Almost Famous: Veteran former DJ Joe Augustin tells the full story of why he was ‘thrown out’ of radio
The radio veteran recalls calling an advocate an 'a-hole' and ruffling feathers. And yes, he also dishes out dirt on Glenn Ong.
There was a time when it seemed inconceivable to imagine Singaporean radio without Joe Augustin.
The 50-year-old radio veteran enjoyed a career that has seen him in stints across multiple radio stations and networks, such as Class 95FM, Lush 99.5FM, 91.3FM, and Power 98FM.
But it all came to an end on February 19, 2016, when Augustin and his then-co-host Mike Kasem presented the final edition of the Mike and Joe Xperiment on Gold 905, another Mediacorp radio station.
In an interview with Mothership, Augustin tells us the reason he was axed from the station — or at least what was relayed to him:
“It was a fun show, it was going gangbusters, doing well. Audience response was great. Every time we did something on Facebook there was lots and lots of interaction.
When it came time to renew, they said well the ratings were not fantastic or whatever it is, so no renewal. And I was thrown out.”
Taking on a blind lady and her guide dog
However, Augustin reckons that the process that led to his departure from radio had most likely started almost two years earlier when he was a deejay at another Mediacorp station, Class 95FM.
At the time, he had been hosting the Morning Express show with Glenn Ong and had decided to tackle, on-air, what he saw as an injustice.
“What I do on the air, which is controversial, is I call Cassandra Chiu — a hero in many people’s minds — I villainise her, I talk about what she’s done, and I call her an a-hole.”
Chiu is a blind Singaporean who has advocated greater social inclusion for guide dogs and their handlers like herself and her longtime guide dog Esme.
Using Esme as an online persona, Chiu publicised experiences of being rejected from restaurants and shops because of her guide dog.
“There was a situation where at McDonald’s, a post had come out from Esme the dog (saying): ‘Its free McMuffin day at McDonald’s but apparently not for the blind.’ And so the story was she had gone in there at a McDonald’s and one of the staff had asked her to leave, proving the point.”
Though according to Augustin, while Chiu really had been asked to leave, a manager at the McDonald’s had subsequently tried to explain the mistake and make good — a side of the story that had not been portrayed by her post.
“I do a bit more digging to find out who she is, and she’s a psychologist. So there’s very little doubt in my mind that this is just pure manipulation. It’s just manipulation. And just doing it for her own agenda. I always feel there is a line not to cross and I feel she’s crossed it.”
Calling an advocate an “a-hole”
While his takedown of Chiu generated controversy amongst listeners, it was Augustin’s use of the phrase “a-hole” that landed him in hot water.
Mediacorp was handed a fine, to the tune of S$6,300, by the Media Development Authority and Augustin had to apologise for his choice of words.
But behind the scenes, Augustin says he felt the fine was unwarranted.
“It’s very funny that I am literally responsible for a fine the radio station had to pay because I called someone, not an a**hole, but literally an a-hole.
So I can’t believe it because I’m thinking to myself, yes we get fined for that, I understand that’s bad, okay great. But let’s not pay this fine without protest…
But we don’t. And my concern is that there’s going to be all kinds of problems. It literally means someone can be fined for using the ‘D’ instead of the d-word, or C, or literally any number of letters.”
Even today, as he recounts the debacle, Augustin says his only regret was perhaps his choice of words:
“I’ve always had this advice for people: always say things or do things that you’ll be okay with hearing about in the future. So apart from the actual choice of words and the path I chose — and this is me again reflecting back — the very few times that I have done things that I feel were out of character and I feel was a little bit of a low blow, there are very few things that have happened on the air that are like that.
Like with Cassandra Chiu, I did a takedown on someone who wasn’t innocent. I could have done it nicer. I definitely could have done it nicer… but she wasn’t an innocent.”
But at the same time, going up against Chiu (who had over the years earned public recognition and admiration for her advocacy) proved unpopular with some within Mediacorp — and it was this, he believes, that ultimately led to his axing:
“There were certain people I would say, who I may have ruffled their feathers. Because when I spoke to some senior people after the fact, it came to light that (his dismissal) was a process that was in progress much earlier than just in the last few months of it.”
The clash between talent and management
Yet, Augustin is no stranger to controversy.
In 2009, he and co-host Shareen Wong were fired just six months into their stint at SAFRA Radio (now rebranded as So Drama! Entertainment) network’s Power 98FM.
The dismissal came after the pair had done a bit on the air making light of a meeting they were due to have with station management.
“There was a whole series of things that happened that ended badly (laughs) at that station. It started off well, but there was the traditional clash that you have between the talent and management.
What I was trying to do was create a more engaging morning show. What they were trying to do was cookie-cutter — the idea that you have to talk less on radio.”
It all came to a head when Augustin decided to do a comedic routine on-air where he would perform a magic trick.
“The whole idea was it was going to be a failure anyways. The whole fun of it is, doing a magic trick on radio is going to come out badly. So the audience is going to really lean in and kind of figure out that this is going to be a bad idea.”
In total, the routine took Augustin about five minutes to complete, three minutes more than he had been given by the management — “they weren’t very happy with that”.
From joking about getting fired to actually getting fired
The segment triggered a text message requesting their attendance at a meeting with management.
While still on the air, Augustin then started joking with Wong that the meeting had been called to fire them, banter that possibly also did not go down well with Power 98FM’s management.
