20 Mar 2023

Another top-tier departure rocks MediaWorks

From Mediawatch, 6:02 pm on 20 March 2023
picture of NZME's Dallas Gurney

NZME's Dallas Gurney Photo: supplied

MediaWorks’ news boss Dallas Gurney has resigned, soon after the sudden departure of the chief executive who appointed him - Cam Wallace. It leaves a leadership void at the broadcaster at a tricky time and it casts a shadow over the future of its talk radio network Today FM. 

MediaWorks appointed Dallas Gurney - a former editor-in-chief and general manager of Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport - as its Director of News and Talk in September 2021.

He had the tough task of setting up a new news operation quickly after the Newshub operation was taken out of MediaWorks in the sale of the TV arm of the company to Discovery. 

MediaWorks still owns half the country’s radio stations - including The Edge, Breeze, The Rock - and the Rova platform as well as a billboard advertising business.     

Gurney was also hired to build and brand a new station in a tough talk radio market dominated by his former employer at NZME. 

A year ago, MediaWorks was preparing to fire up Today FM in a blaze of publicity promising “news that moves us forward”. 

It replaced Magic Talk, a talk-music hybrid network whose reputation had been dented by controversial on-air comments from big name hosts from the past, which had alarmed advertisers and prompted an expansive - and expensive - review of the company’s culture. 

In April last year, Gurney told Mediawatch the Today FM team was "about 50-strong in total - with about 20 in news" and had also invested in news podcasts. 

"We can punch above our weight," he said.   

Gurney said “engagement” was not the only measure of success.

"All it does is lead a host to talk about topics they know are going to hit an emotional hot button. Talkback has a bad name as a result of it. We want to restore some credibility," he said.

But a year in, the approach has not yet restored the ratings. Surveys showed audiences were not joining the new station’s flagship shows in droves.  

MediaWorks warned its previous coupling with Magic Music made it impossible to compare this year’s audience research with previous ones - and Gurney insisted it was a “long term project.”

Chief executive Cam Wallace also gave the station personal backing, and the board green-lit the spending of a reported $9m to set it up and promote it. 

But in late January Wallace announced up to 90 jobs would go to cut costs in response to “inflationary pressures plus a likely recession this year.”

Last month, Wallace announced his own departure to take up a job at Qantas. 

Today MediaWorks staff were told Gurney would also leave the company in May “to move on to his next career challenge.”

In February an unnamed MediaWorks source told Stuff that Today FM was “a vanity project” and profitable parts of the company had been cut back while Today FM had been spared. 

“They are forcing the revenue-generating and most profitable part of the business to make wholesale changes that have no chance of succeeding,” the source said.

In April 2022, Dallas Gurney told Mediawatch that Today FM would "take risks."

"I want people to wonder what we will do next," he said.   

It remained to be seen if interim chief executive Wendy Palmer, an experienced media executive, and the MediaWorks board were also committed to the long game in talk radio. 

Private equity business Oaktree - an investor in MediaWorks since 2015 - now owned 60 percent of the business and was widely believed to want to sell it. But Wendy Palmer’s memo to staff also noted “the reduced likelihood of an IPO (initial public offering) in the near term.”