Exclusive: Joan Warner tells why, after two decades of ‘herding cats,’ she’s moving on

Departing CRA boss, Joan Warner speaks to Peter Saxon.

Joan Warner had not set foot in a radio station before her appointment to the role of Chief Executive of radio’s peak commercial industry body in July of 2001, yet, everyone I’ve canvassed agrees that she has been the most effective CEO the organisation has ever had. Over her two decades she has played a key role in navigating radio through more changes to the media landscape than occurred in the previous 80.

It’s fair to say that she will be leaving radio in better shape than when she found it.

In this edited interview, Miss Warner discusses her early career, how she was chosen for the job and why she felt it was time to leave. Most of all she talks about the challenges that radio has had and how to tackle those that lay ahead.

To make things interesting, we’ll start with the last question first…

radioinfo: In the US, as you know, Joan, they have a custom where the outgoing president leaves a letter on the desk of the Oval Office with advice for the incoming president. Now, if you were to leave such a letter on your desk for your successor, what advice would you give them?

Warner: Well, I’d have to think about it very carefully, but it would be; Don’t be frightened to stand up for what you believe is good for the industry. But remember that you have a very, very diverse membership and you are here for that whole membership from the smallest member to the largest member. And the good of the many sometimes outweigh the good of the few. But sometimes the good of the few needs to be taken into account and be recognised and sorted out.

And your biggest role is really holding the industry together. That’s what your role is; to herd the cats.

But it’s your job as a CEO to keep this industry chugging forward with one voice and being seen and respected not only by the government, but by all the other stakeholders, including your own members, as being a worthwhile body and a body that can make a difference.

radioinfo: I understand you’ll be officially stepping down early next year. Allow me to take a wild guess at the date and time. How about midnight on Sunday, February 13th? Am I close?

Warner: Ha ha… No. But I probably should after that big party. I’m leaving on the 31st March.

radioinfo: I would have thought that the Feb 13, the night of the ACRAs would have been a fitting farewell party, no?

Warner: More like night at the museum. But then we’ve got an industry conference on the 15th of March. Will my farewell tour never end?

radioinfo: The ACRAs themselves, I know have become a signature event of yours. One that you and the team worked very hard on. Which of them do you think were the best.

Warner: I reckon they’ve got better year by year by year. I think certainly the events team has got quicker and quicker at getting through all the awards. As you know, when we first started doing the awards they went on for hours and hours. And I think now we’ve got it down to almost two and a half hours getting through something like 90 awards. The faster you can do it, the better it is.

Also, it’s just got a lot more showbiz and a lot more of the razzle dazzle that radio should have these days than it did when they were the RAWARDS back in the day when I came in.

Look, the last one was the best one, and I think the next one will be the best.

radioinfo: And the next day after the ACRAs is Monday the 14th of February, which is Valentine’s Day. Is there any significance to that, which our professional radio readers should know about?

Warner: Ha ha. I didn’t even think about that Peter, thanks for raising it, maybe we should have some sort of theme at the party on the 13th.

No, we had to take the nights we could get at the ICC, because a lot of events like ours have been moved from the end of this year to the beginning of next year.

And at the end of the day, we thought we didn’t want to do it midweek because that’s very difficult for people and all of us, ladies and gentlemen, like to get ourselves all shooshed up for the event. So we want to and we couldn’t get a Saturday night early in the new year, so we thought, Okay, well, we’ll take a Sunday night.

The Logies is always on a Sunday night, so we’re pretty sure our radio people will be partying just as hard on a Sunday night.

radioinfo: What made you decide that now was a good time to go?

Warner: Well, I actually I had decided about a year ago. I kept it to myself because I was trying to give the industry a chance to start a search, which they’re now doing, which is great. But I decided at the beginning of this year that I would leave at the end of this current contract, which is the 31st of December. And I told the board that.

As the year kept going on and nobody said anything, I started to get a bit worried thinking, ‘Oh, hang on, I’m leaving at the end of the year.’ And my chairman, Grant Blackley, said to me in early August, what are you doing at the end of the year? And I said, “Well, I’m leaving.”

And that’s when they asked me if I’d stay on another few months. I’ve been here over 20 years, whenI leave on the 31st of March, I’ll have been here nearly 21 years because I started on 1st of July 2001.

There are a couple of big projects that are coming to fruition then and will be implemented early in the third quarter next year. There’s the Automated Holdings project, which is a massive, complex project which I’m very proud of. And of course, the setting up of the Radio 360 changes to radio audience measurement, which I’m also, very proud of. We’ve done our work with Google and Amazon in getting the RadioApp in as the default radio delivery mechanism and first time every time you get the right radio station.

We’ve got the Podcast Ranker up and running and we’ve now got program numbers being released, which is something I’ve been working on for a while.

