Leader Profile: Cathy O’Connor on falling hard for radio

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 21 February 2019
Cathy O’Connor

This first appeared in the AdNews February 2019 magazine and is part of our Leader Profile series. Support AdNews by subscribing here.

More than a decade as CEO of radio giant Nova Entertainment and Cathy O’Connor still feels likes she’s in a new role. We speak with the top exec about her ‘meteoric’ rise, leadership, triathalons, and more.

A glance at many media execs' CVs and you’ll likely see flits at varying channels — a few years in publishing and then over to TV or a stint in media agencies before going client side. But, take a look at a radio exec’s CV and most seem to bound into radio, get sucked in and often never leave.

Born in England to an Irish mother and Australian father, Nova Entertainment CEO Cathy O’Connor is the very hallmark of such a trend having last month ticked off her 17th year at the Illyria–owned radio network. With more than 30 years in the sector, her tenure includes a healthy run at the helm as top boss for more than a decade.

“Radio gets into your blood,” told AdNews. “I think there’s something about the live 24/7 nature of it that is inherently exciting. It’s a hungry beast because it is live and it is every day and by its nature it’s very topical.”

From FM radio’s music scene to the activation space, she describes it as a fun, competitive and successful industry — and “a really healthy sector”. She added that as assets, radio stations are tightly held, people tend not to sell them very much in Australia as they’re all doing well; they’re still growing audiences, growing revenues and in most cases, growing profit. As a result, that always means there’s healthy competition and often heavy investment to protect the businesses. 

This first appeared in print

Where it all began

O’Connor initially planned to study law at university, but a friend encouraged her to have a look at one of the newer courses, communication and media, as it looked “much more fun”.

“I was only really doing law because I didn’t know what else to do, but when I heard about the course, I thought, ‘that sounds more like me’," she said.

After responding to an advert in the newspaper, which was for a marketing and communications executive, it turned out to be the radio station she had listened to for her entire teenage years, 2SM.

It was the mid–80s and it was looking for a graduate to help with a piece of research the station had developed around the power of influence that teenagers had over their parents.

At that stage, 2SM had a high percentage of teenage listeners as many over the age of 18 had migrated to FM, which had launched five years prior.

“They felt they needed a graduate to be able to take the story of the influence of the teenage listener and connect it with advertisers. So, from the get–go I was with the sales team, in front of agencies pitching,” O'Connor said.

After some time in radio, the travel bug bit and she was off on a gap year around Europe. During that time, O’Connor applied for and was offered a job at Capital Radio in London. However, the radio scene and Australia ended up proving more of a lure.

“I often reflect on what my life would had of been like had I taken it, but after travelling for a year I decided to instead return to Australia and to my first job in the industry in FM radio, at Austereo as account manager,” she said.

“I had only ever worked in AM radio prior to that and I loved the success and momentum that FM radio was starting to see in the industry.”

It’s from here, in 1990, under the guidance of radio stalwart, entrepreneur and founder of Austereo and DMG (later Nova Entertainment), Paul Thompson, that her career began to take off.

After one year as an account executive and two years as a sales manager, O’Connor became general manager of 2DayFM at the age of 29.

“There was something quite rapid — meteoric, you might say — about the rise there. I put that down to my boss and mentor at the time, Paul Thompson,” she said.

Thompson is a huge part of the history of FM radio in Australia.

“He was a supportive boss that believed in giving people opportunities where he saw potential, not necessarily conforming to a resume. I think he was always looking for alignment to the sort of culture he espoused," O'Connor said. "I learned a lot from working with him."

Speaking in O’Connor’s sizzle reel video at her entry into the Commercial Radio Hall of Fame at the 2016 Australian Commercial Radio Awards (ACRAs), Thompson recalled promoting the ‘up–and–comer’ and praised her integrity, passion and compassion.
“Back at that time, the appointments of women, particularly young women to senior roles, was at least unusual, and probably even considered foolhardy by some people,” Thompson said at the awards.

In taking on the general manager role, O’Connor, who was for years successfully generating revenue for the business, said she learned to back herself despite her a lack of experience as history told her that she had always risen to any new challenge in the past.

“I think there’s something quite courageous about trying something different, putting a younger female into a role like that with limited management experience by industry standards at the time, let alone general management experience," she said. "I think he saw something in me that he felt was right for that time and for that business.”

Arrival at the C–suite and gender blindness

After switching networks to join the now Lachlan Murdoch–owned Nova Entertainment in 2003 as MD, some five years later in 2008 she was promoted to CEO. More than a decade in the top job and being one of Australia’s few female chief executives of a major media company, O’Connor has been a beacon of inspiration for many. She personally mentors a handful of young women and has always done so.

On the big and well documented concerns regarding the lack of more senior women in radio, O’Connor said this very much sits alongside issues around company culture and what is often an unconscious bias.

“Interestingly, it wasn’t a female that pulled me through the ranks, it was a male, and he was gender blind. He did not see male or female, he just saw potential. I’m incredibly fortunate to work for a board that is the same at Nova Entertainment,” she said.

