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It’s a prediction likely to have ABC listeners reaching for the smelling salts: Gerard Whateley could be the next Alan Jones.

No, Auntie’s much loved former sports commentary doyen isn’t going to morph into a bloviating shock jock now he’s crossed the Rubicon to commercial radio. Rather it’s his potential impact at struggling Melbourne sports station SEN that’s drawing comparisons with the Parrot.

Whateley began on air yesterday, after his stunning New Year defection from the ABC to SEN, which has recently been taken over by Whateley’s onetime rival Craig Hutchison and his company Crocmedia.

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According to sports media expert Dave Lowden of La Trobe University, Hutchison’s recruiting coup could pay off as handsomely as John Singleton’s capture of Alan Jones from 2UE in 2002.

“In my opinion, the recruitment of Gerard Whateley to SEN 1116 is a coup, that has the potential to take the station to a new level,” he told Crikey. “It may be as important to SEN as the recruitment of Alan Jones was to 2GB. Whateley is quite possibly the best we have ever seen in Australian sports media at analysing and explaining the issues in and around sport to the average sports fan.”

No one familiar with Whateley’s work at the ABC would doubt that assessment, but those familiar with SEN might question whether it’s the right vehicle for Whateley’s bookish approach.

Rather than analysis and explanation, anyone tuning into “Melbourne’s Home of Sport”, is more likely to be met with endless tub-thumping about footy, talkback callers like Trout from Woodend or Snapper from Port Phillip Bay, and ads by Frank Walker from “National Tyyyyyyles”.

Understandably, it’s been viewed as a curious backward step for someone used to calling AFL, the Olympics, horse racing and cricket to a national audience.

Lowden says that analysis underplays not only Whateley’s appeal, but the ability and ambitions of Hutchison.

“New MD, Craig Hutchison has demonstrated with his own show on SEN and with regional football broadcasts that he can put together a content package that attracts national sponsors. It’s more difficult to pull in national advertising dollars but his track record would suggest he and his sales team can do just that if they can produce the right content.”

Readers might guffaw at the idea of Hutchison — a much derided former journalist, better known for his failed stint as host of the AFL Footy Show — as some sort of media guru, but it’s a view shared by numerous people Crikey spoke to. An “outstanding businessman” was the opinion of one.

Hutchison established Crocmedia as a sports broadcasting company which initially targeted regional radio rights, but has grown to become the AFL’s official commercial radio partner, on-selling broadcast rights to stations across the country. It has a similar arrangement with the FFA for A-League coverage and with Whateley coming on board, it’s likely cricket rights will be the next target in an attempt to build a truly national platform.

American sports are also likely to be a focus for SEN now Hutchison is in charge, with Crocmedia opening a New York office some years ago and Hutchison living there for half of the year. It’s telling that one of Whateley’s first big commentary assignments will be calling the Superbowl live from Minnesota next Monday — a first for Australian radio.

The change in approach and ambition has also led to a clear out of on-air talent, though even seasoned radio observers have been shocked by the ruthlessness of it. Much-loved drive hosts Mark Allen and David “The Ox” Schwarz finished their Friday show at 7pm on December 9 and had their passes and email cancelled by 7.05pm. Long-serving hosts Francis Leach and Mark Fine have also departed, while the Herald Sun’s chief football writer Mark Robinson has left the station despite the arrival of Whateley, his on-air partner at Fox Footy.

The changes come at a time when the future of sports radio is being questioned given the recent failures of EON Sports Radio, ABC Grandstand Digital and the rise of sports podcasts. If sports radio cannot work in Melbourne, then can it work at all?

Lowden, for one, is in no doubt that it can.

“I don’t think sports radio is past its use-by date. It just needs to be compelling listening. There is more work to do, but they are off to a good start.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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