What began as a usual Thursday morning ended with MediaWorks pulling the plug on Today FM.
Listeners tuned in to that morning’s Duncan Garner Today show got more (or less?) than what they bargained for when the former AM Show host went rogue.
Alongside one of the station’s other star journalists, Tova O’Brien, the pair made the shocking announcement that Today FM would be going off-air.
“I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be on air,” O’Brien said.
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“It sounds like it’s over. We haven’t been given a chance.”
She said the team had previously been told they had the support of “everyone” at MediaWorks, including the chief executive and the board.
A queen of the media-sphere, O’Brien gave confused listeners and eager journalists the perfect soundbite to signal the end of Today FM.
“They’ve f…ed us … We’re all going to lose our jobs and the station is coming off-air,” she said.
Garner, audibly infuriated, left a cut in the throat of the MediaWorks machine – “this is betrayal”.
“We’ve been pulled off-air right now,” Garner said.
“Without even being given a chance,” O’Brien said, before the hosts disappeared and music took over, 25 minutes into the 9am news show.
Just like that, Today FM was no longer – the definition of gone by lunchtime.
As the public scrambled to make sense of what had just happened, Today FM’s employees were pulled into a station-wide meeting to discuss their future – even a reporter in attendance at the press conference for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ unveiling of new options for a second harbour bridge crossing was forced to pack up and leave.
While the in-studio madness wrapped up, fresh tweets from O’Brien’s producer Tom Day began to pick up traction.
“I am gutted. @TodayFM_nz was what gave hope to so many people. I love our team,” Day wrote.
“Mediaworks said Today FM was a five year plan. They have completely lied.”
20 minutes after his initial tweets, Day followed up with news of the grim reality for Today FM staff.
“The MediaWorks board have made a proposal to shut down Today FM. They have given us only until the end of this afternoon to make submissions. I have no words.”
Audio leaked from the meeting to Stuff reporters revealed financial woes to be the scissors to Today FM’s threads.
“The board were clear we needed to find significant savings,” Wendy Palmer told staff gathered.
Palmer said Today FM was the “baby” of former chief executive Cam Wallace and former station boss Dallas Gurney, both of whom must have got the shutdown message early as they had already left MediaWorks within the past fortnight.
“Cam and Dallas not being here probably hasn’t been helpful as I’m interim,” she said.
When O’Brien asked whether MediaWorks was set to be sold off, Palmer returned with a blunt answer.
“They’re bankers aren’t they … I guess that’ll be their plan, they’re not here forever, right, they’ve come in to buy an asset and then sell it,” Palmer replied.
In a statement released on Thursday morning, Palmer said Today FM had been taken off-air “at the MediaWorks board’s request”.
MediaWorks was consulting with the team “about the future of the station”, she said.
“This is a difficult time for the team and our priority is supporting them as we work through this process.”
As they left the Today FM building on Auckland’s College Hill, employees did what anyone else faced with the prospect of losing their job would – they headed to the pub.
As they left, Day fronted media outside, saying he was “gutted” and “disappointed”.
“It was a big shock, but it wasn’t a surprise,” Day told press.
Cheers could be heard inside Ponsonby’s historic bar The Cav as workers united, hopefully not getting too keen on the booze before their last-minute submissions to save their jobs could be made – although, as employment lawyer Kimberly Jarvis told Stuff, Today FM staff deserved more time to respond.
Meanwhile, songs including P Diddy’s I’ll Be Missing You and Europe’s The Final Countdown played over the airwaves.
Following the early morning spectacle, a banner appeared on the Today FM website saying an official announcement about the fate of Today FM would be made at 5pm – but by that point, the station’s staff had all but confirmed their jobs were done.
At 4.40pm, 20 minutes out from the official Today FM statement, Tova O’Brien finally broke her silence with a tweet.
“Devastated. Love our strong Today FM whanau. Thank you for your messages,” she wrote.
In the interval, Today FM’s digital head Oscar Jackson and a team of other staff got in their last words with MediaWorks by sharing their own statement.
Jackson posted saying they wanted to thank everyone for the past year and the producer of Duncan Garner’s show was now crying in their arms “as the harsh reality of cold corporate decisions set in”.
“Love us or hate us, we fought for you and your stories.”
Although the message was quickly wiped from Today FM’s social media accounts, a screenshot of the post has been immortalised on Jackson’s Twitter page.
At 5pm, Today FM’s final transmission sounded over the airwaves: “This station is no longer Today FM… in April, a new station will be launching on this frequency.”
In the grief of jobs lost to private greed, at least one thing could remain of the station – their Black Caps radio would continue to be played on the frequency as the station has rights to several matches left in the summer.
The radio message had no mention of staff who worked at the station over the last year, or its listeners.
An equally bleak statement appeared on the Today FM website, reading “Unfortunately the MediaWorks board has made the difficult decision to take Today FM off air.”
Later that night, Today FM host Wilhemina Shrimpton shared her anguish in an Instagram post, accompanied by a photo of the station staff putting on brave faces for the camera.
“The past year has been amazing – and that’s because of the incredible people in this picture. The past year built me up, gave me back my confidence, and made me feel like myself for the first time in a long time,” Shrimpton wrote.
”I was given opportunity, support and most importantly I was allowed to be myself … and because of that I flourished and grew. The broken down person I arrived as, was slowly pieced back together and shone brighter than ever before.
“Devastated is an understatement, heartbroken doesn’t even describe it, and unexpected only begins to scratch the surface.”
Another leak, this time a confidential MediaWorks document listing 30 Today FM staff who are in line for disestablishment as well as a review of news yet to come could claim another 20 jobs, also came to light.
“This proposal allows for MediaWorks to make significant fixed cost savings in 2023 and immediately improve the financial position of the company,” the document read.
“This move would also allow the business to utilise current Today FM frequencies to increase reach across the current MediaWorks brands, whilst removing the permanent cost base for the news and talk division.”
On Friday morning, Rachel Smalley, who hosted Today FM’s early morning news show First Light, hit out at the private investors who dug Today FM’s grave in a pay-walled article on the National Business Review’s website.
“Earlier this month, Quadrant’s hitmen walked through the front door of MediaWorks with a shiny-suited swagger that suggested they were here for a short time, not a long time,” Smalley wrote.
“They took the same approach to Today FM. The men looked at the numbers and left with a directive to shut down the station – and to do so as soon as possible.
“Today FM ended with a fierce and confronting brutality that only Private Equity can wield.”
She lamented the loss of her year’s worth of work, left disappeared into the void.
“The website was gone, and with it a year’s worth of my work, including 12 months of investigating Pharmac and holding the drug agency to account,” Smalley wrote.
“None of my social media links worked any more. Links to stories posted on LinkedIn and Twitter were gone. The last year of my journalism career has been wiped.”
Staff and countless stories gone – including O’Brien’s highly-publicised interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy – the station’s Twitter and Instagram accounts have been made private, and the grim goodbye message is the only thing left to show for the brief year Today FM made a presence in the media scape.
At least we still have the Black Caps.