Glenn Wheatley tells it like it was to Peter Saxon.
There is no more colourful a character in Australian radio than Glenn Wheatley. From his early years as bass player in the ‘60’s rock band, Masters Apprentices to becoming a music entrepreneur and manager of talent that included Little River Band and John Farnham – he was one of the first to look the part of a businessman up top, wearing a smart jacket, collar and tie above the belt with blue jeans below to denote his rock in trade.
Wheatley was also a pioneer of FM radio in Australia. And although Rod Muir is often credited with being the grandfather of Commercial FM, it is Wheately who can claim ‘line honours’ for getting the first Australian commercial FM station, EON in Melbourne, to air on 11th July 1980.
Last week, he celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of EON (later to become Triple M) but there were no champagne corks popping yesterday (July 19) to commemorate the 13th anniversary of him being sentenced to a minimum 15 months in prison for tax fraud in 2007. As Wheatley tells it, that was the lowest point in his life. Though he was deeply remorseful. the experience failed to curb his boundless enthusiasm or dull his bright smile and there were many more high points to come.
In 2013 his consortium was the successful bidder for a pair of stations on the Sunshine Coast. And in 2016, they bought 2CH for a reported $5.56 million – which, said pundits, was too much to pay for an AM music station rating in the low fours. But Wheatley’s most recent triumph, to confound the aforementioned pundits, was to sell 2CH – in the midst of a pandemic and an unprecedented advertising slump – for almost double what he and Oceania had paid for it four years ago.
Aged 72, Wheatley, has no thoughts of retirement.
Above: Wheatley (left) mortgaged his house to record Whispering Jack to re-launch John Farnham’s career.
He called me on Friday to set the record straight about the birth of FM in Australia and the journey from EON to Triple M over the past 40 years.
Triple M Melbourne went to air at one past midnight on 11th July 1980 as EON FM.
Having broken the Little River Band in America via FM Radio Wheatley wondered why Australia still only had AM Radio. There had to be more than 3XY, 2SM he thought.
Wheatley made inquiries and discovered that years ago, the Government at the time gave the FM band away to Essential Services; Fire, Police and Ambulance. Working with the Department of Communications, Wheatley devised that the Essential Services could be moved to the UHF band thereby freeing up the FM band to be able to make way for commercial FM licences. After “walking Federal Parliament carpet thread bare” in 1979, he convinced the Government to do just that.
The concept was passed by Government and applications for FM licences were announced.
Wheatley and Recording entrepreneur Bill Armstrong successfully put the EON consortium together and bid on one of the two Melbourne FM licences.
The consortium comprised Wheatley and Armstrong, tour Promoter Paul Dainty, Stockbroker Bill Conn, the Albert Family (owners of 2UW at the time), the members of the Little River Band (then managed by Wheatley), Barry Humphries and Smacka Fitzgibbon. Dubbed the ‘Show Biz’ application by the then Broadcasting Tribunal Chairman Bruce Gyngell who Chaired the hearing application.
EON FM created radio history in Australia being the first commercial FM radio station to go to air. The studio was sound proofed with egg cartons held together with chicken wire. The smell of soldering irons permeated the air, but FM had finally arrived.
They beat their Melbourne competitor Fox FM to air by two weeks. Rod Muir, also a pioneer for the introduction of FM in Australia, followed in Sydney with 2MMM and Michael Willisee with 2Day FM.
Peter Grace was the first announcer on-air at EON, and the first song was from the Eagles, ‘New Kid in Town’.
Armstrong was the first managing director with Clyde Simpson as GM, Trevor Smith as PD and Billy Pinnell looking after the music. Lee Simon was one of the first to be on air. Lee took over as PD some time later.
EON’s initial programming philosophy was to play an album oriented rock format. Songs that “would not be played elsewhere”, going against the top 40 format favoured by the existing AM Stations at the time.
The New Kid in Town had a battle on its hands getting ratings. AM Radio did not want to see any competition. But in 1985 EON finally topped the Melbourne ratings. A year later the station was sold to Rod Muir who owned Triple M Sydney for $37.5 million. The late disgraced businessman Christopher Skase was the under-bidder. His offer of $36 million was blown away by the audacious Muir.
Wheatley was retained on the board of EON FM. Muir became the absentee owner for the next twelve months which prompted Wheatley to make an offer to Muir to buy back the farm – EON in Melbourne.
Wheatley also asked if he could make an offer for 2MMM, Sydney. “Cost you a lot of money mate,” was the response. Wheatley knew then that the stations were for sale.
Within a week the stations were bought by Wheatley Communications Pty Ltd for $90 million.
Within three months, Hoyts cinema group made an offer for the network. In a deal worth $130 million, Wheatley Communications was sold and listed on the ASX as Hoyts Media. Wheatley stayed as a shareholder and became CEO.
EON FM went through some big changes. Ian Grace became the group PD. The D Generation were introduced with a totally new style of breakfast show, with the team of Tom Gleisner, Santo Cilauro, Rob Sitch, Tony Martin, Michael Veitch, Mick Molloy with Jane Kennedy recruited from the newsroom. Others, including Marg Downey, Magda Szubanski and Judith Lucy had small stints on the show.
Molly Meldrum and Gavin Woods were also asked to do breakfast.
Eddie McGuire, then a cub reporter for Channel 10 and Lee Simon pitched a sport concept to Glenn which was rejected out of hand. ‘We are a ‘Rock Network. We don’t do sport’. After a daily barrage, Wheatley relented. ‘This better work’ he said. It did.
First up EON FM sponsored the Victoria State of Origin. It was a monumental success. ’Oops’ said Glenn and that started the sports connection that Triple M still has today.
Wheatley then made several acquistions to the fledgling network which by this time comprised 2BE, which Wheatley changed to 2EC, and 3CV in Central Victoria
He then bought Brisbane’s FM104 from Christopher Skase in a deal worth $89 million. Then came the acquisition of the Wesgo Group’s 5AD Adelaide, 4BK Brisbane, 4GG Gold Coast and 96FM in Perth.
Village Roadshow purchased the network in 1994 before merging with Austereo in December that year.
Thus what started out as EON FM 40 years ago to become TripleM has been home to a plethora of talent.
Richard Stubbs, Steve Bedwell, Tim Smith, Eddie McGuire, Luke Darcy, Wil Anderson, Mick Malloy and Jane Kennedy amongst many.