Alan Jones is known more for his sharp-tongued rants on radio than his sense of humour. Nevertheless, when he emerges after the first hour on-air at Macquarie Media’s studio in the Sydney suburb of Pyrmont the first thing he says is a joke.
“Here comes the ogre,” he says. “Are you surprised I don’t have horns?”
It’s just after 6am and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have been invited into Jones’ inner sanctum ahead of an extensive interview. It comes as the 78-year-old 2GB presenter endures the most turbulent year in his career to date.
When Jones starts his show he sits behind his microphone in a camel-coloured coat and begins to warm up his croaky voice. A listener phones in shortly after to advise his producers off-air that eating strawberries eases a sore throat. It’s a sign of the close bond the talkback host has with his devoted audience.
And on this particular morning, the real star of the show isn’t Jones at all but one of his listeners. Brisbane-based blind chocolatier Gerrard Gosens calls in and reveals he intends to shut his confectionary shop because an infrastructure project has reduced foot traffic severely.
“I can’t trade anymore,” the former paralympian tells Jones on-air before crying. “It has taken 10 years to get here … It’s hard to survive.”
Jones asks the chocolatier to email him so they can continue the conversation off the radio. (Adam Lang, the chief executive of Jones’ employer Macquarie Media comes in after the call. There’s an agreement with the producers that ending the conversation before it became “too much” was a good decision).
“A lot of people turn to him because they don’t know who else to turn to,” his executive producer says.
The 2GB team later tally up multiple offers of shop spaces and thousands of dollars in donations to Gosens. Jones buys $1000 worth of chocolates himself.
This is what is dubbed “the Alan Jones effect” by advertisers. It is radio gold. But moments like this also make it hard for Jones to accept growing complaints that he is offensive and misogynistic.
Socks and backhanders
It was a similar morning on August 15 when Jones launched into the now infamous attack on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on his Breakfast Show, saying she should be given a few “backhanders” and that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should shove a sock down her throat.
The groups who are aggrieved by his comments see a direct link between the type of language used on the radio and a culture of violence in Australia that leads to the abuse of women. But the Jones camp sees this as unfairly blaming him for the behaviour of other people and unrelated to his morning show.
Last October, Jones was forced to apologise for saying that Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron should be fired for objecting to an advertisement for The Everest horse race being projected onto the iconic building’s sails.
Jones insists he has no problem with women. “There’s a file this thick,” he says, gesturing to his desk, “[of women I have helped who] would regard me as being unfailingly courteous to women. I’m very old fashioned about some of these things. I don’t run around using bad language in front of women.”
Russell Tate, the chairman of 2GB-owner Macquarie Media, issued a statement a matter of days after the Ardern comment, warning that if his star broadcaster made one more misstep he would be fired.
“To be honest with you about that [the Ardern comments] … when the team here told me I said that I didn’t believe it. Because, you see the speed at which you speak here,” Jones says. “So I went in the studio and listened and there it was … I immediately wrote to her [Ardern].”
Jones says Ardern handled the comments with “good grace” and thought her joke about the Bledisloe Cup – that revenge was best served through an All Blacks win – was a “good answer”.
Jones has been criticised throughout his career. But you get the sense he is puzzled by the ferocity of that criticism over the past 18 months.
“I don’t pump up my tires, I hardly ever talk about myself … but I have worked for a prime minister and coached [the Wallabies] and run a radio program. Now, I wonder what some of these people have done?” he says.
In August 2018 Jones was criticised for using a derogatory term for African Americans on air. A month before, he was found in court to have defamed the Queensland-based Wagner family by wrongly saying they were responsible for multiple deaths in the 2011 Lockyer Valley floods. This led to a $3.7 million payout.
The Ardern comments have now resulted in the biggest advertising boycott in the radio network’s history, with more than 100 brands distancing themselves from the show amid pressure from online activist groups Sleeping Giants and the Mad F—ing Witches.
Jones has been criticised by politicians including former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and even the current PM Morrison. “We’ve made mistakes,” Jones admits. “I don’t go out there deliberately and say ‘right, today I’m going to be provocative’.
“I don’t do that. But at the same time, I am going to continue to express my views. It seems over the years people have wanted to hear them,” he says.
“You think of all the other people in the radio industry that have been beaten and disappeared and gone into the ether. We’re still here because I think people feel we make a worthwhile contribution.”
One change in the weeks since his comments about Ardern is the introduction of extra “dump” buttons in the studio by the radio network’s management.
These bright red icons on several computer monitors allow producers to take advantage of a seven-second delay and stop damaging material from going to air. A review of 2GB is still underway, which the producers say so far involves reminding everyone in the team of their responsibilities when it comes to inappropriate content.
The measures have failed to quieten his critics, who Jones believes want him sacked. He also thinks they hold him to higher standards, as they see him as influential and because he holds far right-wing views on hot button issues. Among his more controversial positions is his support for Israel Folau who was sacked by Rugby Australia after posting online that “hell awaits” homosexuals.
