From public betrayal to Editor-in-Chief. Popular newsman Duncan Garner talks about the very public fall of Today FM and his rise as MediaWorks’ No.1 podcast host.
It begins with betrayal. It was just over a month ago when Duncan Garner found out he’d lost his job in the worst way possible. He was hosting his high-profile radio show Duncan Garner Today on Today FM, Mediaworks’ underdog talkback radio station, when the plug was literally pulled. Not just on Garner’s job, but on the whole station.
Today FM had been the underdog from the start. It’d been tasked with the Herculean feat of toppling rival Newstalk ZB from its top-dog position on the radio charts. It was a huge ask but one Today FM was valiantly attempting, making news as often as breaking it. In this long-term mission, the team had the full support of the board. Until they didn’t.
“This is betrayal,” Duncan famously told listeners when the final word finally arrived. Breakfast host Tova O’Brien, who’d been riding the rollercoaster of uncertainty about the station’s future all morning was equally as succinct on the situation but not nearly as tactful.
“They’ve f***** us,” she said moments before the sun set on Today FM for good.
“It was pretty brutal,” Duncan says, reflecting back on that tumultuous morning. “I did a lot of soul-searching because it was in the middle of other personal stuff that was going on as well. I’d sold my house, lost my job, and my marriage was over. I had all these things crumbling around me. But you know, you got to get up again.”
In the aftermath, Duncan went away, took stock of everything and worked out what was important to him. All the while emails flooded in from his listeners telling him how much the show – which placed a huge worth on giving regular people a forum to voice their concerns on the topics of the day – and his work had meant to them.
“I was genuinely buoyed by that,” he says. “I’ve been involved in journalism for the last 30 years and I love broadcasting. I always wanted to do this since I was 12-13 years of age. I’ve felt like I’ve been paid to do a hobby, you know, even though I’ve worked my guts out. I feel incredibly lucky and extremely privileged to still be doing it, I suppose. And when the opportunity came in, I had to get over myself. I had to get over the situation.”
That opportunity is why we’re chatting with Duncan this morning. He has just stepped into the thriving podcasting space with his new rova original show Duncan Garner Editor-in-Chief. The show is not unlike the show he hosted on Today FM, with a news focus, interviews and regular features. It’s also recorded “as live,” so as to keep that crucial energy you can only get from a live situation.
That Duncan would launch a podcast is not entirely unexpected. That it is on rova, the online radio and entertainment streaming platform that is a key part of MediaWorks’s digital strategy and presence most certainly is.
“I got brought it in and I said to the boss, ‘I’m not sure whether to shake your hand or give you a smack across the chops’. He said something like, ‘I think the handshake is the better option’,” he chuckles. “But I know
these guys. I’ve worked with them and business is business. I’ve always tried to keep good working relationships with people. It’s really important.”
The handshake acted as an olive branch and the two sides were able to come to an agreement, although
he acknowledges MediaWorks did have to work to rebuild that trust which was lost in such a publicly spectacular fashion.
Before starting his own, Duncan admits he didn’t know much about podcasting or how they worked. To that end, he told MediaWorks he absolutely needed their support. They assured him he had it. He was able to bring his Today FM producer with him, the studio was rearranged for the new format and the company committed to getting behind the new show with a marketing and promotion blitz.
“Honestly, if they hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be sitting here right now talking to you,” he says. “I’ve got seven or eight people on this team who are really behind me. They’re here every morning filming, getting the marketing out on the radio, running advertisements and promotional stuff for the podcast, and getting billboards in place. I couldn’t honestly put my hand on my heart and say that they could do much more for me.”
Of course, MediaWorks is not doing all of this out of the kindness of their hearts. Duncan is quick to say that he needs to deliver results. It’s his name on the show and, as he literally is the Editor-in-Chief armed with complete control that title suggests, I wonder if the buck now stops with him in a way it maybe hasn’t before.
“When you’re presenting programmes I think the buck always stops with the front guy,” he says. “When I was at ThreeNews or Newshub the buck stopped with me because I was political editor. If we made a big mistake the buck stopped with me. I’ve never been one to shy away from that. At Today FM my name was on the show. If we’d hung around a number of years and the ratings collapsed on me then I’m responsible. While it is my podcast and I’m the editor-in-chief, it’s a title. You’re still a servant to someone. I’m under no illusions. I’m under the MediaWorks umbrella.”
