loved it like a family and that’s not healthy. One of the things that I talk to young programmers about now is that you have to bring a certain level of dispassionate attitude to the job because you know when the chips are down the company is not going to love you like you might love it. And nor should it.
It’s business. Some people might think I’m releasing this game changers podcast off the back of SCA and doing it as a kind of an FU to SCA . Nothing could be further from the truth. I started recording these interviews months ago and you didn’t need to be Nostradamus to know that this kind of thing might happen to the industry at some point. But you have to deal with it in the moment and deal with it in a way that is real for you. And get moving once you can get comfortable with it.
radioinfo: Do you think that you defined yourself by your career?
CB: Absolutely. And that’s one of the hardest things to do. So the podcast series is really addressing what is happening for younger people in radio because that’s my audience and I created Game Changers to talk to young people in regional markets and put them in front of really good radio people that could hopefully help them get better.
The Game Changers audience is younger but for the older people, in their 40s and 50s, what might happen over the next five years with radio is just as challenging.
You’re right, my identity was absolutely attached to my leadership roles at SCA. I would be 90 per cent introvert 10 percent extrovert and I used that extroversion when I was at work to do the job. But it was all ego. My my emails got answered faster, my phone calls got returned quicker, people think you’re smarter, funnier, better looking. It’s intoxicating and none of it is real. It’s all artifice.
And when I left, having spent years and years with so many people, and I’d built up lots and lots of really great relationships but they were lots of work relationships – not a lot of friendships. And you quickly work that out when you leave – and that’s okay too. That’s what it should be. I can stay in touch with Sam Cavanagh and Adrian Brine and a few others.
I just shed my Austereo skin, as I told John Parker, now on BusinessWeek, as he needed to do at Sony having been there for 25 years. There’s a process you have to go through to find out who you are. And it’s not the guy that walks into a building and pretends to know what he’s talking about when it comes to radio.
radioinfo: Does it affect your family when you get that much involved in radio?
CB: I think it did. It affected them in two ways.
When I was in the job, I was away a lot. So, my wife, who’s amazing, was left to manage the house when I wasn’t there for four days a week. And then when I did come back – because that monkey mind that is spinning at 100 miles an hour when you’re in a job like I was in takes a long time to unwind – I couldn’t just get comfortable with doing much else.
So, I think that was probably a frustration. I wanted to work I wanted to be doing things and eventually I just had to unwind and allow myself some time to reconnect with what I really wanted to do.
radioinfo: Everyone knows of someone who’s worked very hard in radio, but at what cost? Do people need a hobby do you think? What advice would you would you give people in those positions.
CB: Well, radio was my hobby.
And I never thought it was work and I still don’t. In the last five years I’ve dug deep into podcasting and on demand content and I’m just as interested and as fascinated and as passionate about that as I am about radio. I get paid to listen to radio stations but in my spare time I listen to podcasts.
The thing that I love about podcasting is that the tiles on my phone will tell you everything you need to know about who I am as a person. I’m into politics and religion and philosophy and a bunch of things that are specific to who I am as a person and so I’m really fascinated by that world.
I’m working with lots of podcasters now, which I’m really enjoying and hoping that I can kind of move more towards an audio specialist rather than just the radio guy, which I think I can do at some point.
That whole thing of ‘what are you passionate about?’ can be really hard and kind of puts you in a box if you’re not careful as well. It’s a very easy thing for people to say, ‘find out what you’re passionate about and do that and you won’t work a day in your life’ and all of those things that you read on Instagram inspiration tiles.
But the reality is that most people go to work and do the job and go home and that is it. And for those of us who have worked in areas like radio, and again back to the podcast that I’m doing at the moment, the impact is greater when you’re asked to stop doing something that you’ve loved doing. Unfortunately, that’s how lots of radio people will feel over the next period time, and then you’ve got to kind of make a plan from there.
A friend of mine who I’ve met through this process over the last four or five years, Richard Spencer, who produced a bunch of radio shows in the UK and he’s now working in H.R. And he got ahead of the UK deregulation challenge that had been happening there for a few years and he started to move towards a career outside of radio because he could see what was happening and he wrote this amazing blog about. I’ve Been De-Regged it’s called, you can find it online. It’s really well written and I’ve spoken to him on one of the podcasts.
One of the first things he said about getting through this is that the first thing you have to do if you’re leaving radio is you have to make peace with that. And I think that for me making peace with leaving SCA took a while but once I got to that point everything flowed from there. Once I let go of the fact that I would never work there again that was okay, then I could start to kind of put a line through that part of my life and start planning for other things.
If you’re 24 or 25 and you’ve just lost a breakfast show, you’ve got so much time on your hands and there are so many opportunities adjacent to radio. It might be radio, but there are other things you can do and there are other ways you can create content. That’s what I wanted to do with this podcast, was just to sort of keep to my audience and check on what’s happening now and to have one eye on the future whilst also focusing on the role that you’re doing now. Yes, you can and you should.
radioinfo: The stress levels are lower now?.
