Upstairs, downstairs, Anna Cottrell

Voice and Vision: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand, Volume Two 
Patrick Day
Auckland University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 1869402332

 

If you think this book will illuminate what you imagine goes on behind the screens when the show’s over and the mike is switched off, forget it. Patrick Day’s ambitious book is a serious history of what has gone on in boardrooms and administrators’ offices as broadcasting in New Zealand has lurched from one political master to the next.

Voice and Vision is an intriguing read for a below-stairs broadcaster to find out what went on upstairs. Key characters stride through this 50-year history: administrators and broadcasters wrestling with politicians, politicians wrestling to keep broadcasters in check. But a few more forays into the newsroom or the drama department (when it existed) would have made for more entertaining reading. But that’s another (hi)story.

This is the second volume of Patrick Day’s history of broadcasting in New Zealand, and it spans the years from 1950 to the present. His research is extensive, covering the influence of successive governments and the battles that ensued, resulting in what we have today: the most deregulated broadcasting system in the world. This dubious honour was bestowed upon us by Roger Douglas, master architect of the economic policies of the Fourth Labour Government, and Richard Prebble, his happy henchman. Yet, paradoxically, state radio keeps getting better while state television …well, Day chronicles the sad story. Some say the market rules, others say the market ruins. Let’s just say, history is the judge.

2

Voice and Vision’s panorama begins with the 1950s debate about the introduction of television. Many thought the medium rude, crude and sure to lead to “a lowering of cultural standards”. Prophetic indeed when we look at some of the fare dished up these days.

Television had already started in Australia in 1956, and political procrastination here meant New Zealand was lagging behind. Yet television pioneers, like Professor Robert Jack of the University of Otago, were experimenting with television in Dunedin in the 1920s at the same time as television was “invented” in Britain. Day explains that because the Dunedin group’s application for a licence to broadcast was turned down in 1931, progress in this country stopped for 20 years.

The leaden hand of successive Governments, as they attempted to control broadcasting and broadcasters, is evident throughout this book. There’s a great quote from Ian Cross, a broadcaster himself and one of our most influential broadcasting administrators, who said in 1985 that broadcasting “has suffered as no other public institution has in our history at the hands of confused and sometimes punitive legislators.” Worse was to come, as Day conveys convincingly.

In this important history, anecdotes provide light relief. Here’s one from the early 1950s. Aunt Daisy, “the unquestioned first lady of radio”, was attempting a television version of her radio programme. Before she began her cooking demonstration, a zookeeper had been filmed in the studio with a chimpanzee. When Aunt Daisy took centre stage with a bunch of bananas, the chimp bounded back onto the set – the only time in recorded history Aunt Daisy was lost for words.

Photos also leaven the text, which is very detailed at times. I wanted more of them, to remind us of times long gone; and to remind us of broadcasters and presenters who became part of hearth and home – such as Aunt Daisy, Winston McCarthy, Sharon Crosbie, Dougall Stevenson. But I love the photo of the young Alan Morris in 1964, who was later to head TV One in the 1970s. (His son Simon now makes brilliant music docos for radio.) Alan, front man for television’s first current affairs programme, Compass, is sitting at a formica table below which we can see his 1960s suede shoes and white socks, and he’s beaming into a huge camera. He appears to be smoking but let’s just assume he’s holding his pen like a fag.

The early days of television read like a family affair with all hands to the pump. In the tiny, one-camera studio in Christchurch, the continuity announcer had to slide off the chair for the newsreader, who pulled down a blind for a new backdrop. No mention of newsreaders’ salaries then.

Those were the days when television news items had to be air-freighted round the country. In 1965 a senior BBC man, Waldo Maguire, came to help with the fledgling news service which he described as “the daily miracle”. He was appalled at the conditions under which news was made and broadcast. (Even in the mid 1970s in Christchurch we had to run with our edited news items to the studio, two blocks away, to be broadcast. In Wellington they used taxis.)

