Heroes and zeroes, Lynn Freeman

Looking For Trouble
Glenda Hughes
HarperCollins, $31.95,
ISBN 1869504453

New Zealand Woman’s Weekly: 70 Years from Pavlovas to PMs
Jenny Lynch
Random House, $39.95,
ISBN 869415442

Inside Talk Radio
Bill Francis
Darius, $24.95,
ISBN 958240914

Talkback radio, women’s magazines and spin doctors, three of the most maligned aspects of journalism, form the basis of these three books. There’s another connection – they are all hugely self-congratulatory, which is appropriate for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly tribute, but makes the other two disappointing reads.

With a life which includes being a high-achieving athlete, policewoman, journalist, radio talkback host and sports manager, Glenda Hughes ought to give you a rollicking good read. Sadly she doesn’t. The opening chapters are particularly dull, providing a memoir rather than the promised “privileged and unprecedented look behind the scenes of modern media management”. Things improve marginally once the sporting personalities’ stories begin, although the personalities themselves are portrayed as so perfect and so terribly misunderstood that it is hard to feel sympathetic towards them. Hughes catalogues the many wrongs her former clients suffered at the hands of the media – ever ready to put the boot into our champions.

Looking for Trouble, with its tips for high profile people who find themselves in a bit of bother, is full of often unpalatable ironies. Hughes criticises the media for being manipulative but her book is one big attempt to justify the equally manipulative and lucrative art of spin doctoring. Her former sporting clients are entitled to exactly the same treatment as everybody else – no more, no less. Yet if ordinary members of the public take a swing at another person or are caught drinking over the limit, they generally don’t have access to people like Hughes to help bury the story, bundle them onto planes or whisk them into court unseen. While it soon becomes clear that women’s magazines are a useful outlet for personalities wanting a soft interview and flattering photographs, no mention is made here of the added incentive of payment – usually considerable. Sloppy editing is another problem. Take, for example: “I heard later from friends within TV3 that as a result of this particular action things began to approve [sic].”

There are some interesting insights in between the spin. You do get a feeling for the bitterness and intensity of competition between the media for the chance to break a story about anyone vaguely famous. The late Robin Tait’s story is a timely reminder of the dangers of drug taking. Mark Todd’s brush with sleazy tabloid journalism illustrates the speed with which our heroes and heroines can go from hero to zero. Danyon Loader’s chapter portrays a misunderstood “personality” if ever there was one, and it is pleasing to discover that the shy Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer has found a surprising new career path. Far be it for this reviewer, however, to give away one of the book’s most interesting moments. 

For a laugh, though, try the chapter on Bernice Mene. After a top secret campaign to give a women’s magazine first bite at the news of her retirement from the Silver Ferns, Mene and Hughes awaited the barrage of calls from the media on the Sunday the publication was delivered: “But by 5pm, it appeared that, apart from Yvonne (Willering), nobody had noticed, and we realised it was time we contacted the media.”  While the blame is turned on the media, that is a spin doctor’s nightmare.

Bernice Mene did not confine herself to one women’s magazine, and she graces one of the featured covers which populate New Zealand Woman’s Weekly: 70 Years from Pavlovas to PMs. (In terms of the most popular cover girls, though, it is unlikely anyone will match the late, tragic, and photogenic Diana, Princess of Wales.) Babies, weddings and senior-to-mid-grade TV personalities are always popular, as are sports and entertainment personalities.

The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly was launched on 8 December 1932 with the stated aim of “preaching the gospel of usefulness, cheerfulness and happiness”. In glorious technicolour, Jenny Lynch has produced a gentle and at times fascinating social history, which chronicles the changes in women’s magazines. Front page bylines have gone from “The Princess who does her own housework and goes shopping in an old mini” to “Throne Rangers – Flirty William’s Party Girls”, from “The Way to a Man’s Heart – Cooking or Kisses?” to “Friends Star Reveals – My Psychic Secret”. Chapter titles range from “Hunky Guys and Gorgeous Girls” and “Free Milk and False Teeth” to “Luscious Lips and Torpid Liver”. The most intriguing and indeed insightful parts of the book are the more historic moments. Laugh at the tortured hairstyles, gasp at the minute waistlines, cringe at the particularly ugly fashion eras, wonder at how women managed to stay smart, beautiful and patient as they tended the needs of their men and children and marvel at just how far we have come.

