Em, Ed and Grant look to end 2Day FM's breakfast 'curse'

Inside a recording booth at 2Day FM's Sydney offices, new breakfast recruit Grant Denyer regales listeners with a private story about Sir Paul McCartney: apparently, the ex-Beatle's pre-stage ritual on his recent Australian tour involved obsessively watching Family Feud.

On the other side of the box, a handful of producers fiddle on knobs and computer screens. One glances over repeatedly to gauge my reaction to the show's latest "content". Sure, it's a good story. It's no Richard Pryor talking about his monkeys, but at 8.30am it'll do.

Four days into the gig, 2Day FM's new breakfast team - Denyer, Have You Been Paying Attention? comedian Ed Kavalee, and mainstay Em Rusciano - are settling into their natural roles.

"Lunatic, captain, Australia's best friend," Rusciano tells me, pointing first at herself and ending the circle at Denyer.

"That's not what she usually calls me," the Feud host quips.

The breakfast show, officially billed as Em, Grant and Ed, is 2Day FM's latest attempt to scoop listeners back into its infamous "poisoned chalice" - the 6am to 9am slot that's been a sinking ship ever since Kyle and Jackie O packed up for rival station KIIS in 2014.

By traditional measures (that is, the near-monthly radio ratings surveys), Rusciano's headlining stint in the slot last year was a disaster.

Despite early raves over its refreshing female-focused pitch, the show, co-hosted by comedian Harley Breen, failed to connect with audiences. Its weak debut in January attracted just 4 per cent of Sydney's breakfast audience; by the year's last survey in December, it had plummeted to a 2.8 per cent share.

Those figures, the station's worst in the slot since previous hosts Maz Compton and Dan Debuf languished at 2.4 per cent in January 2015, prompted action from bosses at Southern Cross Austereo. Breen quit (Rusciano denies suggestions he was pushed, saying the comedian "wanted to do more stand-up and spend time with his baby"), and the station recruited Kavalee and Denyer for the show's 2018 reboot.

"I cried on the last day of work... I was a broken woman," Rusciano says, with a laugh, about 2017's on-air struggles.

"I was exhausted. I was getting caught up in the minutiae of the show, not being able to be funny and a bit looser.

"Harley was new to radio and also a stand-up, and that's a really hard switch to make. You go from a nomadic life to regiment, 4am get-ups. I was doing way too much last year, and all the responsibility was on my shoulders.

"This is great. We're a triple-hand show now, and it's equal contribution."

Rusciano, who previously railed against the "archaic" ratings system for ignoring the show's online appeal, maintains she and the station's executives are happy with last year's output.

"It's still weird to have that, 'Are you disappointed?' It's like, no, we had a really good year," she says, highlighting a viral video that earned 7 million views and the show's top-rating podcast figures.

"All the stuff about 'How's Em still got her job? They're rating in the twos...', well, [the bosses] are not stupid," she says. "They can see the impact we had on where it's going to matter in the future."

She also addresses the elephant in the room: her adjusted role on what, until as recently as last month, had been her own show.

"I think there's a general perception that Ed was shoved on me and I didn't get a choice, that I've been sat back in the show and that it's not called my full name any more ... They were all decisions I was a part of," she says.

"I have a thing called a contract, which means I'm allowed to have a say in the show I'm on," she adds sarcastically.

Kavalee, a Brisbane Triple M breakfast veteran, backs his co-host's stance.

"You can't do a one-person FM radio show. And that's not to say [Breen] wasn't contributing, but just to address the way it was perceived," he says.

"For three hours, you've got to think about the mechanics of the show, the 'bit' you want to do, something that's going to happen in an hour-and-a-half, the credits, the big prep, and then doing stuff with your co-host. That's too much, it is too much.

"Me coming in, that's what we call a 'natural fit'," he says. "It's something I've done a lot of in other shows. It frees up Em to think about content and the way she wants to do things and allows her to do more stuff, weirdly."

Denyer, who's returning to the pre-dawn shift after having spent 10 years on Sunrise, says he's relying on his co-hosts while he "learns the ropes" of radio.

"It's terrifying. I've held a high standard for myself in television, and you want to apply that to your next job, but it's tricky," he says.

"I go from [Family Feud] where I'm talking 90 per cent of the time, to this show where I'm coming in at about 10 per cent, so I think I'm underperforming. But you feel better the next day, and the next day...

"At the start I thought, 'I've made the worst decision of my life.' Now I'm going, 'This is going to be the best thing I've done in my career'."

"And, to be honest, we just couldn't get Larry Emdur," Kavalee cuts in.

Unlike Rusciano's previous youth-skewing take in the slot, the show's proving to have a more traditional, banter-style appeal. The trio riff off the news, they trade lighthearted barbs, excitable listeners call in with stories about debt problems and pet names. The station's also shifting their music content, eschewing today's hits for an older, '80s classics vibe.

"Everyone's surprised by how good it is, which is both lovely and insulting," Rusciano says about early reactions to the show.

"We're all still getting used to each other's quirks, but it feels really natural."

She's also confident the show can finally end talk of 2Day FM's "cursed" morning slot.

"That stuff's a load of shit. It's so dumb," she says.

"We're gonna make good shit. And maybe there will be a new show in two years, who knows? But right now, we're doing our best - and we don't feel the pressure you guys think we feel."

2Day FM Breakfast with Em, Grant and Ed air 6-9am on weekdays on 104.1FM.

This story Em, Ed and Grant look to end 2Day FM's breakfast 'curse' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.