For a business whose business is communication, the handling at the start of the week of the axing of former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas, by the newly renamed 24 hour Melbourne sports station, “the People’s Republic of SEN-AFL” was a complete debacle.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s how the Herald Sun and The Age covered it — but the guts of it, is that the radio station claimed that the reason for the axing of its most controversial commentator was purely financial, and no one, bar no one believed it … or believes it.

The more obvious conclusion was that Thomas regularly criticises the AFL and aspects of the AFL, and the AFL basically has SEN over a barrel with the radio rights up for grabs. It’s not only common knowledge in the industry that the AFL — mainly through their media manager Patrick Keane who regularly voices his displeasure directly to on and off air staff when he has an issue with something that’s heard — but they can then expect a follow up conversation from the “SEN-AFL” Programming Manager Mark Johnston.

That conversation from Johnston is hardly an encouraging word stressing the station’s editorial independence.

When the story hit the papers on the Tuesday morning, the station’s General Manager Barry Quick held the “fiscal” line as the reasoning on the SEN-AFL breakfast show, saying that Thomas took it (the axing) in great spirits and that, “we’ll no doubt catch up with each other for a beer soon.”

That of course sent the bulldust-o-metre through the roof, as did the post interview reaction of the host — or if you like the breakfast show’s Minister For Information — Andrew Maher, who said, “lots of calls about Grant Thomas, but we don’t want to talk about that, there’s much more interesting stuff happening in footy…”

So we’ll tell you a flimsy story and then censor what you can talk about on a talkback show.

Of course, the media — particularly the AFL media — love nothing more than talking about themselves, so the above situation was a gentle half-volley outside off-stumps to change sports for a metaphor, with the Herald Sun doyen Mike Sheahan chiming in with, “Freedom of speech gets the boot with Thomas sacking” and The Age’s equally respected columnist Greg Baum, whose column was “Radio Station’s axing of Thomas doesn’t add up“.

The AFL through various spokespeople said that they had nothing to do with the dismissal, and no one, bar no one believed it.

It was only a month ago that the breakfast show’s weekly contributor Simon Marshall — a contributor since the station’s inception in 2004 — lost his gig. Marshall was speaking about AFL umpires during his segment in what the AFL were considering unflattering terms, and the host of the show received a text messages from the AFL telling him to shut the former champion jockey up.

It was his last segment and this week he lost his racing show, “Hold Ya Horses.”

Now any publicity is generally considered to be good publicity, particularly when you’re a niche broadcaster (12th overall in latest Nielsen survey) but surely SEN management had the sense to sniff the wind and change or at least alter their line.

Nope.

So today, the Herald Sun footy writer Mark Robinson, himself a contributor since the station’s inception wrote a feature story, “How I also felt pressure.” It’s a courageous and worthy piece of first-hand journalism that reflects as badly on the AFL as it does on SEN.

Another contributor to the station, the multi-award winning Patrick Smith wrote about the sporting media losing two “jocks” in vastly different circumstances (Thomas and Matthew Johns) in his Australian column, but curiously the normally fearless writer held back when it came to SEN-AFL:

Grant Thomas was sacked by Melbourne sports station SEN on Monday afternoon. The former coach’s role was to supply feisty opinion and expert comment on football. Station management said his dismissal was for financial reasons, an explanation which the industry and community has taken to be a euphemism for excessive criticism of the AFL.

The end of Thomas has been interpreted by the hysterical as a dagger to the heart of freedom of speech. The Age appears deeply troubled by the issue. But the Thomas case comes in two parts. If the AFL is bullying station management to stop criticism of the league by its on-air staff, then that is a most unhealthy situation. The league would argue privately that it is entitled to look after the image of its product, especially those who seek to make money by broadcasting its fixtures. But heightened sensitivity is just one jibe away from censorship.

If, indeed, Thomas was instructed to temper his criticism by the station management and he chose not to, then it is Thomas who is the nincompoop. If he found the obligations placed on him so onerous that he could not be true to himself, then he should have resigned. To do otherwise, to deliberately flout instructions from his employer is to demand to be sacked.

His last point was the most interesting, and inadvertently underlined the silliness of the management’s public stance.

He’s clearly saying that the station told Thomas to ease up and he ignored them, so why has he let the station management off-the-hook in its limp “financial reasons” public statements? Surely Smith wouldn’t do that.

However its here that SEN management should realize all they had to say was that THEY didn’t like Thomas’s style so THEY made the decision to axe him. Sure “everyone” may have still assumed the AFL was involved, but at least SEN would look like THEY were controlling their own business.

Just finally it should be pointed out that the station “fights the good fight” way out of their weight division. Their parent company Pacific Star has a market capitalisation of $16 million, compared to other AFL radio rights holders, Fairfax Media (3AW) $2,634 million, Austereo (Triple M) $448 million and the government backed ABC.

They also should stop jumping at shadows, as the AFL needs them more than they think. They can’t afford to pay the big money that the AFL is hoping to get for the next round, BUT THE OTHERS CAN, so they are an important pawn in the negotiating rights.

“Racetrack” Ralphy Horowitz is a former Footy Show and Sunday Footy Show producer, and worked at SEN — pre-AFL rights — in the station’s first two years (2004-05) in on and off air roles.

Peter Fray

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