The Perfect Mix: Duncan Campbell’s arrival at ARN proved a radio hit
A lot can happen over a decade, especially if you want to top the radio ratings.
A little over ten years ago a newly-installed chief executive officer of Australian Radio Network, Ciaran Davis, was searching for fresh blood to lead content for the industry’s underdog.
The broadcaster looked very different in 2010, with the now-defunct Mix and the now-thriving Pure Gold stations struggling to gain momentum up against fierce rivals.
In Sydney, there was only one show to beat in the competitive Sydney breakfast timeslot: Kyle & Jackie O on 2DayFM. Oh, how the tables ultimately turned.
Hungry for success and ready to make his first senior content hire, Davis set his sights on an Australian programmer making a name for himself overseas.
Duncan Campbell, however, was more than settled in the UK. He had a great gig as the regional program director for Bauer Media-owned stations in Scotland.
“I had a great life in the UK,” Campbell tells me, “I’d been there for seven or eight years at that point. I was thinking about selling or leasing my Sydney apartment.”
Campbell was in his Edinburgh office at Radio Forth, on Forth Street, in Forth House when industry consultant Phil Dowse called with an invitation to meet Davis.
“I had no intention of ever coming back,” he admits, “but I’ve always had the philosophy, never say ‘no’. So I drove to Glasgow in the early hours of the morning for a video link-up with Ciaran and one of the other directors at the time, Richard Herring.”
Two weeks later Campbell was back in Australia for a pre-planned visit. He’d leave with a new job.
The trip included a “discreet meeting” at the old APN offices (now HT&E) in Pyrmont, Sydney. The very same building that today is home to competitors including Nova and smooth.
Pictured: Inside the KIIS Melbourne studios, now home to Jase & PJ on Breakfast.
Upon meeting face to face in the ground floor lobby of 33 Saunders Street, Campbell recalls Davis saying “we better get upstairs, you might be recognised”.
Talking to Radio Today as he celebrates a decade of service to ARN, Campbell now laughs at that first exchange between the two soon-to-be partners in crime.
“Come on, Ciaran. I haven’t been here for eight years. No one knows who I am, don’t worry.”
But that was all about to change, partly by design and with some old fashioned luck.
The radio executive admits he left Davis’ fourth-floor office with an employment contract in hand, and a knot in his stomach, as he wrestled with the idea of returning home.
“I was torn about coming back. When I got to Bangkok, Ciaran was on the phone again. I was trying to find a way out by asking for silly things like dropping the probation period.”
But he “didn’t want to die wondering” even though “ARN wasn’t a great network at the time”.
“ARN was a bit of an industry joke, the ‘any revenue will do network’ or the ‘Austereo retirement network’. But I could see that it was a company that had some good assets.”
As luck would have it, the history books now show that joke is on the industry.
Campbell made sure a very clean structure, free from layers of red tape, allowed for swift decisions. Something his competitors couldn’t match given their size.
Davis was new to radio, but he understood speed was a strategy and that content was king.
Pictured: ARN chief Ciaran Davis wins coveted CEO Magazine award in 2014.
“The decision-making was very easy,” Campbell recalls. “And probably the best thing that happened? Ciaran understood that ratings and revenue equalled results.”
There were some missteps and bad decisions along the way. Fortunately for Campbell, the family motto is ‘we shall persevere’. It’s a motto he brought to ARN, and one that’s served him well.
“The milestones within these ten years seem like they’re only yesterday. So it’s been quite an extraordinary journey. Full of mistakes and false starts.”
It’s also been full of surprises, perhaps none more so than the moment he realised he was in with a chance of luring Kyle Sandilands and Jackie ‘O’ Henderson away from 2DayFM.
As fate would have it, they had crossed paths at 96FM in Perth where Sandilands ran the Black Thunders and, according to Campbell, where the future shock jock “slept with half the staff”.
Campbell was walking into ARN’s Sydney studios on Byfield Street after grabbing a bite to eat when the receptionist at the time said he’d missed a call from “a guy called Kyle”.
The deceptive exchange that followed was a plea from Sandilands to meet with his then manager, Andrew Hawkins, about some young bands singed to King Kyle Records in need of airplay.
Campbell and Hawkins agreed to meet at Silverchair Cafe, just up the road from ARN.
“So these young bands, tell me about them?” Campbell recalls asking. Then Hawkins dropped the bomb. “Oh, I’m not here to talk about the bands. I’m here to talk about Kyle & Jackie O.”
The timing was perfect. Both Campbell and Davis were losing sleep over Mix 106.5. Just one day prior to the call from Sandilands, the pair were discussing what to do with the station.
“I just never imagined them leaving 2DayFM. I just thought they were wedded to the place. That was the beginning of the cloak and dagger meetings in various hotels around Sydney.”
Pictured: Kyle & Jackie O at a radio conference with Duncan Campbell in 2016.
At the demand of Sandilands, Campbell and Davis agreed to change the name of the ailing Mix 106.5 to KIIS 106.5, marking a new starting line not just for the station but for the network.
The stakes are high when you’re playing radio roulette. But it was a game well played. And it wouldn’t be the last time Campbell made another throw of the dice against all odds.
He and Davis did it again in 2018 when they booted Jo Stanley and Anthony Lehmann in favour of British export Christian O’Connell. A decision that stunned many, including this writer.
Like with Sandilands, Campbell had crossed paths with O’Connell. They were introduced by radio consultant Dirk Anthony while cutting a show demo in a back studio at 2CR in Bournemouth.
“I’d actually forgotten about that encounter, but when I reconnected with him, I said, ‘I know we’ve met somewhere’. And finally, it came back to me,” Campbell says.
“He mentioned 2CR and I went ‘Oh, that’s right. I met you’. We had that moment where we realised, yes, we had actually met all those years ago in the UK.”
Less than two years after touching down in Melbourne, the Gold 104.3 Breakfast host shot to #1 FM in survey seven of 2019 along with another great talent get, co-host Jack Post.
Pictured: Gold 104.3 host Christian O’Connell with Duncan Campbell at an event in Melbourne.
In a lengthy Facebook update about his tenure with ARN – a post that sparked the idea for this story – Campbell spoke of health issues, personal loss and the need for a huge dose of tenacity.
“We turned an ailing network and an industry joke into the number one network,” he writes.
“What luck that I got to work with and got to know Gary Roberts in the late ’90s and again what luck that he was available and said yes to returning to 96FM to lead that station to a strong #2.
“What luck that I got to work with Phil Dowse, Alan Logan, Anthony Xydis and Derek Bargwanna for without them we couldn’t have achieved the success we have, and what luck that my CEO was Ciaran Davis for without his support nothing would have been possible.”
While the post could be interpreted as a farewell to radio, don’t be fooled. While Campbell knows the industry he loves is changing, shrinking, hurting, he’s not resigned. Not in the slightest.
“As we move towards a digital audio future, I look to the next ten years with the same energy, excitement and determination to win that I’ve always had,” he writes.
“And if in the first ten years we can achieve the level of success we have, then I wonder what we can do in the next ten years? My motto is ‘Let’s not die wondering’ – so we won’t.”