So, I think this is probably the perfect year because lots of big projects and lots of good work is being done and is ready to go on to the next stage, and it’s probably the right time to hand over the baton.

radioinfo: What have you got planned for life after CRA?

Warner: I’ll tell you now, I’m not really looking to go back into a job where you work 60 hours a week like I do in this role. So, I am planning to take a deep breath – maybe take a trip overseas, which will be a lovely novelty, after all this time.

I’ve already had a couple of people contact me and say, ‘would you look at doing projects? Would you look at being on a board?‘ And I’ve said, ‘yes, I’m going to look at all of that stuff, but I’ve got six months of hard work to do here before I think about any of that and I’ve got a number of goals I’ve still got to kick.’

My focus over the next six months is very firmly on getting these projects up and running and running smoothly for a new CEO who can come in and we can have a very smooth and ordered transition.

radioinfo: Let’s go back to the beginning before you landed this job. Did you have any direct experience in radio?

Warner: None whatsoever. But, you know, that’s never stopped me before. I started out as primary school teacher and then went on to Special Ed and in setting up special education centers throughout WA. And then I somehow morphed my way into the Ministry of Education and Youth Affairs. Then I became a chief of staff and political adviser. And I went to work in the food industry. I’ve always had a great sense of, if somebody opens the door and offers you an opportunity, even if you think, ‘Oh, am I qualified for this?’ That’s not the question you should be asking yourself. The question is, do I think I can do this and do I want the challenge? And if the answer is yes and yes, you walk through the door, you don’t shut it and say, ‘Oh no, I’m too scared to go through.’

I’ve never had a problem with taking on roles where I haven’t had a deep background, but I have had a very varied background in business, very senior levels, like as strategic advisor to the CEO of George Weston Foods, senior levels in politics and in the public service. So, I’ve always thought I had a pretty good broad range of skills that you could bring to a job like this. And then when I was offered it, it was like Christmas had come.

radioinfo: My late, great mentor, Keith Graham (who founded WSFM) had a saying, ‘Bite off more than you can chew and then chew like buggery.’

Warner: That’s right. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had some very good mentors, which sounds like a strange thing to me to say after 20 years in this one job. But I’ve had some wonderful mentors over the years, even from the head of the Catholic Education Commission in Perth, who gave me a go in setting me up as director of special education and setting up Special Ed Centres. And John Pascoe, who was the CEO of George Weston Foods. Virginia Chadwick, who is very senior minister in the New South Wales government. Joe Hockey, even.

Some of my (CRA) chairpeople have been great mentors as well, and particularly the early chairman when I came in. I’ve been very lucky in this role as well because I’ve had some wonderful board members, wonderful chairpeople and people who have said, ‘If you think we should do it, we’ll do it as long as you can take the industry along with you.’

radioinfo: Who was that first chairman?

Warner: Well, bizarrely, and he was only the chair for a very, very short time before Rhys Holleran came in, it was Gary Roberts on the board when I was employed. And he was the chair. But very soon thereafter, I think at the September AGM, they voted Rhys Holleran in, who at that stage was running RG Capital, if you might recall.  I’ve had Michael Anderson, who was a wonderful chairman. I’ve had Cathy O’Connor, of course, was brilliant, and I’ve got Grant Blackley now.

I’ve had some excellent boards. They’ve been very good boards because it’s been made up of the most senior people who can make decisions.

radioinfo: How did you get the job? Were you headhunted, or did you apply for it?

Warner: I was headhunted.  At that point in time, I was working at Philips Fox Insurance Practices as 2IC to the CEO of that practice, who was my old mentor from George Weston Foods, John Pascoe, who later went on to become the chief federal magistrate. He had a very illustrious career, but he was a wonderful mentor to me and gave me lots of these sorts of opportunities. And yes, I was called by a search firm and what they wanted was someone who’d been in different businesses, not just in one – someone who had a knowledge of politics and negotiating and lobbying and also being in government and out of government being on both sides.

radioinfo: Up until then, all of your predecessors, that I can recall, had been radio veterans. Why do you think they were looking for a change?

Warner: I don’t know but I’m glad they were. Maybe they were just looking for…‘OK, we’ve had the same sort of CEO for a while. Maybe it’s time for us to branch out and find someone with a broader set of skills and a broader background, with some skills possibly in corporate, regulatory and lobbyingas well as management and marketing that we haven’t had before. And if we can find someone like that, then maybe we should give them a go. I think I was at was the right place, at the right place. I was very, very lucky.

radioinfo: Joan, what was the brief they gave you?

Warner: It was basically to run the industry body and ‘keep us all together, make us a united voice.’ Rev up everything we’re doing – we’ve got to have a better conference. We’ve got to have better award show. Make us a united industry and chart a course for the future. There was actually no job description, I have to tell you.

radioinfo: The name changed from FARB to CRA soon after your appointment. Was that already in the pipeline, or was it your recommendation?

