The abrupt closure of news radio station Today FM could leave its owners exposed to legal action by high-profile staff, with one expert saying they believed the process may have been a “sham”.
Today FM abandoned its scheduled programming on Thursday morning – but not before high-profile hosts Tova O’Brien and Duncan Garner revealed on air that the MediaWorks-owned station’s future looked grim.
Later workers said the MediaWorks board “have made a proposal to shut down” the station. In a broadcast on the frequency at about 5pm a message said: “This station is no longer Today FM.”
It also said a new station will be launching on the frequency in April.
Today FM staff were given less than a full day to provide submissions on the future of the station but a company-wide email from Mediaworks’ interim CEO Wendy Palmer later in the day said: “I’m sorry to confirm that the MediaWorks Board has made the difficult decision to close Today FM from tomorrow.
”This does sadly mean that a number of our friends and colleagues will be leaving the business in the coming weeks.”
A total of 30 hosts, production staff and contractors at Today FM were proposed to have their roles disestablished, according to a leaked MediaWorks document, while a further 20 jobs are under review.
Some of the workers include stars O’Brien, Garner, Lloyd Burr, Rachel Smalley, Mark Richardson and Dom Bowden.
A further 20 staff had their positions labelled “under review”.
In a section described as “rationale for proposed change”, it read: “We now need to reduce our costs further as ultimately we are a commercial entity that needs to generate enough earnings to withstand the economic conditions and ensure the growth of the business in the future.
”With a predicted recession in 2023 the immediate outlook does not look promising, therefore our operating model and expenses need to change to offset the current and any potential future revenue shortfalls.
“This means doing things differently, investing in areas where there are opportunities for growth and reducing costs where possible to fund these activities. 64 per cent of our costs are labour related and we have had to make the difficult decision to review our operating model and reduce our entire workforce to ensure that we remain efficient, effective and resilient.”
The document also confirms staff were given until 3pm yesterday to provide feedback about the proposed changes.
Employment law expert Susan Hornsby-Geluk told the Herald the shortness of the consultation period could, in her view, suggest that “the outcome is a foregone conclusion and the process is a sham”.
“Affected employees would potentially have grounds for a personal grievance if the process is found to be unfair and would then be entitled to an award of compensation for humiliation and distress,” Hornsby-Geluk said.
“The abrupt announcement and lack of warning would be factors that would exacerbate this and lead to higher awards of damages,” if this is the first they have heard of it, Hornsby-Geluk explained.
“Employees could also potentially claim loss of wages if alternatives to closing the station down may have been possible.”
Hornsby-Geluk explained that unless circumstances make it impossible, employers are required to speak with workers in “good faith” when a potential redundancy situation occurs.
“Consultation should be genuine and employees should be given a reasonable opportunity to provide feedback and seek advice.”
Given the number of affected employees, Hornsby-Geluk said it could be “very costly” to Mediaworks if they all raise personal grievances.
Shine Lawyers employment lawyer Pieter Venter also told the Herald he would be surprised if “nothing comes of this” and believed it could lead to legal action.
Venter said none of the clients he represented in other cases had experienced anything similar to Today FM’s closure and he would have expected the workers to have some form of “heads up.”
Palmer referred the Herald’s questions about any potential legal action or staff compensation to MediaWorks’ corporate communications team when approached for comment.
In a statement, the company said: “As this is an ongoing employment matter, we are working through the process and cannot comment further at this stage.”
In a separate statement, attributed to Palmer, read: “MediaWorks like the whole advertising sector in New Zealand and internationally, continues to be impacted by an environment with lower revenues and higher costs. At the request of the MediaWorks board we have undertaken a review of the entire business to identify further areas of potential cost saving and to reshape the business for the market conditions.”
This, Palmer said, has led the board to take the difficult decision to take Today FM off air and to explore options for a digital content offering.