“Gender imbalance is a systemic issue. My approach has always been you can only do what you can do from where you sit. So, get your own house in order and certainly at Nova, we try to do that. We’re a 60% female–based workforce and that includes in our management levels.”

On the transition to the C–suite, O’Connor explained how she felt ready to take on the leadership of the company and had already started to develop her own views of how she thought the business could evolve.

In 2009, shortly after O’Connor became CEO, Lachlan Murdoch’s Illyria purchased a 50% stake and management control of what was then DMG Radio. At that stage, Nova was eight years old in metro radio and had plateaued after a successful start. In 2012, Illyria purchased the remaining 50% of the company that it did not own from ​Daily Mail and General Trust​.

O'Connor, Group Programme Director Paul Jackson and Chief Marketing & Digital Officer Tony Thomas

Most of O’Connor’s tenure as CEO has been under Illyria ownership and has involved a re–authoring of the company’s strategy, which has led to the success it enjoys today. O’Connor described how Lachlan Murdoch came to the business passionate, driven, ambitious for it and keen to do great things.

“He wanted to do big things, things that we hadn’t done before and also brought a creative and a commercial perspective to how the business could run," she revealed.

O’Connor said that over her years as CEO she has developed the courage to make big decisions.

“You realise, particularly when the stakes are high or you’re in a crisis or something, decisive leadership is what is required," she explained. "Decisiveness comes from experience and as a core skill required in a leader, it's a little bit like public speaking. You don’t get better at it without doing it."

O’Connor feels like she was at her most decisive when it came to the launch of smoothfm in Sydney and Melbourne. While she said for the most part, agreement and collaboration was high, there were some things she insisted on, like the name 'smooth'.
"When those things become successful of course, confidence builds,” she explained.

Change is unnerving

Despite a lengthy career, an impressive slate of achievements, overseeing two troublesome stations and relaunching them as smoothfm, launching Nova’s live music Red Room events, forming partnerships in e–sports, and even launching a creative experiential agency known as exp., O’Connor said there is no time to get comfortable in her role.

“The rate of change in the sector does not allow it” she emphasised.

O'Connor lives in a constant state of thinking ‘what might happen, what could happen’ and “resetting the contest” is the business of radio, it's in her DNA.

The Sydneysider and mum of two said she’s also learned to hire people who like to think that way too.

“We’re constantly just trying to reframe it and saying, 'what does 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 look like'? Culturally, I think Nova Entertainment is that business where it’s always looking to take it to the next level.”

With the rate of transformation within the space, O'Connor does admit that change is unnerving “but you just work with it”.

“I’m inherently an optimistic, collaborative person so I will always approach any situation with what I can and can’t change, and my capacity to influence a situation,” she revealed.

“The ability to keep moving forward, not getting derailed if a call goes your way or it doesn’t, or a budget doesn’t get approved. For the most part, I think you build your autonomy through delivering results.”

Life beyond radio

We all know how consuming the industry can be, especially for top execs, but with such a solid and long career in the sector, what does life look like beyond radio?

Admitting that her role in radio is naturally a “big part of life”, O'Connor said she tries to commit some time to doing not–for–profit work.

“I am becoming better at creating balance in my week and my absolute saviour throughout a good part of my working career has been a love of fitness,” she said.

“I enjoy fitness. I’m an achiever. I like goals. I like having plans to get from A to B and therefore I like putting exercise through this process by saying ‘I’m going to run this race’ or ‘I’m going to do this triathlon’ or ‘I’m going to run this far’."

With about 10 sprint triathlons under her belt, as well as the popular Olympic–length Noosa triathlon, O’Connor said it’s the shorter distances that give the thrill and the variety that a triathlon brings — “they also require less training!”

Due to the fast–paced CEO lifestyle that’s accompanied by travel and functions, O’Connor said she prefers the simple things in life such as being at home, walking her dog, listening to podcasts and cooking.

With two daughters (above), one of whom graduated from a media and communications degree and is new into a PR job, is O’Connor encouraging radio careers for them?

"I expect they will make their own decisions about that. I wouldn’t want to influence them either way," she said.

"Having said that, I think media more generally is a great career and will require new skills in future so I’d be very happy if either of them ended up in media. It’s early days, so we’ll see.”

The future

In terms of what is next for O’Connor in her role, she said there’s as much opportunity as there is threat for radio, be it changing consumer behaviours or what she sees as a renaissance in audio due to podcasting and connected devices like smart speakers.
“I just see opportunity everywhere but increasingly it’s different skill sets, different executives, and different capabilities that need to be introduced into the team.”

O’Connor admitted she has no specific CEO bucket list, but it’s “intensely enjoyable” working through the changes in her industry.
“The question I ask myself constantly is how are we going to sustain what has been 10 years of success in the next 10 as the world is changing, and of course, that change is accelerating.”

“That’s just evidence of me reframing the challenge, which I’ve always done. Technology and consumer behaviour, the emergence of tech platforms, the changing criteria of advertisers, the emergence of new business models; it's important to keep up with that.”
With not one of her 10 years as CEO the same, she added, “this is a new job to me, the one I’m doing now.”

Did you see our interview with News Corp's Siobhan McKenna?

Check out more Leader Profiles here.

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