Gilbert Stringer, the man charged with setting up the NZBC, dominates the first four chapters of Voice and Vision. For 20 years he was a powerful personality in broadcasting, overseeing the growth of television and developing journalism within the NZBC. But Day contends that Stringer’s conservatism “led him to resist many advances for fear of antagonising the powerful.”

Ian Johnstone, who in 1964 was the reporter on Compass, says that when he interviewed the Prime Minister, the Director-General of Broadcasting would view the film, and the PM could demand changes before it went to air or request a new interview if he was unhappy. Later in Voice and Vision, Muldoon’s strident tones are audible as he too tries to whip broadcasters into line – his line.

In television’s first decade, women could not wear “low neck dresses” on the telly but Stringer’s moral code was ignored by Kevan Moore, producer of the first entertainment show, C’Mon. The go-go dancers sported cleavages and micro-minis, and the show was a hit. Day has included a Listener cover of those bopping teenies from 1967, which shows how comparatively modest they really were. (Incidentally, the price on the cover was one shilling – 10 cents, in decimal currency.)

Day doesn’t waste his time on this sort of trivia but in the 1970s the Broadcasting Manual ordered employees to keep a certain distance from each other at work. I think it was about a metre. When the fortress Avalon first opened in 1975, there wasn’t much cash left for programme making so idle broadcasters perfected the art of breaking the one-metre rule. I also remember that in my first week in broadcasting in Christchurch, an announcer was fired for saying the F-word on radio. Now you’re allowed to say it on telly, but not until 8.30pm.

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Voice and Vision tells a comprehensive story of radio’s development, the successful but prolonged battle for private stations and weaves in chunks of the Listener magazine’s history as well. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra became increasingly unwelcome under broadcasting’s umbrella, until it was set free with a workable budget. Maori broadcasting, or lack of it, appears with embarrassment throughout broadcasting’s history.

De-regulation, introduced by Labour, has seen a prodigious expansion of broadcasting. In 1988 there were 64 radio stations; by 1999 there were 404 frequencies broadcasting throughout the country. Day reveals that 83% of these radio stations are foreign-owned, but what isn’t these days?

The triumph of the last decade is the survival and blossoming of non-commercial public radio. Day attributes this to the pressure group, Friends of National Radio, and to Radio New Zealand’s lobbying. Lange’s government was a fan of commercial broadcasting and didn’t see why the broadcasting licence fee should fund what some saw as services for the elite: a classical music-loving minority who listened to the Concert Programme.

Day’s reprinting of a Lodge cartoon from the Evening Post is a witty, pungent reminder of David Lange’s attitude. Sporting a Dire Straits T-shirt, Lange rolls down a corridor in Parliament, objecting to underwriting the National Orchestra and proclaiming, “I just happen to like Dire Straits more than I like Debussy.” An Opposition MP says to his mate, “You may think it’s his favourite Rock group. I reckon it’s his short-term policy for New Zealand.”

National Radio had its budget savaged in the 1990s and its purpose-built premises were flattened by National’s bulldozers, but now from an office block on the Terrace the two non-commercial channels have emerged triumphantly. While I took a breather from reading Voice and Vision, I was able to delight in National Radio’s excellent documentaries, replays of Kim Hill’s and John Campbell’s fine interviews, as well as glorious music.

And let me now go commercial for my cricket commentaries. For years some Concert Programme devotees squawked about having to listen to cricket and Parliament. I can understand the irritation with the parliamentary debates – the quality for one thing – but a fine cricket commentary on radio, now there’s a work of art. I still lament the retirement of Iain Galloway even though he has handed the microphone to his son.

4

Patrick Day did not set out to write a book about broadcasting personalities and programmes; his book is a study of the conflict about who should broadcast and what broadcasting should be. And a fascinating study it is too, an impressive history, essential reading for politicians and broadcasting administrators. But I still would have liked more of the colour and courage of the personalities, more of the journalists who have fought bureaucratic and political controls to do their job freely and fairly, more of the drama producers who still fight so we can see ourselves on air.

 

Anna Cottrell is a Wellington journalist and documentary-maker.

 

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