August 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Waking up with Mr Jones

By Kathy Marks
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It is 7.17 a.m. in the Sydney studio of Channel Nine’s Today show, and Tracy Grimshaw and Karl Stefanovic are preparing to quiz a British scientist who uses pickled gherkins to explain the Big Bang theory. Later in the program, entertainment reporter Richard ‘Dicky’ Wilkins will demonstrate the latest in foot-massage technology. First, though, viewers must swallow their medicine: a two-minute dose of Alan Jones on one of his pet subjects, the national water crisis.

The daily rant – or the “editorial”, as Jones primly calls it – perches uneasily in a show of bland interviews, chirpy chatter and lightweight infotainment, the televisual equivalent of fairy floss. At 7.18 a.m. the mood changes. Jones appears on screen. He has a fixed expression of vague indignation and is conservatively dressed in a jacket and tie. He neither changes clothes for his TV appearance nor has make-up applied – he doesn’t need it. “Alan comes into work impeccably groomed,” says one of his aides, “at 3 a.m. every day.” He is reading from an autocue. His lips move rapidly, his eyes keep blinking and occasionally his eyebrows shoot upwards to emphasise a point. A tiny smile accompanies his sign-off: “I’m Alan Jones.”

On Sydney radio, where he hosts the high-rating breakfast shift on commercial talk station 2GB, audiences adore Jones. On morning TV he is like an undertaker gatecrashing a children’s party. Industry insiders say people switch off in droves. Channel Nine denies this. Figures supplied by ratings agency Oztam suggest that Jones’s impact is neutral. Whatever the truth, his capacity for survival is unquestioned. He has outlasted Steve Liebmann, the veteran presenter who retired in January, and a long procession of executive producers. In March a remarkable anniversary ticked by: Jones had been opining day in, day out on TV – barring occasional technical malfunctions – for ten years.

Kerry Packer, Channel Nine’s owner, is widely regarded as holding the key to Jones’s durability. The two men have been good friends for years, and Jones is also close to James Packer, Kerry’s son. One former executive producer of Today says: “I took it [the editorial] as a given, like the weather. If you’re asking me whether it was something I could get rid of, the answer would be no. I was told: ‘There’s the Alan Jones editorial on the program, and it stays on the program.’”

It does seem that Jones, who declares an income of $10,000 to $100,000 from Today on the 2GB website, is a law unto himself. He alone selects his topic for each day and decides how long he will talk for; his 90- to 120-second slot regularly spills over into three minutes. The editorial is filmed inside his own 2GB studio, where a Channel Nine crew is dispatched to record him during the 5.30 a.m. radio news bulletin. It is only when the tape arrives back at Nine’s headquarters, barely an hour before it goes to air, that the producers have any inkling of content or length.

On one occasion last year Jones was forced to apologise to viewers after the network broadcast the wrong tape, putting to air a first-take in which he stumbled while reading his script and then “blasphemed”, as one newspaper put it. Another time a sound recordist reportedly received a stern dressing-down from Jones after turning up in a back-to-front baseball cap. For all his faux-joviality – “well good morning to Karl and Tracy and everybody,” is his greeting most days – there is no apparent rapport between Jones and the studio presenters. He tries even less hard to engage with viewers. He fixes them with a baleful stare and lets rip.

“Radio is adversarial,” says Mark Day, media commentator for The Australian, “but TV is an entirely different beast. People don’t want you coming into their living room and stuffing your opinion down their throat.” David Marr, former Media Watch presenter, believes TV exposes Jones’s popular public persona as a “synthetic” facade. “The mask is too obvious on TV,” says Marr. “The sense of him being a person in hiding is very strong. You can’t have a relationship with him, and nor does he have any humour or charm.”

Jones’s previous stab at TV – an Australian version of the US talk show Larry King Live in 1994 – was pulled after a few weeks. So why does he persist, daily, in a medium that does not suit him? It’s to do with ego, say the pundits. Today offers Jones a national audience; 2GB reaches no further than Sydney and its environs. He is perhaps the only broadcaster in the land who, for a few minutes each day, can be heard simultaneously on radio and TV. From 7.18 until 7.20 – and sometimes until 7.21 – Jones is actually competing with himself.

Besides, Jones’s Today show gig is not an especially burdensome one. He covers identical territory in his daily comment piece on 2GB: immigration, multiculturalism, national security, over-regulation of business, hoons brawling on the weekend. He has been known to quote verbatim from the morning papers. Michael Darby, who worked for him for four years back in his days at rival radio station 2UE, claims that Jones’s staff write most of his editorials for him. Jones says that’s not true. But it is true that Today viewers are seldom serenaded with scintillating prose. “Well, it’s a big day for many today. Never mind many, everybody. Interest rates. The Reserve Bank board meets today …”

In the past year Channel Seven’s Sunrise has overtaken Today in the ratings. Channel Nine, eager to claw back viewers, has hired a new executive producer to give the show a newsier feel. Sets have been refurbished, newsreaders reshuffled and the weathergirl is now a weatherboy. Steve Wood, the senior Nine executive who hired Jones in 1995 and who was in charge of the overall running of Today until he himself was retrenched in June, says every inch of the program has been scrutinised. So did he ever consider axeing Jones? “No,” says Wood.

Kathy Marks
Kathy Marks is the Sydney-based Asia–Pacific correspondent for the Independent. She is the author of Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed. @kathymarksoz

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