Sandringham. Bin night. 4.47am.
I’m obviously too late, because Matt Tilley is already leaning on a bin waiting for me as I pull up. The plan was to examine the morning routine of Fox FM’s top rating morning DJ, but from the moment the Tilleys cooled on my idea of sleeping on a trestle bed in their living room, capturing that first half hour was always going to be tough. We whisper our mutual greetings at a volume that couldn’t have been more respectful to the neighbours, then hop into Tilley’s car for a re-cap of what’s happened so far.
“Mate, every day the pattern is this,’ Tilley begins. ‘Alarm 4.10am. Up 4.11 or 4.12 depending on how tired I am. Two glasses of water with lemon juice, shower, shave, try to think of something mildly amusing that isn’t talking about blunt razors again, out of shower, dress, use juicer, apologise to wife about volume of juicer, kiss wife goodbye. Then jump into car and turn on Keith McGowan.’
A few seconds listening to the car radio reveals that Keith McGowan (the Keith McGowan from 3AW’s overnight Keith McGowan Marble Finders’ Show) does not share the same target demographic as Tilley. Whereas ‘Tracey and Matt in the Morning’ have risen to the top of the ratings by attracting predominantly 13-39 year old women, Keith seems to be concentrating a different cut of listener. One who wants his or her race tips a week in advance and at 4.58 in the morning.
‘The insomniacs and the old people love Keith,’ Tilley says as we turn into Brighton Road. ‘And I love him too.’
I ask Tilley whether there is any hint of station disloyalty in him listening to 3AW, and he explains that Fox doesn’t have that all important 5am news bulletin. He listens for the news. The angry woman now on air complaining about her new life in the shadow of a Windsor Smith billboard is just a bonus.
Ausstereo lifts, St Kilda Road, 5.09 am
Stepping into the lifts, I’m disappointed to note that the Triple M breakfast team (who broadcast from the floor below) aren’t there for some pre-dawn, elevator eyeballing.
‘Of course you want to win,’ Tilley explained of the ratings rivalry between the two Ausstereo stations. ‘We’ve got them covered at the moment because apparently women control the radio in the car.’
Inside the lift Triple M is blaring, which Tilley says is a sure sign it’s Thursday.
‘When the companies merged one of the biggest issues was who would control the music in the lift. They tried to work it so it would change once you went from Triple M to Fox, but it was too difficult. In the end they decided, ‘Bugger it, we’ll alternate days.’
As the doors open on level 3, for one magical, multi-demographical moment Aerosmith merges with Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, before the doors close and we enter the world of the Fox.
In the midst of office cubicles it suddenly occurs to me that Tilley has at his disposal more research on what women want than anyone else in the city. ‘Matt, what’s the key to attracting 13-39 year old women?’
‘Watch Friends and Ally McBeal,’ he replies offhandedly. ‘According to our research, all women in that age group do is watch tele.’
Tilley’s Office, 5.19am
Tales of luxurious dressing rooms abound in the television world, but for Tilley, pre-show research time is spent at a laminex bench in a communal production office.
‘Here’s the sort of cash for comment we get,’ Tilley laughs, pointing at the scheduling of an on-mike advertisement for chicken, apricot and macadamia rolls. ‘I am currently organising for an $8.95 chicken, apricot and macadamia roll to be dropped off at my house under the cover of darkness.’
But the joke ends abruptly when Tilley sees his other ad is for American Express.
A thunderbolt laugh heralds the arrival of Tracey Bartram, the Tracey half of ‘Tracey and Matt in the Morning’, and the woman who has proven that breakfast radio is made for people who speak loudly in a voice that forever sounds like its just woken up. They rattle through the scheduled topics with producer Mel Murphy, before Bartram retires to her separate office. I note that one of the phone topics for the day is bad drivers.
‘Are there any topics you haven’t done yet?’ I ask Tilley.
‘Nup. None whatsoever. There’s an Ausstereo top 10 – worst drivers, psychotic bust-ups. Basically anything that’s voyeuristic and dances on the graves of people who have had a terrible time in life.’
It’s a simple statement demonstrating that Tilley understands the commercial realities of his employment. Further, the headline in the copy of The Age in front of us is of billionaires, mistresses and secret payments, so we both just sit there quietly, leaving the moral high ground well enough alone.
