Gary Roberts knows Perth radio like the back of his hand

Peter Saxon profiles Gary Roberts

To become a licensed cab driver in London, you must first pass a rigorous exam called The Knowledge. It requires the prospective cabbie to devour and internalise a whole street directory and be able to devise the shortest and most practical route between point A and point B within seconds of being told a destination. 
The Knowledge is a triumph of the human brain versus AI, satnav and google maps in its abilty to navigate what is one of the most intricate arrays of streets and laneways of any city in the world.
Although Gary Roberts has never driven a taxi, his local knowledge of radio is uncanny . Next year he will notch up more than 50 years in broadcasting – 40 of those years in Perth. During that time, he has headed up each of the major FM networks in that market and taken each to number one. A feat that is un-replicated in Australian radio history.
Having stepped down from fulltime work in radio a year ago, the 67 year-old has come full circle and now finds himself back in the saddle at 96fm where his unbelievable run had all started back in 1980 with the launch of FM radio in Australia… and 96FM – Perth’s first FM station. With Roberts at the programming helm and later as GM, 96fm (originally 6NOW) soon became Perth’s leader notching up 34 survey wins in a row. 
He was there till 1992 before shifting his tent to 94.5FM which later became MIX94.5 and was languishing in 5th place. Sure enough, Roberts soon had it at number one where it stayed for many years and was considered unassailable. Not only that, in 1993 the owners bought PMFM from Kerry Packer, changed its name to 92.9 and made Gary Roberts Managing Director of both stations which became entrenched as number one and two in the market.

In 1997, Austereo bought both stations for a staggering $100 million from its local owners and, in a show of faith in his abilities, kept Roberts on as Managing Director.

In 2002 with Roberts having run out of FM stations to erect or resurrect a new broadcast licence was bestowed upon Perth to be known as Nova 93.7. Like a moth to a flame, Roberts was drawn to the new station unable to resist the challenge to see if he could, once again, build a station from scratch and take it to number one. 

He could and he did. In its first survey, Nova ticked all the boxes with its core demographics scoring top place in each. It took some time, though, with MIX94 stubbornly clinging to first place, but today, Nova 93.7 is number one overall and has more listeners than any other Perth radio station in history with a record of over 600,000 each week. 
With nothing left to prove in radio, at 66 years age, Roberts resigned from Nova, effective July 2018 to ‘pursue personal interests.’

Roberts is at pains to point out that he hadn’t retired, “I made it very clear to all and sundry I was resigning, I wasn’t retiring. I promised my wife that I wouldn’t have a full-time job anymore and that I would continue to do some project work and some consulting work. There were bits and pieces that I knew I could do that would keep me amused. I was also restricted contractually I couldn’t talk to anyone until 2019 anyway.”

In the meantime, Roberts’ first love, 96FM was struggling. In 2007, it was acquired by Fairfax Media whose main interest was in the Macquarie talk network that came with it and included 2GB, 3AW, 4BC and 6PR.  During those Fairfax years, the station did remarkably well under Content Director Brad McNally. In a 2012 interview with radioinfo, with the station once again reaching number one in Perth, we asked McNally whether the station’s success was due to the fact it was left alone by Fairfax management, or in spite of it. He replied, “The reality is, we are left alone. We are the odd one out, and I do feel like the Lone Ranger, there’s no question about that.”

In December 2014, it was announced that Fairfax Media would merge with the Macquarie Radio Network, and sell 96FM to the Australian Radio Network for a reported $74 million. The station became part of the  KIIS Network and completed a national metro network for ARN which, till then, had no presence in Perth. Most observers felt that this was a great outcome for all concerned. Fairfax could concentrate on Macquarie while 96FM would benefit from new parents who were singularly FM music focused. But that’s not how it worked out.

Despite ARN’s huge successes in the Eastern states and having a lock on the number one position in Adelaide with Mix102.3, 96FM quickly became a problem child for them – exacerbated by the fact that Brad McNally was let go soon after they took ownership. It was a rare misstep for the network. The station that had been a low-maintenance cash cow for Macquarie was now a thorn in the side of ARN management.

Not ones to suffer poor performance for long, they bit the bullet and went all out to lure Gary Roberts back into the radio game and appointed him Managing Director. 

Roberts recalls the initial phone call in March this year from ARN CEO, Ciaran Davis, “Ciaran gave me a call and said I’m going to be in Perth tomorrow, can we have breakfast? I said if, you’re buying. I won’t go to the gym. So we had a very long chat. At no stage did we discuss me working there. He simply wanted an update on what the market was doing and what I thought the station opportunities were. I think we talked for about three hours.
“So, he said next time I’d love to catch up for dinner. I said, fine, as long as you’re paying. So, we had another long chat. And I told him, even if I was interested (in working at 96FM), I promised my wife I wouldn’t work full time again. Besides, Wendy and I have committed to go overseas for a month. And that’s locked away since was last year. And if I was to cancel it. Not only would it cost me 30 or 40K I’d probably have to pay for a divorce, which I can’t afford. 
“So, the funny thing was after we’d had this chat, I went home and Wendy asked, ‘So how did that meeting go?’ I said, I think I might have just accepted a job. 
“She said, oh good.

“She wasn’t disappointed at all after having me around the house for eight months.”

Roberts started with 96FM in April this year and by October 1 had seen the station lift from a 7.7 share to 12.7, just 0.8 behind market leader Nova 93.7 and 1.8 ahead of the once impregnable MIX94.5 now relegated to third place. 

We’ll be back soon with Part Two of our chat with Gary Roberts.

Peter Saxon 


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