Chrissie Swan isn't afraid of opening up a can of worms, even if it's about her radio bosses.

Chrissie Swan isn't afraid of opening up a can of worms, even if it's about her radio bosses.

When asked about the culture of FM radio, one presenter described her managers as "men over 40 in acid wash jeans and Tintin gelled haircuts who enter a room scrotum-first".

That was a few years ago, with my source speaking anonymously.

A drop in ratings is the equivalent of about a million people saying all at once: 'Get off, you're not funny'. 

But now, the Radio Today website has convinced the industry's biggest names, past and present, to spill the beans – on the record.

Tony Martin is happy to stand up to broadcast.

Tony Martin is happy to stand up to broadcast.

In a series called The Brutal Truth, heavy-hitters such as Tony Martin, Wendy Harmer, Tom Gleeson and Chrissie Swan tell all about their listeners, ratings and even their bosses.

"In stand-up comedy, a live audience lets you know if you're funny or not based on their laughter," says Gold's Anthony "Lehmo" Lehmann. "In radio, a man with tight jeans, cowboy boots and a pony-tail tells you whether or not you're funny based on the opinions of a focus group that he spoke to in the early '90s."

Comic Mikey Robins, a former host on Triple J, Triple M and Vega, makes a similar observation.

"The happiest moment in every comedian's bloody week: listening to some program director who came from the sales department tell you why you weren't funny."

Former Triple M and Mix presenter Tim Smith, however, was simply ordered to perform well.

"We were under huge pressure and mental strain to have fun," he says, "and that is not a very favourable environment. It was, at times, like being held at gunpoint and told, 'The [former presenter] who is sadly no longer here failed to sound fun to us, so enjoy yourselves, or else'."

While television ratings come out every morning, radio ratings are released just eight times a year – making each survey a nerve-racking event.

"With stand-up you know immediately if you're not doing well [because you] get heckled," says former Nova presenter Akmal Saleh. "With radio you also get heckled, but it comes every six weeks or so in the shape of ratings. A drop in ratings is the equivalent of about a million people saying all at once, 'Get off, you're not funny'."

Of course, everyone is an expert once the figures come out.

"Strap yourself in for a lot of compromise and pseudo analysis," says former Mix host Tom Gleeson. "Everyone knows why ratings go up ... but only after it happens."

Given many FM hosts come from stand-up comedy, Radio Today asked them about the similarities between performing in a studio and on stage.

Star's Craig Annis says: "Both have microphones, both are conversations, both end in tears some days."

Mix's Jamie Row says: "Stand-up comics have the best insight; a stand-up audience is the radio audience.

"It's safe to say this poof has nil in common with Trish, out on her hen's night, with her 20 mates, getting blind through a straw shaped like a dick. But having performed to a million Trishes over the years, I have a good idea what she's about. I know her very well and I have a real respect for her."

Not every stand-up makes a smooth transition to radio, however.

"Nothing chews up material like a radio show," says former Fox and Triple M presenter Tony Martin. "There's quite a famous story of a stand-up who, by Wednesday of his first week on breakfast radio, had literally done his entire act."

"With radio, suddenly you're working in an office," Gleeson says. "Everyone has input and you have to be polite to colleagues and pretend you care about their feedback. That's a tough gig."

Mix's Chrissie Swan explains: "If a joke falls flat or isn't quite 'worked up' enough in time, the comedian then plunges into three minutes of acute self-doubt and loathing while Bruno Mars plays.

"Then he has to lift himself out of the mire in time for the next break. And be funny again."

Nova's Natalie Locke says: "On air, you're literally living in the moment; whether it's reacting to your co-hosts; trying to figure out what they're saying without saying, 'What the f--- are you on about?'; or reacting to horrific world events without sounding trite. Difficult to do when all you want to do is crack a gag."

Listeners want to laugh, of course, but they also demand more than an endless series of gags.

"A wise-cracking, one-liner persona won't get you very far," says former 2Day FM and ABC host Wendy Harmer. "It's tiresome for both you and the listeners.

"To a certain extent, there has to be fakery. Your anxieties, self-doubt and narcissistic tendencies aren't appealing – even though most broadcasters have those traits in spades. So how much do you tell? What do you hold back? Who is it you're trying to connect with? It's showmanship and bravado but it's also something else: conviction, compassion and sincerity."

Next week, The Brutal Truth series explores meetings, self-doubt and the infamous seven-second delay button.

The series is co-authored by veteran radio executives Brad March and Scott Muller, who now run their own media companies, and New FM host Sarah Levett.

Of the 40-odd people they approached, only two declined to be interviewed.

"Scott and I have long-lasting relationships with these people; we've worked with most of them over the years," March says.

"They trust us enough to be honest in their responses although some are obviously very tongue-in-cheek."

mlallo@fairfaxmedia.com.au