Today FM: MediaWorks needs to stay in local hands if it's to thrive - media commentator

It would require a major "strategic rethink" to keep MediaWorks operating in the New Zealand market, according to media commentator Dr Gavin Ellis, who believes the company is being transitioned into its best possible financial state before any sale would take place.

His comments come on the same day it was announced Today FM is facing the axe.

"Clearly the overseas owners want out. The owners were always intent on quitting New Zealand when they could. And I think [the Today FM news] points very clearly in the direction that they have every intention of doing that. I think that they are getting the company books in a state where they can sell it in the best possible condition from a strictly investment point of view," he told Newshub.

On Thursday morning, staff at Today FM were told of a proposal from the MediaWorks board to close down the talkback station. The station was taken off air just after 9.30am as a meeting was called with presenters and newsroom staff by MediaWorks Interim CEO Wendy Palmer.

In an audio recording of the meeting obtained by Newshub, Palmer was asked if the board intends to sell MediaWorks, to which she replies: "I guess that'll be the plan." She also said that they had tried to save the station.

"I give you my absolute assurance that I sat through meetings with the board last Wednesday, Wednesday before and absolutely, particularly last Wednesday, spoke extremely strongly against this and asked for more time."

When the news broke on March 20 that Today FM's director of talk Dallas Gurney had resigned just days before the station's first birthday, a statement from MediaWorks also signalled changes to the board itself.

"I would also like to announce further changes to the Board of Directors. Wayne Stevenson will step down from the board given the reduced likelihood of an IPO (Initial Public Offering) in the near term. Wayne joined the Board in 2019 following the merger with QMS NZ," Palmer said at the time.

"He became Chair following the release of the Workplace Review in 2021 and has helped us make considerable progress on implementing the cultural change programme. The Board of Directors now consists of representatives from our Shareholders, QMS Media and Oaktree Capital."

Stevenson had been the last local representative on the board, meaning foreign owners QMMS Media and Oaktree Capital had gained complete control.

However, Dr Ellis believes it's in the best interests of New Zealanders for the company to remain in New Zealand hands, rather than in those of overseas investors.

"I think that local ownership means a better investment in media from a cultural point of view and from a social point of view, as opposed to a strictly financial point of view. You have skin in the game if you're a local owner," he said.

Dr Ellis believes an entity like Sky TV should take a serious look at the possibility of taking on the company, should the opportunity arise.

"Sky could be in the game, particularly from the point of view of increasing digital assets and [moving them] into streaming radio and so on. Or alternatively, there could be a new player that emerges, somebody who is passionate about radio in New Zealand."

But Dr Ellis cautioned against any new owner of MediaWorks simply carrying on with the radio business in its current state.

"Remember, radio is a developing medium. It is going to move away ultimately from linear broadcasting and will be an entirely digital medium. 

"It's in that environment that I think a new owner would be most interested, because now broadcast radio is a sunset industry - it will need to change. A new owner would need to be thinking in a strategic direction rather than perhaps what we do [now]."