Jones has also criticised the hundreds of thousands of school children and adults who attended climate change protests on Friday, inspired by 16-year-old global activist Greta Thunberg, describing the rallies in a Daily Telegraph column on Tuesday as driven by “ignorance and emotion” and suggesting children should instead “just stop using electricity”.
“It appears that not only are the proponents [of the strikes] poor on science, they are not too flash on maths either,” he wrote.
The backlash Jones experiences online and the comments from those who are politically left-wing has been “violent”, “vulgar” and “threatening”, he says.
“They want you to die, they want you to be killed, they want you to have a stroke, they want to dance on your grave. It’s endless and it’s insidious, it’s persistent and it’s not just me [who cops it].
“Now, I don’t run around bullying or shouting at people. Yeah, on air, every so often I’ll get a bit excited but I’m doing a million words a day,” he says. “I just want people to be sensible and reasonable and balanced.”
Those who oppose Jones often say the same things about the radio veteran, and point to a string of highly-criticised comments as evidence he is a bully and misogynistic.
He repeatedly mentions that his staff have, collectively, worked for him for about 130 years. Some of his most senior team members have worked behind the scenes on his show for decades, he says, in response to some of the accusations.
“You know it’s just nonsense but you have to live with it don’t you?”
He also denies he aims to “influence people” such as political leaders, though Jones does speak at political events, attend fundraisers and make donations. Most in the media industry would agree that the simple fact he has a large audience means he has sway over politicians regardless of his own intentions.
“If Scott Morrison doesn’t want to talk with me or Malcolm Turnbull, that’s their business. I just keep going. But I’ll continue to say that I think the tax policy, or whatever it is, is wrong,” he says.
“[My view] has the capacity to influence people to think, because they trust me, and they may vote accordingly. But I don’t back off because it’s a Liberal person or a Labor person or a man or a woman or whatever.”
This time last year Jones wasn’t sure he would even have his show for much longer.
There were near-daily headlines about his future employment, including a Herald article in October headlined “2GB wants Alan Jones out” and in The Telegraph in March: “Radio king Alan Jones eyes career switch as contract nears end”.
Jones says it was “appalling” to watch the sensitive discussions end up in the papers. “There was no doubt that there were people thinking that this was the opportunity, given that a contract has to be renewed, to make sure it wasn’t. And that was very public and you have to get used to stuff being written that’s completely untrue,” he says.
The negotiations were delayed by a merger between Nine Entertainment Co and Macquarie Media’s then major shareholder Fairfax Media, which completed at the end of 2018.
Ultimately, Jones’ contract, which pays him about $4 million-a-year was renewed at the end of May for a two-year period. It came amid speculation that Nine chairman Peter Costello, who knows Jones well, had intervened. Sources close to Nine have repeatedly denied Costello’s involvement.
“I think it’s fair to say both of us have made it our business not to speak,” Jones says. “I would have had two conversations with Peter Costello this year because I think both of us regarded that was proper. I’ve had one conversation with [Nine chief executive] Hugh Marks.”
Nine is the owner of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. It owns 54.5 per cent of Macquarie Media, which owns 2GB, and is in the process of moving to total ownership.
Jones does not have opinions yet on what life will be like under Nine ownership, or about Marks, but he does not expect extra protection as part of a larger media organisation.
“No one deserves to be protected. We don’t have rabies, we’re not infected, we’re a very successful program.”
The relevance of ratings
Despite the online backlash and the significant loss of advertising revenue, Jones recently celebrated his 221st survey win with a 17 per cent audience share, continuing his record-breaking run.
About 120 people email Jones daily on average in a mixture of feedback, comment and stories of business and personal hardship. At 11.40pm on Monday, Jones says, a farmer called to discuss his difficulties due to the drought.
“My listeners, I always say, are my best researchers in a way so I’m not – as you can see – picking up the paper reading off the front page,” he says.
The emails are printed out and handed to him in daily stacks. He replies to them all – dictating his answers for transcription and typically avoiding using a computer. Jones often also uses a dictaphone to record his two weekly columns for News Corp’s The Australian.
His desk is piled high with these back-and-forth emails, which he rifles through regularly to find an anecdote or comment to emphasise his point.
“Whether [critics] like it or not there is a reason why I’ve won 200-and- something surveys … and it’s the same on Sky News, my two nights on Sky News are the highest rating … every week,” he says. “We must be doing something right.”
While he’s open to talking about many topics, there’s one he doesn’t dwell on – what would happen if he left 2GB?
“I’m under contract and everything here but if I left tomorrow it wouldn’t affect me,” he says. “I’m well off. I can manage … But I do feel a high sense of responsibility to the people around here [who have mortgages and children].”
“That’s the one thing I never think about … I’ll be as bored as all hell.”