What any radio presenter needs is ‘stickability’. You need to give the audience a reason to stick with you rather than twiddle the knob and tune into a different station. In commercial radio that’s doubly important, as the presenter isn’t in total control of that because of the adverts. Hook and teasing before a break is an important part of the repertoire. Jon Gaunt was a past master at this, and bizarrely it forms a big part of his new podcast, which has now been going for more than a month. He’s getting about 4-5,000 downloads a day, which for a new podcast isn’t bad going at all.
The reason for his success is that his podcasts are quite addictive. If you miss one, you feel that you need to go back and listen in case you missed something. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have listened to every single one. Gaunt and I are poles apart in style and approach, but I’m a comparative newbie in the radio world. He’s been doing it for years. Just as I listen to Iain Lee and a few other presenters to pick up a few tricks, I don’t mind admitting I do the same with Gaunty (as he likes to call himself). In fact, as a radio presenter, the day you think you’ve got it licked and have nothing more to learn is probably the day to give up. But I also find myself enjoying what he does, slightly to my own surprise. I like the way he’s been honest about the big events in his life and career. I like the way he’s quite open about the fact that he is on his uppers. He’s told us in great detail about why he’s parted company with all the people who’ve employed him. It’s not meant to engender sympathy, but it’s quite engaging. And that’s why this Podcast works.
Gaunt and I have had a couple of run-ins on Twitter over the years, not least over his role in Plebgate. He threatened to sue me at one point. He even wrote on Twitter that I had begged to go into business with him, when the truth was that it was he who approached me to set up a successor to the late less-than-lamented SunTalk. He wanted me to approach Lord Ashcroft to fund it. I declined on the basis that I didn’t think it was possible to make money out of it. At the time – and this was back in 2011, I think – I was right. I probably still am, given the apparent failure of Fubar Radio, another venture which Gaunt was involved with and left in high dudgeon. This happens to him quite a lot, although in Fubar’s case he certainly had right on his side.
So who is Jon Gaunt? Well, he’s probably the nearest thing Britain has ever had to a shock jock, until Katie Hopkins arrived on the scene. Suffice to say there’s not a lot of Gaunty love for Hopkins. At his height, Gaunt won several Sonys and was riding high as the mid morning show host on talkSport. He also had widely acclaimed shows on BBC London and one or two other BBC local radio stations, like Three Counties Radio, one of the best BBC local stations. However, his career went into a tailspin in 2008 when talkSport sacked him after he called a local councillor a “Nazi” and “an ignorant pig” during an interview about whether smokers should be allowed to foster children who were in care. Ofcom found against him and he took the case to the High Court, even attracting support from Shami Chakrabarti and Liberty, but he lost at all stages. Quite outrageously so, in my view.
He then spent a year hosting a three hour show on Suntalk, an internet radio experiment, which I occasionally guested on, but the audience failed to grow, mainly due to lack of cross-promotion in the newspaper in which he wrote a weekly column. Then came a flirtation with UKIP, where he failed to become an MEP candidate and subsequently resigned from the party accusing his local branch in Coventry of failing to tackle racism. Then came Fubar, which he left after they failed to pay him.
He started his podcast in late March and although at first he attracted some ridicule from the snootier side of the radio industry, I reckon he may well have hit on something.
Essentially, it’s a very simple concept. He records 30 or 40 minutes every day in his spare bedroom, then uploads it to iTunes and various other outlets. During the podcast he gives his views on various issues of the day, has a rant or two, tells us about his everyday life and urges us to tell all our friends about it and get them to subscribe. The simplicity of it is a big part of its appeal. It’s just him. No adverts. No phonecalls. No guests. He keeps telling us that there may soon be adverts, guests and phonecalls and that people are offering him money to develop the podcast, but if that happens, I wonder whether it will lose part of its appeal. Let’s hope not.
One thing I was told when I started at LBC by James Whale and others was that to be successful in talk radio you need to give of yourself. You need to enable the audience to get to know you as a person. You don’t need to be a totally open book but the audience needs to know stuff about you. They might love you. They might hate you. That’s fine. The worst thing that can happen is that they don’t have an opinion about you. Jon Gaunt is a very marmite character. He has many devoted fans. Well he must do, otherwise he wouldn’t have 150,000 downloads in his first month, and all that has been achieved through word of mouth with no marketing whatsoever. But the truth is, even if you hate Gaunt you’d still want to listen to what he says, albeit in a masochistic sort of way. You might not listen every day, but depending on what’s in the news you know he’ll get you fired up. Think about many of the most successful talk radio hosts and they all have that in common – Whale, Ferrari, O’Brien.
Talking for forty minutes without a break and retaining people’s interest and attention is a talent, and Gaunt has it. Try doing it yourself and you’ll see how difficult it is. If I am honest I am not sure I could do it, and even if I could, would I be able to maintain a consistency of quality every day? Yes, there’s sometimes a bit too much repetition of subject matter, but he’s the human equivalent of a Jack Russell. Once he gets something between his teeth he doesn’t easily let go.
He has pet hates like “Little Owen Jones aged 33 3/4” and he can’t utter the words Nicola Sturgeon without calling her “Wee Jimmy Krankie”, and he has an almost visceral hatred of the BBC, albeit often with some justification. He is immensely boastful, sometimes rightly, but often it’s very overblown and occasionally laughable. The constant urging for his listeners to give him a positive review on iTunes and give him “Five Gold Stars” (sung like “Five Goooolllld Rings”) is a bit wearing but it’s almost become his catchphrase. Please kill me if I ever try to adopt a catchphrase. But even though all this can be irritating, just like his overblown use of rolled ’R’s, somehow it doesn’t matter.
So what’s the future? Podcasting is in some ways a bit 1990s, yet Jon Gaunt got into the iTunes top ten, beating Russell Brand in his first week. There are plenty of Podcasts that have more than 100,000 listeners, but they tend to be weekly ones rather than daily. The question is can Jon Gaunt move from around 5,000 subscribers to 50,000, and if so, how long will it take? Can it be done just by word of mouth or will it take a big marketing and advertising budget? Or, is the Podcast a mere stepping stone?
Gaunty protests that he has no desire to go back into mainstream radio, never missing any opportunity to slag off his previous employers, BBC local radio or indeed my radio station, LBC, which he refers to as “that little radio station in London”. When he was at his most powerful in radio this little radio station had around half a million listeners. It now has 1.3 million. I’ll forgive him for being a tad out of date!
What I can’t work out is whether Gaunt really does mean that he isn’t interested in working on mainstream radio ever again, because if he doesn’t he’s doing a very good job alienating programme directors! He said in a recent podcast he’d been approached by a BBC local radio station and offered a show, but had turned it down. There’s no doubt that this Podcast could be seen as the equivalent of a showreel, but frankly he doesn’t need one really. Everyone knows what you get if you take on Jon Gaunt. Radio needs big personalities and they don’t come much larger than life than him. I’ve always assumed that when the new batch of talkRadio DAB stations start next year he’d be offered a perch on one of those. Perhaps he already has and the Podcast is just a way of filling time between now and then and to get his name out there. Is this the future for all ex-Talk Radio presenters when we part company with our mainstream radio employers? I’m not sure it would be for me, but never say never. Especially when I am about to start a Political Books weekly podcast, but more of that anon.
Whatever the truth about Jon Gaunt’s motivations, and there’s part of me that can’t believe I am about to type this, it’s good to have him back.
I may not be able to give him the full five gold stars, so he’ll have to settle for four.
You can download the Jon Gaunt Podcast via iTunes or at his website. He is on Twitter @JonGaunt