Then he laughs and says, “I don’t walk up to the CEO and say, ‘Can you see me in my office please?’”
Duncan may be new to the podcasting game but he’s attacking it with the same enthusiasm and tenacity he displayed as a hungry political editor stalking the corridors of the beehive in search of his next scalp.
He’s excited by the format and the freedoms it offers. He describes the massive landscape and lack of strict rules as “liberating”.
“If I want to do something, I do it,” he says. “But that comes with a responsibility to be a broadcaster that is decent and fair and balanced and also to push the boundaries. It’s our job to push the boundaries. Otherwise, all we get is propaganda and spin.”
With Editor-In-Chief Garner isn’t dramatically reinventing the daily magazine-style news podcast or himself, but he is leaving room to work around the format and react quickly to what works on the show and what doesn’t.
“It has to be authentic. I’m not going to be something or someone I’m not,” he explains. “In my private life, I’m the same person. I’m not someone who comes to work and flicks a switch to be someone else. I go hunting, I spend time in the regions and the bush, go fishing in the south. This show is about real people, not spokespeople. I wanted there to be earthiness. I’m going to stick to what I know”
However, one area where he’s branching out is in the marketing of the show – even going as far as writing the radio ads and PR and promo material for the show himself. Unlike the majority of new podcasts, Duncan Garner Editor-in-Chief already has advertisers and sponsors onboard. Obviously, having the might of MediaWorks behind it helps, but Duncan also says it’s his unique relationship with advertisers that have seen people keen to back his venture.
“While the audience is really important so are commercial partners. When people back you I’m not one to take that lightly. I consider that an engagement. If someone’s putting money into my show so I will go out there and do what I can for them.”
He talks warmly about long-term commercial supporters who he has forged personal relationships with.
Far from sitting in an ivory tower, he’s travelled out of town to bring some celebrity glamour to advertisers’
work events and routinely visits workplaces of show sponsors to meet the people and find out all he can
about their businesses.
“That’s what I do. I don’t just take. You do the hard work and form relationships and put yourself out there and go meet them, shake hands, look at them in the eye and get to know them,” he explains. “It’s crucial. I couldn’t just take the money and not have a relationship with someone. Life is a two-way street. You can’t just take.”
Even though podcasts are big business these days, a survey last year found 30 percent of Kiwis
listened to podcasts each week outpacing the 26 percent of the US, UK and Australia, Duncan says the format has opportunities for advertisers and marketers that are yet to be fully realised.
“Every podcast hangs around and stays there,” he says. “You can advertise on my show and you will own every other show behind it as well. So if I’ve got 50 shows I’ve done and you decide you want to come and sponsor it, your name goes on all of them. This is in its infancy. I’d get in on the ground floor if I was an advertiser because podcasts sit on massive platforms like Spotify and so forth. And it sits there forever. You’ve got all that back traffic and you’ve got all that forward traffic.”
Which, in the case of Duncan Garner Editor-in-Chief is a lot of traffic. He tells us that after only a fortnight the show has already hit the prestigious No.1 spot on rova. He admits that this brings its own pressure. I can’t tell if he’s joking when he says the podcast, “keeps me awake at night”.
“I’ve always been a big believer in that if you are true to yourself then the people will come,” he says. “We’re really proud of it and pleased with the way it’s gone. The marketing, advertising and backing have all helped get it out there because we don’t have a radio show supporting it and pushing people to it. This is just a podcast. But my philosophy has always been, ‘I’ll get up earlier than you and I’ll go to bed later than you’. When you’re sleeping, I’m working, and I’ll get something you haven’t got.” I know how to work hard. I’ve found the energy again. I’m excited by this. You can probably hear that in my voice?”
There’s no denying Duncan sounds reinvigorated and jazzed by the brave new world in front of him.
“I’m loving this,” he beams. “I can just go for it. I don’t have to say anything or do anything. I’m not saying there won’t be standards anymore. You have to have standards, and I always will. But if someone drops the F-bomb, or they break down, or they cry, or whatever, well, this is a podcast. There’s no dumping anyone. You’re gonna hear their stories. You’re gonna hear their life.”
Then with a big exhale he says, “and that’s really powerful.” They’re the moments you live for aren’t they?
“As an editor-in-chief, phwoar… That is it,” he says. “Life in all its glory. Warts and all.”
Duncan Garner Editor-in-Chief is available on the rova app and all other podcast platforms.
This article was originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of NZ Marketing. Click here to subscribe.