When the powerful want to talk to Melbourne, there’s one man they choose: Neil Mitchell.

Jeff Kennett and Steve Bracks checked into his studio once a week. John Howard and Kevin Rudd called in once a fortnight. And Ron Walker, Christine Nixon and Andrew Demetriou are others who have used him as a message service.

“Everyone goes to him,” says pollster Gary Morgan. “He’s the doyen of Melbourne radio.”

For the past 24 years, the bearded wonder has steered debate in the bleak city with his three-and-a-half hour morning show, which attracts a daily audience of about 380,000. His regular column in the Herald Sun has added to his firepower.

“Politicians believe we’re all-powerful,” Mitchell tells The Power Index, “but it’s really the audience, not us. If you don’t read them right, you’ve got no power. If you take them along with you, you can do extraordinary things.”

And tuning into his audience is his forte. “Mitchell understands the psyche of middle Melbourne and plays to it remorselessly,” says one former Melbourne editor. “He knows which issues will play to his listeners and chooses his topics accordingly. He knows exactly when to rant and when to pontificate and, because he knows that, he is a formidable player in setting Melbourne’s agenda.”

Or, in the words of The Age’s opinion editor, Paul Austin: “Mitchell has an unerring feel for what issues will resonate in Melbourne. If Mitchell grabs hold of an issue, all associated with it are on edge.”

Certainly, no one wants to get him offside. “No one in state politics or football would dare embark on anything bold without the support of Mitchell or the Hun,” says the former editor.

Mitchell’s big “achievement” this year was to bring down Melbourne’s Police Commissioner Simon Overland after a relentless campaign of criticism that culminated in the accusation that Victoria Police had cooked their crime statistics. In 2008, his big influential win was to get former Liberal opposition leader Robert Doyle elected lord mayor of Melbourne in a close race.

But while there’s no doubting that Mitchell rules the local radio waves, his ability to set the nation’s agenda is much more open to debate. Former Labor finance minister Lindsay Tanner believes he is “very important at a state and city level, but he’s very state focused”.

A prominent Liberal powerbroker also reckons his power is limited. “He doesn’t have anywhere near the influence of Alan Jones or Ray Hadley in Sydney,” he told The Power Index. “Do you hear a lot of people talking about Neil Mitchell’s opinions? No.”

Media watcher Peter Maher (and former managing director of Rehame) once claimed that Mitchell and 3AW tag along behind The Daily Telegraph and Sydney shock jocks when it comes to setting the national agenda. But Patrick Baume of Media Monitors is not so sure, telling The Power Index that Mitchell lands more big political interviews than Jones or Hadley, has a broader audience and takes a more balanced view of issues. “He’s more influential in his market than Jones is in Sydney, partly because of the feeling that you don’t know exactly what he’s going to say.”

It’s worth remembering, too, that it was on Mitchell’s show in the 2010 election campaign that Tony Abbott declared the death of WorkChoices, signing a paper to say the policy was “dead, buried and cremated forever”. And it was Neil’s dogged questioning that pushed him to it.

Unlike his ruder, rougher Sydney cousins, who claim to be “entertainers”, Mitchell is a journalist at heart. He doesn’t do live reads or advertisements and was never involved in cash for comment. He has nothing like the ego of John Laws, the bile of Jones or the rudeness of Hadley, whose on-air approach he describes as “hysteria”.

“I don’t think the style of Sydney radio would work in Melbourne,” Mitchell told The Power Index. “I respect their work, but I don’t like what they do.”

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey