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The Sydney Morning Herald

Breaking up is hard to do

Author: Sue Javes
Date: 25/11/2002
Words: 1860
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Guide
Page: 6
2Day FM is selling The Morning Crew reshuffle as a seamless, painless affair. Sue Javes tells a different story.

Don't be fooled by the striped dressing gown and dishevelled hair - Wendy Harmer is no down-trodden, suburban frump. She's a very astute, talented and highly focused professional, firmly in charge of her destiny and, to a large extent, dictating her place within Australia's biggest radio empire.

For the past decade, Harmer has been compulsive listening for 600,000 Sydneysiders who tune into 2Day FM at breakfast. Normally at this time of year, she and her on-air cohorts, Peter Moon and anchor Paul Holmes, would be winding down. Instead, Moon has left the show for good and today Melbourne stand-up comic Greg Fleet makes his debut as Harmer's new sparring partner.

If the Austereo spin-doctors had their way this would be a warm, fuzzy story about good old "Moonie" deciding after eight laugh-filled years that he wanted to pursue a film and television career, with "Fleety" happening along at the right time to fill the breach and Wendy just happy to fit in with everybody, concerned only with making her listeners feel good in the mornings.

But that would be to assume 2Day FM listeners are mugs, and that commercial radio is a community service rather than a cut-throat, profit-driven business. Besides, it's much more interesting to try to decipher the real story behind the break-up of Australia's most successful on-air partnership.

The Guide doesn't pretend to know all the machinations behind Moon's departure, but we can go some way to separating the facts from the spin.

Spin No 1 Wendy Harmer had no intention of leaving the show

"The reports earlier this year were a bit of a beat up," Harmer told a trade magazine last week. Yes, some journalists are guilty of gilding the lily, but Harmer has publicly flagged her intention to leave 2Day since 1999. "When my contract is up I will head off into sleep-in land. I'm really looking forward to a new beginning," she told The Guide back then. When she signed her next contract the following year, she told me: "Two more years and that's it. That will make 10 years of breakfast radio and that's enough for man, woman or dog." Late last year she was floating the idea of starring in an Oprah Winfrey-style TV show.

Certainly executives at the Australian Radio Network (ARN) took her restlessness seriously in August when they attempted to woo her across to WS FM. An annual salary of $2.25 million was discussed, but ARN baulked at the idea of a hefty sum up front to compensate Harmer for the six months she would have to stay off-air due to a "non-compete" clause in her Austereo contract.

By the end of September Harmer had recommitted to 2Day for another two years, with an option for a third. So why the sensitivity? Why not just say, "I changed my mind"?

Spin No 2 The on-air tension between Peter Moon and Wendy Harmer was mostly an act

Publicly, 2Day FM executives played down the very real tension between their two major breakfast stars, but for a long time they thought privately it was the key to the show's phenomenal success. In reality, Harmer and Moon have never been close and differences between them over the show's direction were a significant factor in the split. They've always operated from different cities, with Moon broadcasting remotely from Melbourne, a fact Austereo was never keen to see in print.

"Let's face it," a source close to the show says, "there are many on-air teams who don't like each other. The remarkable thing is that despite their differences, despite the fact that they were broadcasting from two cities, they created great radio. It's amazing they lasted so long."

Peter Moon and Wendy Harmer are up-front about the tensions. "We've always been chalk and cheese, even when we were working in theatre restaurants 20 years ago," Moon says. "There was so much argy-bargy and conflict that some of it came through on air, which people thought was all part of the act. But every good actor reveals a certain truth, and it has never been an easy relationship."

Says Harmer: "Conflict is there and always has been on air. We never started out being friends or colleagues. We didn't choose each other to work with. But the fact is, we've been able to work together harmoniously for eight years. It's a pretty fantastic achievement, I think. We've lasted together more than most marriages."

Spin No 3 "Moonie" chose to leave the 2Day show of his own accord

The truth is, in the months leading to the break-up, both Harmer and Moon contemplated leaving the show. But in the end, Harmer was given the opportunity to re-sign and Moon wasn't. The new deal between 2Day and Harmer, which involved her working with a new partner, was struck in September. Moon was kept in the dark for more than a month.