Two chapters of particular note are What did you do in the war, Mum?” and “Earning money and raising eyebrows”. The first reflects on the myriad of useful hints shared by women facing severe shortages of pretty much everything. Stockings last longer if rinsed first in methylated spirits; rendered cod fat and milk make a tasty substitute for butter. The second traces those early traditional female jobs, such as nursing and air hostessing, through to the country’s much publicised first woman jockey and firefighter. Also the move from stories about the wives of our prime ministers to our first two woman PMs.

My late mother faithfully subscribed to New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and numerous other women’s mags but was never the model home-maker – no wonder! This book shows that entailed the beauty of a model, the patience of a saint, the cooking skills of a gourmet chef, and time and money both to keep the house in strict order and keep yourself stylish and immaculate. This book is a thoroughly entertaining read, one well worth dipping in and out of in a rare quiet moment.

Where else can you go to find out about Kerre Woodham’s “sparkling, fun personality”, “wide vocabulary”, and “love of words”? Where learn more about the “often abrasive, from the left and on the side of the battler” Pam Corkery? Trick question. Not the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly; the above are just some of the not so riveting details contained in Bill Francis’ Inside Talk Radio.

The book should carry the subtitle Why Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport are so Fantastic. That would be a truer indication of what this book, by the general manager of both stations, is really out to say. To his credit, Francis does not pretend that this is the definitive history of talk radio in New Zealand, and he makes his commercial radio preferences clear. Here I too should lay my cards on the table. This book did not hold the surprises for me – a long-time Radio New Zealand employee – that it may for some readers. The constant jabs at National Radio, for instance, are merely tiresome and predictable, while I note that only Newstalk ZB’s “stars” are granted colour photographs to accompany their jaunty personal profiles.

The book starts with a dramatic blow-by-blow account of ratings day April 17 2002, the day Newstalk ZB lost the top Auckland slot to Mai FM: the gut-wrenching disappointment, the crunch group meetings, the sending of congratulatory flowers (which Mai FM never acknowledged). When ratings equal advertising dollars, such a loss is a very big deal indeed. We know, of course, that ratings are fickle, and Newstalk ZB won back the crown the next time around.

Francis is undoubtedly passionate about radio. He was there at 2XB when talk radio began, when Jessica Weddell first experimented with talking to listeners on the telephone from her Masterton studio, when budding announcers had to pass Maori, French, and German pronunciation tests, and BBC voices were the ideal.

His years in broadcasting sports journalism have resulted in a book with short, snappy sentences and some colourful turns of phrase. He describes talkback radio as “the Mike Tyson of the wider genre of talk radio”. He goes on to explore why talkback appeals to so many people. He suggests that callers look for an endorsement of their own views from the host or from fellow callers or seek a captive audience with which to share their opinions even if for just a few minutes. Unadulterated voyeurism is another factor, according to Francis, with listeners wondering if callers will win an argument with the host or get cut off – a “frothy brew” of host and caller.

Francis is not afraid to make his thoughts public. He criticises the current members of the Broadcasting Standards Authority for being “a slow-moving, bossy and pernickety group”. He lists his own hit parade of the country’s “top talkers”. Paul Holmes comes in at number one, followed by Daisy Basham (Aunt Daisy), Leighton Smith, Kim Hill, and Pam Corkery. On the sports talkers’ front, Winston McCarthy tops the charts, with Murray Deaker, Tim Bickerstaff, and Peter Montgomery not far behind. This sums up the book really, blighted by subjectivity and personal bias. Talk radio deserves better analysis.

These three books reinforce, rather than explode, scepticism about talkback radio, women’s magazines, and spin doctors – in particular, for me, Hughes’s spin on spinning in Looking for Trouble. On the other hand, Lynch’s tribute to the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly will at least leave you feeling uplifted and nostalgic, and there is a lot to be said for that.


Lynn Freeman produces Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw and presents What’s Going On? for National Radio.


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Posted in History, Media, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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