Warner: They were thinking about a name change, but they weren’t sure what they were thinking about. And my first two thoughts, when I came into this organisation was (one) that FARB is a terrible name. The Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters made us sound old fashioned. And what is it that we do?

We’re representing commercial radio. One of the suggestions that had been put forward was Commercial Radio Australia. So, why are we hiding our light under a bushel? That’s what we do. That’s what we’re proud of, and that’s what we’re good at. So why don’t we just change our name?

And then my second thought was we need to move out of St Leonards. I don’t know if you ever went there, Peter, but it’s very, very impractical building. We didn’t have a big enough meeting room there for the board to meet at the HQ of FARB as it was then, so we had to rent a meeting room at the Royal AutomobileClub to have our board meetings.

We had people over three floors in very small work groups. It was very odd and very hard to build a team feeling. That’s one of the things we’ve got here at CRA. Everyone feels part of the team and we all work together as a team. And no one except for me, of course, as theCEO, no one is more senior than anyone else.  So, they were the first steps: We need to move to one level. We need to change our name, we need to get a whole new image.

Who knows? The new CEO might say exactly the same thing when they come in. So, who knows what will happen?

radioinfo: After you’d put your feet under the desk, as it were, what were your early impressions of the job ahead of you? What were the biggest challenges to administering your role?

Warner: I think one of the biggest challenges was to make CRA a voice that people listened to, a voice that people respected…to make the people that worked in commercial radio feel proud of themselves. I did say, when I came in, back then there was a bit of a chip-on-the shoulder mentality… we’re just radio,  TV’s always going to earn more than us. Print is always going to have a bigger share of the dollar than us. We’re just radio.

I kept thinking; Radio is fantastic. Why? Why do you have this impression of yourselves and why aren’t you projecting an impression that we’re very proud of? What we do is just as good as them. You (advertisers) need to be giving us more money.

Another thing is, we need to get together and promote radio against TV and against print and not always be competing with each other. Back then there were even (radio) people saying, ‘Buy AM radio over FM radio” – like we were cutting each other’s lunch. Be proud of who you work for but build up our sector first and then go and sell against your competitors.

radioinfo: In the 80 years or so of radio before you joined the industry, arguably the biggest changes to radio were the introduction of television in the late 1950s – and then in the early 1980s, the introduction of FM. But in the past 20 years, since you’ve held the reins of CRA, massive upheavals affecting the industry have taken place; from the introduction of DAB+ to an influx of global competition that can compete with radio on a number of platforms without having to pay for a licence. Navigating all the legislative minefields and having to deal with a one-in-100-year pandemic.

What would you say were some of the biggest challenges that you and your board have had to face in this era of accelerated change?

Warner: I think it’s maintaining the rage, maintaining the faith, maintaining… you know, don’t be scared. I used to say to people, we can’t be scared of things. We’ve got to look at everything. And I’ve said this at many conferences. If radio has had the ability and continues to have the ability to look at things and go, how do I use that to enhance my product? How do I use it?

Remember when email came in and radio was the first sector to encourage people to email in?

And, at the same time, not forgetting your core strength, which is somebody can pick up the phone and talk to the prime minister live on a radio show, and nobody else can do that.

So, let’s not forget our core strengths, but let’s not be frightened of all this new stuff,  like we’ve done with RadioApp. getting it into smart speakers and smart speakers could have been a real challenge for radio. Smart speakers were being taken back into rooms where there hadn’t been a radio set for many years. So, instead of going, ‘Oh, this is terrible for us,’ the industry said, OK, how do we fix this?

For us, we needed one app. We needed to work with with Google, and we’ve worked very well with Google on this and with Amazon, who are also great partners.

We’ve now got an automated trading platform which we weren’t ready to do a few years ago, but by the end of first quarter next year, we will be the only industry to have every single member joined to every single ad agency, even at the level of sales teams to do collaborative workspaces proposals across our whole ecosystem.

That was a massive challenge, but again, part of my challenge was getting us to the point where the board said, ‘Okay, the time is now. You’ve talked about this three years ago. We agree the time is now now. Go and manage that project.’

The stoush we’ve had with our friends in the music industry was another big challenge. We got through that and we get on very well with them now.

That’s what’s so great about this job. It’s not just one part of a job. It’s a multilayered job. And as you know, I make sure that I go to every single committee meeting that we have here, whether it’s research, whether it’s marketing, whether it’s radio, whether it’s Podcast Ranker. It’s a big industry, but a small organisation. And as a CEO, you need to know everything that’s going on in it. And if you don’t, then you probably shouldn’t be in the job.


Peter Saxon