CB: Yeah. I’ll tell you I haven’t received an email from a CEO saying where’s that fucking report and why isn’t on my desk in five years. My emotional levels don’t move much outside of a fairly consistent range and I’ve never had a problem with any of that, but I think the world is different when you don’t have those sorts of pressures.
The work I do now with shows all over the world is what I always loved doing. I was never particularly good in that Head of Content role because I didn’t cultivate relationships with board members. I didn’t really like doing the horseplay with the CEO, I just wanted to be with teams and with shows and work as closely as I could with talent.
So, I started to think that what I want to do over the next 10 years… it was really just to be as close as I could get to the creative process either working with program directors or working with shows. If I could do that most of the time, I felt like that would be where I was at my best.
There’s a particular type of personality you need to be to be the head of content. I worked with Jeff Allis and Guy Dobson and Duncan and Paul – they’re killers. Duncan’s made decisions in the last two years that I would never have made. I mean, Duncan put Christian O’Connell into breakfast on Gold (104.5FM, Melbourne) and I thought that was crazy, as much as I think Christian’s amazing. I just didn’t think it would work. Unbelievable foresight on his part and balls to do it.
And Paul, in what it seems obvious now, Paul making the call and going with smooth – a big call, a call ballsy call. Really smart.
Even Jase & PJ on KIIS (breakfast in Melbourne), as much as I think they’re are very, very good show, it was still a risk. But these guys are killers and they back themselves in.
radioinfo: Maybe the C-Suite was not for you.
CB: Not at all. I never felt comfortable with it.
It was funny I had conversations with Eddie McGuire when things were starting to turn at SCA, maybe a couple of years after the merger, and you know one of the first things that Eddie said to me was, “Do you know the board, are you talking to them on a regular basis?”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could do that. And he was trying to protect me, going, “Well, you’ve got to build these relationships, mate.” But I didn’t want to, I just wanted to work with talent. So, in lots of ways I did some things really well and there are other things that weren’t a natural fit for me that I kind of made work as best I could.
radioinfo: Let’s look at some of the learnings from your experience that you could pass on to others in the industry. What would you say to those who are in fear of being asked to “pursue personal interests?” Right right now millions of Australians in all sorts of industries are losing their jobs…
CB: This is not about radio and this is not about dumping on radio either. It’s not about, ‘hey, the industry’s made all these mistakes and now it’s time to pay the piper,’ this is for every single industry in the world.
Andrew Sidwell who I’m talking to shortly on a podcast talks about staying within the neighbourhood of skills that you already have. So, when you’re thinking about potentially a life outside of radio if you’re thinking of being a brain surgeon that’s probably a stretch too far.
So, doing some kind of a skills audit, thinking about where you start your day, what’s the job you really look forward to doing out of all the things you need to do today? That’s probably a good indication as to where you might be best suited in terms of future opportunities. If it’s writing or if it’s the producing side or it’s the performance side, those things are an indicator – as I said, in my day I look forward to getting into the radio station and talking to breakfast shows and talking with producers and programmers that was my thing. So, I kind of worked that out.
The thing I would say is what a German poet (Rainer Maria Rilkebut) said, “No feeling is final.” That would be the thing that I would tell anyone that’s listening (reading) this. “No feeling is final.” If you lose your job it doesn’t need to be the end of anything. It just needs to be a moment that will hurt for a while and then it’s up to you as to what you do next.
So, I guess having gone through it (myself), I’ve learned… You know, I didn’t have a lot of empathy when I was in those roles and I was on the right side of the desk when I was letting people go. I was very good at compartmentalising my feelings about those individuals that were getting their careers crushed. I think very differently about it now.
But you have to know that it’s not the end and hopefully the series will give you a sense of a bunch of different people not just announcers but producers and programmers that have had the decision made for them or are making their own decisions and have come out the other side.
We live in this very myopic world in radio but there’s an amazingly interesting, big and bold and bright world outside of radio. And if you pushed outside the door to go and find out what that looks like you’ll realise that it’s probably a gift and nothing to take personally.
Radioinfo: Finally, did you say to yourself at any point since 2015 that one day you’d look back at all this and laugh?
CB: I think so. There were times when it was maddening. And now I’m glad that it happened. I would never have done it to myself… I would never have left. I needed a new CEO and someone who had a different perspective on me to come in and make that call on my behalf. And I’m so glad it happened. And that’s not to say there’s a Disney ending for every single person that’s going to go through this process. And you know I’m thankful that it’s mine.
Radioinfo: Are you laughing now?
CB: Absolutely. It was just a case of making some decisions around what I could do next and where I could add some value.
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