We’re not trading at our proudest moment in 80 years of history, but I have great belief says Lang

Adam Lang grew up listening to 96FM in Perth. “In year 10 when you do work experience, I did a week of mine in the record library at 96FM. So I’ve got a real close relationship with that station from when I was a kid,” he tells radioinfo on a day that two of 2UE’s most popular guests ever (pictured) took over the studios – if not the management.

Now here he is, at 43, CEO of the Fairfax Radio Network, which just happens to own this one FM station among its fleet of AMs. Call it Karma, Kismet or the result of incredibly accurate forecasting – within a few months of him taking the reins at Fairfax, 96FM shoots to the top in Perth breaking the 100 survey winning streak of Mix 94.5 – which happens to be owned by SCA, the organisation from which Lang came. Note: This article is unlocked.

In this interview with Peter Saxon, Lang discusses the Rinehart issue, editorial independence, and tells who’s in charge of network programming at Fairfax Radio. 

It’s a fair question to ask, though, whether 96FM’s success is despite the fact that the “wise men from the east” (Lang being chief among them) leave it alone or because of it. Lang gives a fair answer, “It’s both. I can’t pretend that I’m a programming expert. I’m a lover of radio and I know enough about the business to be able to be involved. To be able to judge when things are being done really well and when they’re not. And I can honestly say the programming in 96FM is being done really well. The best thing for me to do with Brad McNally (PD) and Martin Boylan the general manager in Perth is to talk to them and listen and make good collective judgements. But for me to pretend that I can program 96FM any better than is being done now, I cannot.”

Although it took him a quarter of a century to go from record librarian at 96FM to CEO of its network, Lang’s had faster rides to the top. From his start in the music industry in 1995, it took him just seven years to go from a royalty manager at BMG to Managing Director at Warner-Chappell. After a short stint in TV at Ten, his radio days, proper, began in July 2007 when he joined Austereo, where he rose from Inventory Manager to become National Director of Operations as well as the manager of the Sydney stations before he left in 2011. Before all of that he was a bar tender at the Aberdeen Hotel in Perth where he reached the giddy heights of assistant manager.

Nonetheless, Lang who draws lessons from every event in life, sees parallels between handling obnoxious patrons and high profile radio talent. “Every interaction with an individual is an opportunity to learn. Some of them are alcohol fuelled and some of them are not,” he says.

There was no alcohol to fuel the following conversation.

radioinfo: Are people skills the most critical in terms of programming a talk network?

Lang: I think they’re critical for any line of management, so absolutely. To engage with an audience, to engage your staff in general on air and off air, it’s a critical need, so empathy and communication? You bet, they’re vital.

radioinfo:In the announcement of your appointment at Fairfax you said, “The chance to lead Fairfax Radio is a rare opportunity in media.” The average radio exec may be forgiven for thinking you already had a rare opportunity at SCA. So in what way did you see this job as a step up?

Lang: It’s a CEO role. My relationship, and all our family’s, with radio, the relationship with music and radio in general is very, very strong. So for me to work in radio is terrific and I love the industry.  If you look at it, we’ve got a news talk network, and each of those brands 2UE, 3AW, 4BC, 6PR are 80 years old. And then we’ve got some music stations which are 4BH, Magic and 96FM and we’ve got The Buckle on digital (Country format) put together by Gary Hoffman. We’ve got a group of stations here that’s pretty incredible.

It’s a rare opportunity for me, there’s not that many radio groups in the country. You know ARN, DMG, Austereo and Fairfax radio network, so it’s a rare opportunity in terms of the role.

radioinfo:You’ve moved from FM music to AM talk. What do you see as the main differences? What surprised you the most. What weren’t you expecting?

Lang: The element that surprised me the most, as a listener of radio, is the way the audience engages. If we moved a promo on 2UE into a different slot, or missed the news by seconds, we would get a flood of feedback about that because people listen to it in a very deeply engaged way. Whereas with music it’s a different style of listening.

I didn’t expect that, I didn’t think the fans of talk would be so focused on some of what we might think is minutiae. They care about the station as much as we do.

Also news is a vital part of what you do in news talk. And the size of the news room and how much we lead that content, in terms of gathering and putting forward great news to our audience. I knew it was there, but I didn’t expect the level to which it would be so important to the DNA of the station and it is vital.

radioinfo:How about the level and type of resources you have at your disposal. How do they differ to what you had at SCA?

Lang: News by way of illustration is bigger. Programming is about as big but structured entirely differently. Other departments are just smaller so it’s difficult to give a ‘one size fits all’ answer across the company. But it is definitely smaller in numbers of people. We are sub 400, whereas the last one was 600. Then we became Southern Cross Austereo and much bigger again (over 2,000).

radioinfo:I appreciate that, but I guess my question really is about the budget constraints. Is the budget tighter here at Fairfax than it was at SCA?

