A former Today FM host claims the station’s closure came after its Australian private equity owners sent what she describes as their “hitmen” to MediaWorks earlier this month.
In a forthright column published in the National Business Review (NBR) today, host Rachel Smalley said she believed the station was a victim of private equity ownership.
Australia’s Quadrant Private Equity owned close to 40 per cent of MediaWorks, while Oaktree Capital Management held the remaining 60 per cent, Smalley said.
The Australian-owned equity firm took an “aggressive” approach to governance, she believed.
In Smalley’s opinion, “Today FM ended with a fierce and confronting brutality that only private equity can wield.
“Private equity, it seems, places no value on speaking truth to power.
Smalley believed Oaktree “is the more passive of the two”, while she believed Quadrant’s “sharp-shooting Australians” take an aggressive approach to governance.
“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. They took the same approach to Today FM.”
The radio station abandoned its scheduled programming yesterday morning, and workers later said the MediaWorks board had “made a proposal to shut down” the station.
In a broadcast on the frequency about 5pm, a message said: “This station is no longer Today FM.” It also said a new station would be launching on the frequency in April.
Today FM staff were given less than a full day to submit on the future of the station.
A company-wide email from interim chief executive 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 [Friday].”
“This does sadly mean that a number of our friends and colleagues will be leaving the business in the coming weeks.”
Smalley described Today FM’s collapse as “remarkably fast”, the network having only been on the air for 12 months.
In the NBR column, Smalley described the suddenness of the closure and lack of employment process as “puzzling”.
“The email went out to staff just after 9am on Thursday, and the news and talkback format ended a few minutes later.
She said in NBR she believed the reasons for Today FM’s failures were both “strategic and complex”.
The first seismic headwind was felt in February, when chief executive Cam Wallace resigned.
Smalley claimed it had “an immediate and destabilising impact” on the TodayFM team and added that the former Air New Zealand executive was well-liked, credible and professional, and he was a passionate supporter of the brand.
Unbeknownst to staff, the station’s architect Dallas Gurney had also resigned on the same day. Smalley claimed his relationship with the Australian equity owners was strained.
“The two men who had promised everything had suddenly both resigned,” she wrote.
“Behind the scenes, the board was growing increasingly sceptical of the investment in Today FM,” Smalley said she believed. “Wallace had always acted as a buffer for the station, and a believer in its mission, reassuring the Australians that Today FM would bear fruit – in time. Patience was running out. The board’s investors went back to what they knew best. The books. And it was clear that Today FM needed significant investment to grow its audience.”