ONE of the few advantages of a bad back, in addition to providing a ready excuse for the odd fluffed drive off the tee, is the early hour at which discomfort banishes sleep. Rise sore before the sun, boil the jug, make the coffee and smile at feline hypocrisy as the toast turns brown. Minutes earlier the little ball of spite was savaging toes beneath the quilt, all mad black eyes and ears in killer mode, flat against an empty skull. Pass by the fridge, however, and the scourge of mice and sparrows becomes a symphony of purrs and plaintive squeaks, all the while cutting chicanes on the tiles and pleading for the morning’s saucer of fish-flavoured stinky stuff. Robert Heinlein called it right when he noted that women and cats do as they please; dogs and men need to get used to it.
With the cat preoccupied, that leaves only the radio for company, which mostly means Fairfax’s 3AW, far and away the highest-rated station in Melbourne. New Fairfax chief Greg Hywood has brought in KPMG to sell it off as part of a job lot that includes all the other stations in the company’s portfolio – part of his push, along with outsourcing sub-editors, to save his company from the consequences of a decade-or-more’s gross mismanagement. The chain should fetch around $300 million, which Hywood will probably use to pay down a mountain of debt and, if the analysts are right, boost the share price from the dismal to the merely bleak. Desperation’s game plan makes sense, as far as it goes, but on a weekend morning, as the magpies wait by the pond for their bacon scraps, it is hard to hear what is being said on air without suspecting Hywood’s preferred course will prove to be a further misstep, and probably one of the last, before the receivers arrive. In the long and sorry saga of Fairfax stupidity this move may well prove to be the most culpable by a country mile.
Actually, it is not what is being said but who is saying it. Every Saturday morning, 3AW hosts an extended segment called Buy, Swap and Sell. Listeners call in to announce their garage sales, unload old bicycles, bedroom suites and bridal gowns. There are scores of sellers on any given weekend, and many come from places where Melbourne’s other Fairfax product, the Phage, must move copies only in the single digits. Taylors Lakes, Narre Warren, Reservoir, Werribee, Ferntree Gully – locales that were home to John Howard’s fabled battlers. In other words, places and people your typical Fairfaxista sees as dog dirt wrapped in brick veneer.
The Fairfax view, as haughtily expressed by Silly media writer Tim Dick, is that “the tenor of this type of talkback doesn't sit well with what people expect from broadsheet newspapers.” Therefore, because he and the likes of Jonathan Holmes don’t have much time for unfashionable plebs, the radio stations have to go. We all know about throwing out babies with bath water, but this is much worse. This is keeping the suds and chucking the best hope for the future.
Imagine if, instead of retreating to its black-clad, green-striped, latte-flecked comfort zone, Fairfax were to decide that its best hope hangs on an expanded, broader audience. Rather than sacking sub-editors, the first step would be to clean house of the precious-pie writers and editors who take pride in their apparent conviction that the Phage’s audience starts with admirers of David Hicks and ends at climate catastropharians. Perhaps, if Hywood were to poach, say, cartoonist Mark Knight from the rival Herald Sun, potential readers might see a sanity to balance Leunig’s twee fixation with ducks, curly flowers and his own wonderfulness. The key to that approach would be 3AW, whose audience shops at stores that advertise hardly ever, if at all, in the Phage. Go through the Saturday Phage and the most striking thing, other than the amount of time and money wasted on packaging the same old drek in a shiny new design, is the absence of those same ads. If not for the head-hunters’ executive employment listings there would be virtually no advertising in the main body of the paper.
So imagine, if you will, what opportunities might arise if the Phage took some of its human furniture to the tip, keeping just enough to retain the existing readership. Imagine, too, that the paper recruits writers who are aware that the Monash Freeway extends much further than Hawthorn, that there is an entire, promising world of potential buyers and advertisers in those unfashionable suburbs, including the sneered-at outer suburban ones. Get the new recruits behind a studio microphone at 3AW to talk about their scoops and stories and the idea might take root that the Phage actually cares about Middle Melbourne and shares this city’s concerns -- the yobbos on its train lines, the snarling traffic that daily ties up the Westgate Freeway all the way to Hoppers Crossing, the rip-off revenue cameras that mine millions of dollars from the pettiest speeding violations. A few people who know that uninvited graffiti is vandalism, not art, also would come in handy, as would some fresh heads who understand that ethnic teenage gangs in places like Noble Park demand stories about poor policing and the decline in public order, not windy essays about root causes and white Australian racism.
Hywood was hailed as the newsman Fairfax needed at the helm. He may be that and more, but if the Buy, Swap and Sellers cannot be persuaded to give the Phage another chance, Melbourne will soon be left with only one newspaper, a terrible one (apart from Andrew Bolt), and we will all be the poorer, starting with Fairfax stockholders. Even a retarded cat can grasp that a switch in attitude and behaviour often brings the desired result. Hywood, one would hope, is smarter than a cat.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The Professor dumped all Fairfax stock back when Fred Hilmer was backing Margo Kingston’s Web Diary as the future of the Internet, rather than buying a piece of Seek.The share price was just north of $5 at the time. As of trading's close on Friday it was $1.04.