Lang: The volume of the dollars, the revenue size and the cost base, is lower than I got used to. You bet it is, and I knew that coming in. But in terms of pound for pound it’s very similar.

radioinfo:Which brings me to the question of who is in charge of programming for the group, given that your own background is not in programming?

Lang: Excellent question. Each program director is responsible for their own station. That’s presently the way it works. So there’s no one individual in charge of national programming, in the programming team. In essence that falls to me at this point in time. And I work closely with the program directors and general managers.

But for me to pretend that I can program 96FM any better than is being done now, I cannot. And I must support them being the best they can be at their job. That applies the same way to 2UE here in Sydney, 3AW in Melbourne, Magic and 4BC and BH in Brisbane. I mean I travel quite a bit, I get around there a lot because I like human interface. But rarely does it come down to me saying I can do a better job than you. And if that’s the case, then we’ve got something else to resolve.

radioinfo:Surely at talk stations programming is all about the talent. And managing that talent rather than music playlist and formats?

Lang: I love to have a direct involvement with talent. If I cant have a complete conversation with everyone in the company from reception to on air then I’m missing something, I’m not communicating completely. So you bet I seek to have that direct relationship with on air and off air here at Fairfax radio network.

Jason Morrison and I talk, Paul Murray and I definitely talk, Ross Stevenson, Derryn Hinch, Greg Cary, (the other) Paul Murray in the west, the breakfast team, absolutely – Blackley. So I want to have a direct relationship with them all. Never would it go into a way where I said ‘I want to do something different’ to what the general manager is doing or what the PD is doing. We already know the parameters in which we are working.  But I have to be available to them too. Where things aren’t working and where they are I should know.  So I have to have that ability to have the conversation you bet.

radioinfo:Getting back to the announcement of your appointment late last year, in that media release, your predecessor, Graham Mott said, “I’d like to acknowledge the effort that was put in by everybody during the sale process. It was a difficult and challenging time for our staff and very unsettling, particularly for our team at 2UE.”  But those times haven’t really gone away, have they? Notionally, the stations are still up for sale and the owners are distracted by huge problems in the print division and machinations at board level.

Lang: I have to correct you on one point,  the stations are not for sale. That has been said as recently to me directly by the board and on air by Greg Hywood the CEO of Fairfax Media to Neil Mitchell last week.  While the stations are not for sale by Fairfax Media, in the sense that Fairfax Media is a publicly listed company, anyone can always buy ownership of the company. But no the stations aren’t for sale.

I guess the other part of your question was about the legacy of feeling about being for sale. When I started, absolutely! Four months ago it was the question I was asked most directly, most often. And it was a tough time, and I think part of that period up to late last year when the company was for sale, it was tough for people to come to grips with… who will we  be owned by and what will happen? Will they care as much about 3AW as they did, for example?

I’m not being trivial about it but it is important to control what you can control. So within that space I’ll be very clear about that message as well – we’re not for sale, that is the case and we must also control our own destiny when it comes to an individual doing their role, and as a company. The way to keep doing great work is to keep doing great work.

radioinfo:It can’t help, though, that Fairfax’s biggest share holder at the minute has described radio as “peripheral.” Surely it is unsettling. And on air, some of your announcers are saying Gina Rinehart should get a seat on the board. Others saying she shouldn’t. It must be a huge distraction. How do you ring fence the radio network to insulate it from the machinations at board level being played out so publicly in the media?

Lang: Ring fence this Fairfax radio network from the parent company? I don’t seek to (do that) at all. We are definitively part of that organisation. I want to be part of the organisation that says we are Fairfax Media and we are proudly holding editorial independence, very high in our priorities. So when it comes to Jason Morrison saying Gina Reinhardt should be on the board’ he also says, “Yeah but I wouldn’t sign up if she ever told me what to say on radio.”

Absolutely, we encourage editorial independence in journalists in mastheads, in print, online or on radio and we want that to be the case. For us as long as they stay within the codes and the law that is absolutely within their job spec. We want to encourage that difference of feeling.

I can’t comment on behalf of the board. But obviously, I note as you do what Gina has said in public and what Fairfax have responded with. So you know that’s there. And then you go, Okay, are we going to be allowing ourselves to be distracted by it? Well we could, but the best way to do it is to completely acknowledge what is being said and communicate completely about that and then say ‘yep well what we’re going to do about it is keep doing a great job’.

For us this is too important to waste time on what might happen. We’ve got to focus on what we know and what we can control. I don’t know what will happen with Gina and the board, I don’t know what will happen with Fairfax’s ownership. Someone could buy it out. Someone could buy more shares or sell shares. So that’s fine. I accepted that when I signed on that we’re a publicly listed company and that’s the situation. And I ask the same of everyone that works at Fairfax Radio Network.

radioinfo:In Melbourne, your flagship station 3AW resisted a challenge from Macquarie’s MTR whose research told them that there was room in that city for a second commercial talk station. Was their premise wrong or was it simply a matter of poor execution?