“This is a hard day for this talented team who put everything into building a new talk platform in Aotearoa. They’ve worked tremendously hard and we’re incredibly proud of the work they have done.
“We’d also like to thank everyone who supported Today FM over the last year, from our regular contributors, to our advertisers and especially our listeners. From Ardern to Zelensky, we’ve kept Kiwis informed with the very best of news and current affairs and we’re grateful to everyone who tuned in. We’ll be working with the team to identify other opportunities within MediaWorks where possible and to support them in their next steps.”
In an email to clients, MediaWorks’ commercial director Liz Fraser said, “while providing some incredible content and a highly engaged audience, Today FM needed time and significant marketing investment in order to grow its listenership. Unfortunately due to the current market conditions MediaWorks is unable to commit to the long-term expenditure on this brand.”
Fraser continued: “We are grateful for your support of Today FM and we’re incredibly proud of the work the team has done. Our focus now is on supporting our people in their next steps and in ensuring the best outcomes for our customers. If you have advertising booked on Today FM we will move this placement to relevant stations within the MediaWorks stable, ensuring the same or better audience delivery.”
The Today FM frequencies, Fraser said, will be used to increase audience reach across other MediaWorks brands and “we’ll also be exploring some new content offerings”.
Yesterday morning, in an extraordinary few minutes of radio, Garner was joined on air by fellow host O’Brien, who said the company had “f***ed us”.
“We are all going to lose our jobs,” she said.
“We’ve been on-air for just a year, we were told we had the support of everyone from chief executive to the board to the executive.”
Garner said: “This is betrayal.”
He also told listeners: “Broadcasters here at Today FM have been called in to see the boss. We don’t know what’s going on. Tova’s asked for assurances that we are safe and hasn’t received them. Certainly some concerns in the background about the finances for the company overall.
In a tweet yesterday afternoon, O’Brien said she was “devastated”.
“Devastated. Love our strong Today FM whānau. Thank you for your messages,” she wrote.
O’Brien’s line producer Tom Day said he had had “better days” and that he was absolutely “gutted”.
“We received notifications that there would be a meeting at 12.15pm but it was brought forward. They told staff to start playing music.
“Wendy Palmer said at the meeting MediaWorks’ board had decided to shut down Today FM.”
The meeting came as a bit of a shock but also wasn’t a surprise, Day said.
“We passionately believe we have done amazing work. We are frustrated the board doesn’t see that... it was a five-year plan but we have only been on-air for a year.”
Day said at this stage he was not informed whether or not he would come back Friday.
“The board’s decision will be made following the submissions. I believe the decision could come today.”
Marc Peard, who was a host as part of the sports team at Today FM, took to Facebook to express his anguish.
“It’s heartbreaking, it’s devastating, it suxs that it’s ended [sic],” he wrote.
“Today as the news was delivered to the team I watched people I care about deeply burst into tears. People not knowing how they will make their next rent payments and how they will feed their kids.”
He described radio as an “intimate job” that you pour your soul into. He explained he now feels “embarrassed I was open and vulnerable”.
“I feel embarrassed I cared so much . . . I feel bad as I’ve let my family down.”
Wellington-based night host Polly Gillespie, who clocked off her shift at midnight, said she had woken to 200 missed calls.
“TODAY is now yesterday. Sad but alive. Time to pivot. Much love to all my listeners and co-workers,” she posted on Facebook.
Today FM’s Twitter account was also locked by owners MediaWorks and the tweets “are protected” with only approved followers able to see the messages. The station’s Facebook page appeared to have been deleted.
In a post on Today FM’s account, a message by the head of digital read: “We were robbed. You were robbed.”
The developments followed the departure of Today FM radio boss Dallas Gurney, who quit the fledgling network this month, and former MediaWorks CEO Cam Wallace.
Gurney wrote on social media last night he was “devastated” for his team.
“We built a great product, we knew it would take time, and were just starting to crank up. This team believed in a long-term vision that has not been fulfilled through no fault of their own.”