Earlier in the year, management sounded Moon out in very general terms about his interest in staying. Moon was non-committal, saying he was unhappy with the direction the show was taking and wasn't sure he wanted to keep working with Harmer. He advised them to negotiate with her first. They never came back to him. By August, reliable sources knew Moon was getting the flick.

One version is that Harmer gave management an ultimatum, along the lines of: "It's either him or me." A softer version is that management and Harmer mutually agreed the show would be better without Moon. They felt his set comedy sketches and on-air "characters" were out of fashion and a more conversational, free-flowing style would sound more contemporary.

Harmer herself is adamant she did not at any stage say: "It's him or me." So how involved was she in Moon's departure?

"Not involved at all," she says. "I said that I was going and they said, 'Come back and talk to us', and I said, 'No, I think our partnership is over'. And then they said, 'Well, how about if there was a new partnership - would you like to work with someone else?', and I said, 'Yes'. And that is the absolute truth. I did not engineer him leaving at all."

Harmer also denies personal factors drove them apart. "No, I think he is a really talented person and a really funny guy. But we were really at the stage where we needed something extra to come into that show. We were finishing each other's sentences. It was getting predictable. Also, he and I had quite different opinions about what we'd like to do. Quite clearly, the show was going into that confessional, revelatory feel, and Peter's not comfortable doing that."

Moon, who is technically contracted to 2Day until the end of the year, is reluctant to discuss the ins and outs of his departure but says whatever led up to it, it is the right outcome for him. And he confirms his philosophical differences with Harmer.

"It was time for me to leave, and it's true, I have some projects in television and film I want to pursue. I didn't like the Jerry Springer influence on the show." He refers to the time 2Day hired a private detective to see if a listener's husband was visiting prostitutes. "I don't want to take the moral high ground, but to me it's an attack on people's dignity, even though they are complicit. I'm committed to being a comedian - not standing above people, but being a part of the human mess."

In September, in what was clearly a trial run, Fleet filled in on the breakfast show while Moon was away. By late September, Harmer had secretly agreed to a new contract, before boarding a flight to Los Angeles to cover the Emmy Awards with Moon. He was not told until the end of October.

His first hint of what was happening came from this newspaper. He has since told friends there were some classic signs he was in trouble. His regular monthly flight to Sydney was downgraded from business to economy and for the first time he was asked to pay his room-service bill - $22 for a club sandwich.

Spin No 4 Moon's departure is no big deal

"It's an evolutionary change," says 2Day program director Rob Logan, "not major." In fact, altering a breakfast show in a highly competitive and volatile market, particularly a show as successful as The Morning Crew, is a very big deal. Replacing Moon with Fleet is a critical strategic move, designed to ensure 2Day stays ahead of its rivals - particularly new FM station Nova - for the foreseeable future.

Despite the show's No 1 ranking in the FM market, there are signs its phenomenal run is starting to wane, particularly at the younger end of the market. More than 50,000 listeners in the 18-35 demographic switched to Nova in the past year. This is partly a generational problem that eventually affects all popular stations. The Morning Crew's listeners are getting older. The 25-year-olds who started listening 10 years ago are now 35; today's 25-year-olds are more likely to listen to Nova.

Harmer's presence on the show is pivotal. 2Day's private research shows audiences consider her the linchpin. Austereo's share price was $1.85 when it floated last year, but with increased competition that figure has dropped to $1.50. To lose Harmer would have been a devastating blow.

But there was a need for regeneration. Moon, in his 50s with teenage children, unhappy with the confessional style of radio Harmer likes and out of the loop in Melbourne, was expendable. It was a tough decision, but privately a number of executives from rival stations believe it was the right one. Given the way it was handled, however, it would be understandable if Moon felt some bitterness. And the spin, in an industry full of it, was inevitable.

Wendy Harmer has little need to be defensive. Hers is an extraordinary success story. A young, motherless country girl born with a cleft palate who overcame major adversity and used her wit and determination to build a career as a stand-up comic then claim her own successful ABC TV show, before conquering Australian radio.

She now presents a role model that clearly impresses listeners, particularly the women who make up the bulk of her audience. A successful marriage, healthy kids, fat bank balance, hilltop home with panoramic ocean views, attentive bosses and still the ability to make us laugh. She's living proof girls can have it all.

The Morning Crew, 2Day FM, weekdays 6-9am. For a profile of Greg Fleet, see page 4.

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