Lang: I think they did a lot of good things but you’d have to say that business model was obviously challenged very quickly in the way that they executed it. So I’d say it has to be a bit of both, the model and the execution would have to be queried. And the only reason I can say that is that history tells us it didn’t last that long.

radioinfo:But even if they had done it better, would there be enough room in Melbourne for a second talk station?

Lang: I think there’s always room, I mean the nature of digital radio is there will be more stations anyway…

radioinfo:Surely that’s some time away…

Lang: It is in terms of a tipping point of penetration. But it’s there now, is the point. Could you make enough money out of a digital talk station in Melbourne? I don’t know.

I think you have to always approach competition otherwise someone will come along and try and take you. So, yes I would say in theory there’s always room.

radioinfo:What about Sydney? Is there really room for two commercial talk stations here?

Lang: There’s definitely room for two talk stations in Sydney, definitely. In any sort of competitive endeavour, two people doing exactly the same thing tends not to work, so I wouldn’t profess to say we can try and beat 2GB at their game, and nor should we so we have to be different.

radioinfo:What’s the strategy then? What is the point of difference?

Lang: That I will leave to our execution, to reveal.

radioinfo:I know you’ve got younger people…

Lang: In some cases, yes.  

radioinfo:I remember speaking with Paul Murray soon after he started at UE and I asked him whether he was comfortable communicating with an average listener twice his age. If the strategy is to appeal to a younger audience, then, so far, it hasn’t worked. According to the last book the majority of audience is still 55+.

Lang: 57 is the average age.

radioinfo:So the idea is to get that down to what?

Lang: I think somewhere around the 50 mark, to me, is where we want to be heading. You also look at the nature of the audience. It’s not just an age.

We have great conviction about what we can do and do better. To give you some indication of the approach we’re taking to all stations is reflective of the question you asked before about a program director, or one individual who is in charge of programming and there isn’t one. But we’ve got to have a capacity to share our very best of thinking across our own company. So what is it that 3AW does brilliantly that the other three can learn from? What is it that 96FM is doing brilliantly that the other two music stations can learn from?

If you try to beat 2DayFM at 2DayFM’s game you’d have a hard time. So you have to do something different. And I would know with DMG’s case, their launch now of smoothfm seems to me to be the most resonant launch that they’ve done. It looks good. So you have to acknowledge the competitive landscape and don’t try and be a ‘me too’.

radioinfo:Lets talk hypothetically for a minute and imagine that Fairfax bought out Macquarie’s 2GB and 2CH. What would you do with them and 2UE?

Lang: There’s a law against that.

radioinfo:True, you’d have to lose one. You’d end up with two. What would they be?

Lang: I would have a news talk station and a music station. Absolutely. Look at how it’s working in Brisbane and Perth and Melbourne, and you’d say that business model makes a great deal of sense.

Now we can additionally start up a new digital radio station in Sydney with music. It may not be a matter of acquisition, it may be what we choose to do. So, I think for a mature audience who’ve got an appetite for news and talk, we should have an option. For that audience, and a different one, that has got an appetite for music we should have an option there to. So to me having a news talk station and music station makes great sense.

radioinfo:Melbourne’s a very different market to Sydney. What works in one won’t necessarily work in the other. How would you characterise the differences?

It’s hard to sum up. Every city is different. 2UE, 4BC, 6PR, 3AW can and will sound different because each city is different. And it’s also an element of what you are as a brand to that audience, not just what the audience wants. And how you define yourself. So while we’re a news talk network with those four stations, and we’ll all have some commonalities, there will be different articulation in each city.

Obviously, there are key differences, sport is one of them. AFL has a much larger presence in both the daily fabric of life and the broadcaster of sport in Melbourne than Sydney. On 2UE we have a Sports Today property that we brought back this year, that was on the first day I started on 27th of Feb. So we’d let that go and to me it was a great show to bring back because, while we don’t have rugby league rights, we must reflect sport and rugby league in this city, as well as other sporting codes.

Brisbane: far more rugby league than AFL, and not just to dwell on sport, Perth is obviously AFL.

radioinfo:Would an SEN work here in Sydney? It works kind of well in Melbourne.

Lang: It does work well. I mean 2KY the big sports breakfast and so on. So there’s already I guess something like that here in Sydney.

radioinfo:Although we don’t know what it rates. But I’m told it makes money.

Lang: It is kind of there, so you say ‘is there room in Sydney for an SEN? Potentially there is but we’re not going to turn 2UE into a sports station. It’s a news talk station.

radioinfo:So, how do you see the long term future for the network and 2UE in particular?

I think this is an immensely proud brand. It’s 80 years old and I see my role as making it better and for other people to come along and keep it going well after I’m gone. This is one of the first radio stations in Sydney. It was the first with talkback. From Gary O’Callaghan to Laws, Jones etc, to now. We’re not trading at our proudest moment in 80 years of history, but I have great belief that we can get much closer to those levels. And that’s the desire to do that before I move on and someone else takes over.