“Come to the actual Friday that we had this meeting, what was supposed to be a meeting about what we were talking about on the air had evolved — through paranoia and whatever else was going on — into an actual firing meeting.
We went in there and seriously just thought: ‘we were just kidding about the whole thing.’ So we were fired on that Friday.”
If Augustin comes across as unapologetic about the whole episode, it’s probably because he is.
He explains that the whole incident had happened at a time where many people were being laid off from their jobs — their jesting about being fired was an effort to tap into a sentiment they felt many of their listeners would have been familiar with.
And while this time it had cost him, it was the same instinct and desire to engage audiences with unorthodox methods that had arguably set Augustin apart from the pack and made him one of the most recognisable voices on radio.
The early days at Class 95FM
Recalling his early days on the radio at the newly-minted Class 95FM, Augustin describes how radio presenters in Singapore rarely thought about audience engagement:
“The people that were working in radio, they were not people who were after an audience. They weren’t geared towards this idea of developing an audience, and working with the audience, and serving that particular audience.”
It meant that when a slot opened up for him to host the morning show at the station, Augustin faced little competition for what was in the early days of Singaporean radio, an unfancied timing.
Pioneering crowd-sourced traffic reports
It was here that he innovated a segment where he would “tell the truth about traffic”.
“It’s not that there was a problem with truth, but there was just a problem with the system of how it was told,” he explains.
Back then traffic news would filter down to radio presenters through a highly cumbersome system that involved traffic police investigating traffic issues and sending information to the radio station via a teleprinter.
The result was that traffic jams often went unreported for up to 45 minutes.
“My radical innovation was that I’ll take phone calls (from listeners) and I’ll have people tell me about any traffic situations. What I would do is that I myself would call traffic police and tell them. And before the confirmations came in, I would talk about unconfirmed reports.
It was refreshing to Singaporeans because at the time we just didn’t have that service available. Nobody else was doing it, all of it was under one umbrella. Everybody had the same system, everybody was waiting for the telex from the police. And I was telling them what was happening before it was confirmed.”
The effort paid off, though, as audiences felt more in tune with what was being reported on the radio, and Augustin’s system of collecting listener-sourced traffic reports was largely adopted by radio networks in Singapore.
His “Friend-nimosity” with Glenn Ong
But having staunch philosophies about audience engagement can have its detriments, especially when it comes to working with others.
One notable example was Augustin’s relationship with his former co-host Glenn Ong.
The pair were partnered up by Mediacorp in 2013; an effort to refresh Class 95FM’s morning programme.
Describing how he felt when the idea was first pitched to him, Augustin said:
“At one level, my brain’s going that can’t work. I just think we’re very different people, we have different opinions about things. I’d listened to his show and he does a lot of things in a way that I don’t think I would do them.
And then at the same time, I’m thinking that could be the very reason why that could be interesting.”
The product of this unlikely pairing was a show built around the idea of two people who didn’t quite get along, with Augustin describing his on-air chemistry with Ong as a delicate balance between friendly banter and hostile riposte — “friend-nimosity”.
“It was really hard. And I think it was energetically toxic. Different people would take away different things. Some people would go like ‘okay, on the surface two cheery guys’. And then some people would listen to the stuff where we get at loggerheads and you go like ‘wow something really bad is happening there’.
It came down to our different styles. For me I never walk out of any break or any situation until I think we’ve scored a goal. Which means making the audience laugh or hitting something that was funny or creative, that was unexpected or great. Glenn’s plan is much more about ‘we’re going to go in there, we’re going to hit this target, then we’re going to get out.’”
The “stressful” situation came to a quiet end when Ong left Mediacorp’s radio network in 2015, paving the way for Augustin’s ill-fated run with Kasem.
Still wants to play the game
Three years on from his last appearance on Singaporean radio waves, I ask Augustin why we haven’t heard his voice since his departure in 2016.
“If you’ve followed the record now, you would have noticed that basically I’ve been fired from all the stations already.
So now I had a station that I had taken legal action against (Augustin was embroiled in a legal tussle against Power 98 over the axing mentioned above), that was one station — that’s probably not going to be very good. Another station had fired me (Augustin had been fired from SPH Radio’s 91.3 in 2008). And now this station (Mediacorp Radio’s Class 95, Lush and Gold 905) had essentially fired me twice — I mean, the first time I left, the second time I was not renewed. So there wasn’t many options.”
Nowadays, Augustin keeps himself busy as an emcee and presentation coach where he coaches people and companies in the art of storytelling.
However, success in other pursuits hasn’t dented his appetite for audience engagement one bit — though for Augustin, he can’t be sure that’s the case for mainstream media outlets.
“I still believe so much in helping the audience understand the truth. I do want to talk about the unconfirmed reports (laughs). And yeah, I think the audience needs to have people on its side work on the air.
I fully understand the way media has gone in the past few years, there is very little incentive for mainstream media to want to be great. Because getting there requires pain. And what’s the incentive for the pain?
If you think about it, who’s in charge? Whose job is it to make all that happen? Where are they in their careers? Would you spend the last 10 years of your career doing something risky? I don’t think most people would.”
So what are our chances then, of ever hearing Augustin’s voice on the radio again?
“If anyone wants to play that game, I’d still love to play it.”
Top image by Andrew Koay