Hubba Houghton’s traffic booth, 6.14am
I’m not allowed to sit in the studio with Tilley and Bartram, but any initial disappointment well and truly evaporate when Murphy says I can watch from Hubba Houghton’s traffic booth. Hubba is perhaps the most prominent example of the commercial radio traffic guru, whose main function is to let motorists enduring peak hour gridlock know that nearly everyone else in the city is as miserable as they are. Then on the off chance things clear up enough to allow someone to vaguely approach the speed-limit, Hubba tells us the location of speed cameras. A practice that is no doubt supported by people who speed, and not supported by people who have been killed by people who speed.
But for now, Hubba is yet to arrive, and I’m alone at his station, watching Bartram and Tilley talk about Bartram’s new garden umbrella. Basically all that can be observed about garden umbrellas is observed – garden umbrellas and wind, unpacking garden umbrellas, usage patterns for garden umbrellas, the weight of garden umbrella bases – before finally (and with an upbeat station sting) the segment is brought to a close.
I wonder how many people not involved in the garden umbrella game could have sustained the conversation as Tilley and Bartram just have, and at that moment have my greatest insight into the rigors of breakfast radio.
Haven’t moved, 6.26 am
Hubba arrives, and after a brief chat with Murphy, allows me to sit in for his first report. He even points out some of the trickier aspects of the job. One accident, for example, looks outbound because cars have crossed the median strip, but is inbound.
‘It’s a no win situation,’ he says with resignation. ‘People will ring up and tell me I’m a dickhead whatever I say.’
Twenty seconds later Hubba whirs into action, producing a seamless report. In four seconds he explains about the median strip and the inbound/outbound illusion. When he finishes, I congratulate him on his effort.
With a sigh, he sinks wearily into his chair and dumps his headphones. ‘Yeah. They’ll still ring up, though.’
Main studio, 7.15 am
There’s stirring stuff going on in the main studio as Tracey and Matt and a community minded sponsor rally around to send a teenage kid with life threatening asthma to the Grand Prix. The kid is so excited and so grateful that the cynicism I’ve been inclined to feel in the post Angry Anderson’s playground era is pretty much washed away. I’m not sure it’s even me who observes that the exhaust fumes won’t do much for his asthma.
Meanwhile, in the production office Murphy and assistant Sophie McGowan are trying to find callers who want to chat on air about the intimate details of their relationship.
‘Have you asked your partner?’ Murphy asks patiently.
‘Well why don’t you ring us back after you’ve asked your partner.’
Corridor outside production office, 7.43 am
‘Grandmas don’t come any better than that,’ Tilley says, ducking his head into the production office on the way back from the toilets. He’s referring to a caller called Gladys, who has just set the show alight by giving an on-air demonstration of her ‘Join in the Chorus’ Kangaroos doorbell. Gladys joined in the chorus herself, which brought the whole production office to its feet.
‘It’s great when other people do the work for you,’ says Tilley.
Corridor outside studio, 8.54 am
I rush to Tilley, microphone in hand, wanting to get that immediate post-show comment. ‘Just happy to get away with the four ratings points,’ Tilley murmurs, but breaks into a smile before he’s nailed the footy coach impression. Then Murphy appears and tells Tilley that the show isn’t over yet. There’s a segment to go. Tilley runs back into a now sundrenched main studio and within seconds becomes an Indian yoga guru.
‘We have a web-site too … dot commune dot com.’ The four points must surely be safe now.
Waiting outside the studio I meet ‘Coach’, who does the sports reports on the show. ‘Matt is the best in the business,’ he says in his distinctive drawl. ‘You know you can’t be as good as him, so it’s just great to know he’s on your team.’
Tilley re-emerges – this time without headphones. I ask what the day has in store. A production meeting, some pre-records, home by midday. Then the afternoon will be spent relaxing and doing things that are worth talking about on tomorrow’s show.
‘Radio’s changing I reckon. They don’t so much want jokes on what’s happening in current affairs, they want you to talk about your lifestyle, stuff people can relate to. So you’ve got to have a life in the afternoons. Go to the supermarket and stuff.’
If I were to be true to my own pre-interview goal of following Tilley in the detail of his day, I should be there at that supermarket, watching him gather groceries and material. Observing minutiae on somebody observing minutiae. But it’s hours before Tilley leaves work, and despite the hospitality now being offered in the form of Vegemite toast, it’s clear my day in the life of Matt Tilley will turn out to be a quarter of a day in the life of Matt Tilley.
‘Is there artistic merit in being a breakfast DJ,’ I ask, finishing off both question sheet and toast.
‘There’s not much artistic merit at all. A comedian might take a year to do a half hour routine, I do three hours a day, two hundred odd days a year. I’ve got the artistic merit of Ken Done at primary school.’
The tone is self-deprecating. The smile is humble. The proof that it works is in the ratings.