Ex-employees of traffic report monopolist Australian Traffic Network have rounded on their former firm as momentum builds before the “ageist” unfair dismissal case of Channel Nine helicopter whiz Jason Bouman.

In a series of exclusive interviews with Crikey, ATN staff have described a poisonous culture of back scratching and bullying at the private equity-owned conglomerate that soaks up more than $20 million a year in profits while its executives bank bumper $1 million pay cheques.

Two weeks ago, Crikey revealed that Bouman, 40, was suing ATN for $50,000 after he was sacked from Nine’s Today show in March last year and replaced in the skies by bubbly 24-year-old Amelia Oberhardt. The story was swiftly followed-up by Seven’s high rating Today Tonight.

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According to the C91.3 host’s explosive statement of claim, a text message allegedly sent to Bouman’s boss by general manager Bill Pezzimenti issued instructions to “get that f-cking fat c-nt off Channel Nine”. A blunt email from Pezzimenti to a manger in December 2010 said the respected reporter: “Looked like a mug.” Both came after months of personal reassurances that Bouman’s Today Show gig was safe.

Crikey can reveal that law firm Minter Ellison has been relieved of its duties in representing Pezzimenti and ATN, replaced by a fresh team from fellow blue-chippers King & Wood Mallesons. And three weeks ago, operations manager Steven Woods, who was repeatedly quoted in Bouman’s statement of claim telling him he was doing a top job, resigned his position. (Crikey understands that the Bouman case was a factor in Woods’ decision but that he was also keen to move to New Zealand with his wife).

Now, current and former staff are beginning to shine a light on the cut-throat culture inside ATN. They claim the relentless focus on the bottom line means “talent” takes a back seat to paid plugs for its corporate clients. And after the Bouman claim exposed the company’s inner workings, Crikey understands several major advertisers have begun to express concern about their association with a operation that insiders say represents the worst excesses of commercial radio’s notorious culture.

Retired former 2UW traffic legend John Costello — who was a dominant presence on the Sydney airwaves for 30 years — was withering in his assessment of the outfit he worked at until 2002:

“The best way to describe them is they are unbelievable when it comes to gaining the upper hand over people. They’re very aggressive, the executives give the impression they’re highly educated but in fact they’re not. Some of the current people that are managing the company … I wouldn’t have put them in that position.”

Nils Gustafson set up the ATN sales function in Sydney in 1997 until 2005 and is now a successful business owner. “The real problem with the way they behave … some of the words that I would use is highly insecure, paranoid, certainly manipulative,” he said.

“But [local management] has been left of its own volition to run the place from the people overseas from the directors of the company. There’s sort of an unfettered power there that they could do as liked and they would have no issue with it.”

Gustafson was highly regarded among other staff but his superiors viewed that as a grave threat. “Once it became apparent that other people would seek me for advice and assistance they used to get them into their office and tell them not to go and have coffee with me or not to talk to me,” he said. “Their attitude is very insecure … the bullying behaviour towards operational staff was absolutely replicated at a sales level.

“If you acquiesce to them and hang around and become their friends, you’ll get treated in a certain way…if you don’t it’s completely different.”

Don Moxham is a former gun 2GB traffic reporter for ratings kings Alan Jones and Ray Hadley and was close to both. Early each morning he would quake at the thought of a email arriving from management critiquing his performance.

“The first thing I would do at 5 o’clock in the morning was open my email … and it was the most stressful moment of the morning but you just never knew what they were going to do to you,” he told Crikey.

“You have to be focused when you’re doing Alan and Ray. They demand you to be there at their beck and call and it’s like if you want their contract you have to look after them. You have to be there quickly when they want you. It was this constant tugging back and forth and it really wore me out over a few years.”

Moxham says standards slipped as the company moved from a service and information provider to peddlers of a soulless product tailored to bland advertising. Near his home on the Sunshine Coast, the veteran had often heard reports by people “with single names such as “Darren” giving crap descriptions like ‘accident at Narangba’.”

“It’s just not a report, it’s shit. But that’s the thing that seems to be the flavourless nature of what they’re doing,” he said.

Another former senior manager recalls that like Moxham, sales staff were “permanently stressed and worried to open their email to see what ‘shit-o-gram’ mangers had written to everyone overnight”.

“They frequently asked me to ‘punish’ reporters if they thought they were not doing things the way he wanted — and most times these were whims, just him wanting to demonstrate their power over others,” they said.

ATN’s tentacles span all the major radio networks including Southern Cross Austereo and the middlebrow Australian Radio Network. It pays the networks for access and then hits up major corporates for serious cash with the boast of being able to reach the vast majority of the Australian population. It also provides a non-commercial service to the ABC that has the intangible benefits of building up ATN’s credibility as a news organisation.

n 2007, Media Watch slammed ATN’s association with the national broadcaster after one of its reporters mistakenly included an ad for UBD in a report put to air on Adam Spencer’s 702 show.

But ABC spokesperson Mick Millett told Crikey that ABC Radio was “comfortable with the ATN arrangement. It saves taxpayers money as we don’t have to allocate scarce resources to the task and they have established links with the information providers.” The previous reports provided by state government authorities were “boring as batshit”, Millett says.

ATN is a subsidiary of global New York-based behemoth the Global Traffic Network, which was sold last year to private equity company Gridlock Holdings for a bumper $US276 million. According to US Security and Exchange Commission filings, GM Pezzimenti, who lives in a lavish Sydney harbourside spread, was paid an humongous $US1,028,487 in cash and stock in 2011, including more than $US275,000 in bonuses. Its US-based chairman and president, Bill Yde, took home more than $US1.4 million. The company’s operations stretch across Canada and the United Kingdom and a growing global footprint is now mooted.

The Bouman case is slated to appear in the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal in October. The voice-over specialist, who declined to comment, is also seeking ongoing payments of $1000 and an additional $30,000 for hurt and humiliation and his demanding a public apology and anti-discrimination training for ATN staff.

Pezzimenti did not return multiple messages left on his mobile phone last week.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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