By Michael Lallo
Tim Blackwell was barely out of his teens when he joined Nova in 2001. More than two decades later, he co-hosts the station’s top-rating national drive show.Credit: Dion Georgopoulos
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One is a conservative talkback radio legend, the other co-hosts a top-rating national drive show on youth-oriented Nova. Yet in 2019, octogenarian John Laws and Tim Blackwell, then in his late 30s, found themselves lunching together at Sydney’s exclusive Otto, where Beyonce, Zac Efron and other A-listers have also dined.
When Laws asked Blackwell what he’d like to order, he replied: “‘I’m just going to do, eat and drink everything you do’ – and I did exactly that, including the Wild Turkey and Coke at the end of the meal. Interestingly, he had the Wild Turkey in one glass and the Coke in another; he’d take a sip of Wild Turkey and then a sip of Coke but he never mixed them, which I thought was interesting.”
Blackwell (left) has admired John Laws’ radio career since he was a child.Credit: Dion Georgopoulos, Fiona Morris
There were many memories racing through Blackwell’s mind as he sat opposite the man nicknamed Golden Tonsils. He recalled reading Laws’ books and buying his albums of country poetry (a genre unlikely to be heard on Nova). He remembered Laws’ sonorous voice booming from the radio inside his childhood home. He even cast his mind back to the Young Talent Time musical kit his grandfather had given him. Tossing the guitar aside, Blackwell would plug the microphone into the amplifier, set himself up in the kitchen and “broadcast” radio programs to his mother.
When Blackwell’s Nova workmates learned of a charity auctioning off a lunch with Laws, there was no question they’d secure the winning bid.
‘They weren’t always that kind … they didn’t suffer fools.’
“It was just a huge honour [to meet Laws],” says 42-year-old Blackwell, speaking via Zoom from the Sydney studio where his Ricki-Lee, Tim & Joel program broadcasts to almost 1.6 million weekly listeners in the five major capitals alone. (Musician and TV host Ricki-Lee Coulter sits opposite him in Sydney while comedian Joel Creasey connects from Nova’s Melbourne studio.) “I wasn’t necessarily in love with what he was saying, I was just in love with the fact he was doing this as a job.”
Blackwell is a survivor in the notoriously cutthroat world of commercial radio. In 2001, he secured his first full-time job with Nova – where he has worked for 22 years straight, including a dozen years in drive – while finishing his studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Except he was forbidden from breathing a word about his new gig to anyone.
“I think the show has never felt more energetic,” Blackwell (centre) says of the program he hosts with Ricki-Lee Coulter and Joel Creasey.Credit: Nova
Earlier that year, Nova had launched to much fanfare in Sydney, styling itself as a hipper alternative to the then-dominant FM broadcaster, 2Day. Its initial owners, the Daily Mail Group, also purchased a licence in Melbourne but hadn’t revealed the station’s format.
“They said, ‘We’re going to give you $36,000 a year but we need you to sign a confidentiality agreement because if people work out we’ve employed someone in their early 20s, everyone’s going to know it will be a young station’,” Blackwell says.
“I just sat there and stuffed my face in front of her.”
He was then dispatched to a studio in Albury with the rest of the station’s yet-to-be-revealed line-up, including Nova Melbourne’s debut breakfast hosts Kate Langbroek, Dave Hughes and Dave O’Neil.
“[Preparing for the launch in secret] was the most exciting thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” he says. “Because we were all there together, building something from the ground up, that energy was infectious.”
Blackwell began with the music-based midnight-to-dawn shift. Although the hours weren’t ideal, the job was: since he was a child, he’d dreamed of being a music announcer. In late 2002, he was tasked with launching Nova in Perth. Every newspaper and TV station in town – as well as billionaire Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail Group – was there as Blackwell, trembling with nerves, became the first voice heard on air.
Nova Melbourne’s debut line-up in 2001. Left to right at back: Andy Ross, Josh Kirby, Dave O’Neil, Kate Langbroek, Dave Hughes, Brendan Dangar and Tim Blackwell. Front: Corey Layton and Justin Wilcomes.Credit: Nova
Lord Rothermere, then in his mid-30s, travelled from Britain especially to meet the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who agreed to help launch the station. Blackwell so impressed the group that they offered to play him a song, unaware that Perth band Jebediah were meant to be the debut musical act. (Needless to say, Jebediah were not amused when the Chilli Peppers re-tuned their instruments and unwittingly stole their thunder.)
Incredibly, launching a new station and hanging out with one of the world’s biggest bands was not the day’s highlight for Blackwell – meeting his now-wife, Monique, was. He shudders to think what he was wearing when he asked her out but suspects it involved some combination of skinny jeans, thongs, an artificially paint-splattered T-shirt and an excess of hair product. Nevertheless, Monique said yes and pencilled a date into her Filofax. (For those younger than 40, this is a personal organiser containing actual paper pages.)
Every year, Monique and Tim Blackwell celebrate their wedding anniversary with a room-temperature bottle of bubbly.Credit: Brianne Makin
One of their early dates was at Dome, a popular West Australian coffee shop franchise. When Monique told Blackwell she wasn’t hungry, he took her at her word, oblivious to the fact her measly salary meant she couldn’t afford a meal. “I just sat there and stuffed my face in front of her,” he cringes. “In hindsight, I probably could have shouted her a chicken salad.”
Monique had obviously forgiven him when, years later, she accepted his marriage proposal. In a villa in Santorini, Blackwell prepared for the big moment by placing some sparkling wine inside their minibar fridge, which Monique later removed to make room for water. By the time he proposed, the bottle was lukewarm. Now, they have three children and celebrate each wedding anniversary with a deliberately tepid glass of bubbly.
As a boy, Blackwell spent his early years in Hobart before moving to Sydney, then Washington D.C. (where he listened religiously to famous American shock jock Howard Stern) before returning to Hobart, then back to Sydney. As a teenager, he volunteered at various community and commercial stations and has worked for Nova in every major city except Adelaide, including a stint in Melbourne with Kate Langbroek and Dave Hughes.
“They weren’t always that kind … they didn’t suffer fools,” he says. “If you made one mistake on that show, you never made it again. But it was an incredible way to learn and they’re dear friends now. I’m so thankful to them every day – I’ve been doing a drive show for 12 years because of those guys.”
In 2020, Blackwell launched a podcast, Introducing With Tim Blackwell, in which he does in-depth interviews with musicians, and also appears on Nine’s Getaway and Today Extra. (Nine owns this masthead.)
Naturally, commercial networks slice and dice the numbers to their own advantage. Between 4pm and 6pm, when Ricki-Lee, Tim & Joel airs, the program was No. 1 in every major mainland city except Sydney in the most recent ratings survey. But technically, the drive shift is 4pm to 7pm, allowing other networks to claim victory in some cities.
In March, when Blackwell and Creasey’s co-host Kate Ritchie joined Nova’s Sydney breakfast show, Coulter replaced her. “I think the show has never felt more energetic,” he says. “Even the fact we have a new person in Ricki has refreshed mine and Joel’s relationship.”
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO TIM BLACKWELL
When Apple launched its iPod in 2001, Blackwell and his peers were convinced their industry was doomed. Since then, they’ve held their own against the rise of the internet, social media, and music and streaming services.
“No matter what technology has given us, we all still like the kind of connection that comes from radio,” he says. “We’re part of people’s routine, they share a sense of ownership over the show and I just think, ‘Who wouldn’t want that?’”
Ricki-Lee, Tim & Joel airs 4pm weekdays nationally on Nova.
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