Sounds like us, John Pagani

ZB: The Voice of an Iconic Radio Station
Bill Francis
HarperCollins, $36.99,
ISBN 186950612X

A radio station is not just intangible, but purely transient. Voices change, frequencies change, even the name of the station changes. All that’s left to bridge the voices, songs and ads on the transmitter today with sounds broadcast on a completely different frequency 80 years ago is the station’s cultural impact. Radio helps shape our culture through the songs, news, stories and personalities we listen to.

Controversial Australian academic Keith Windschuttle has argued that mass media hold up a mirror to popular culture. When Newstalk ZB marked 80 years on air in 2006, it celebrated a long history as a mirror for our own popular culture. The everyday concerns of suburban Aucklanders, from traffic to shopping, sports to gardening, are rarely respected by our cultural elites. Yet they’ve dominated Auckland’s airwaves since broadcasting began.

Bill Francis’ history of ZB contains copious stories about the indifference or antagonism of the establishment to popular tastes. The more content sprang from the audience or its tastes, the more it was resisted. Francis quotes one stern editorial in the 1936 New Zealand Radio Record, warning that advertising on radio would “sacrifice the sanctity of the home, [and] point the way to prostitution of good taste and decency”.

But whose taste and decency? Even in the first days of commercial radio, four out of five New Zealanders were tuning in. Today, still higher proportions listen to ad-supported radio, yet there is an army of cultural warriors ready to claim commercial broadcasting is inferior or degraded by the adverts. Taste is not objectively measurable. The history of commercial broadcasting is dominated by attempts to impose cultural values. In the end, popular culture usually wins, though not often quickly or easily.

In its first years, New Zealand broadcasting was controlled by James Shelley, who despised commercial radio. 1ZB was a subscriber station, on air a few hours a week as an outlet for thousands of enthusiasts from the Friendly Road Choir. Close ties grew between Labour leader Michael Joseph Savage and 1ZB’s Colin Scrimgeour. Whereas today Labour is often aligned with the champions of high culture, its working-class roots in the 30s made its preferences distinctly more populist. For Savage the radio station helped balance the vitriol from almost the entire national press.

Scrimgeour hoped a new government would allow advertising and other reforms to stabilise the station and its finances. Out of fear of the propaganda potential of this combination, the conservative government jammed 1ZB  a week before the 1935 election. When Labour won, it bought the radio station, made it a government department and put Scrimgeour in charge of commercial broadcasting. (He soon began criticising the new government himself and was manoeuvred out.)

Prime Minister Peter Fraser banned “controversial” issues from radio. Ministers personally edited scripts and made programme decisions. News was almost non-existent until 1962. Although public participation programmes were introduced in the 50s, they were limited to recipes and stain removals. The possibility of members of the public phoning in to express their view on issues of the day was viewed with horror within government and the broadcasting bureaucracy until the 70s. After talkback lines were opened, announcers were still banned from expressing an opinion – even on the Saturday afternoon sports shows.

Was there ever any point in such a ban? There is little research evidence that free expression on radio changes anyone’s mind. Former 1ZB manager Brent Harman used to claim audiences listened to talkback to have their prejudices confirmed. A recent study of partisan British newspapers claims people with strong opinions reinforce their views when they are confronted with biased coverage.

On the other hand, people attracted by recipes and horoscopes might be swayed if they happen to come upon some uneven political commentary. Perhaps, but, to the relevant audience, astrology, recipes, sports and celebrities are more important. Disappointing as this might be to anyone with strong political views, there is no objective ground for saying politics is more important. And yet the struggle to have mass cultural tastes accepted in mass media is the enduring theme of New Zealand broadcasting.

ZB has had three iconic breakfast announcers – Phil Shone, Merv Smith and Paul Holmes. There is a striking common thread running through their careers – their care for the audience. Each of them clashed with broadcasting management to the point of a career-breaking crisis over the way the audience should be served. Each was more populist than his management in these clashes. Each was sneered at by cultural guardians. And each was the best broadcaster of his day – by audience rating, versatility and the estimation of his peers.

If you can get past his irritating subtitle (surely the station is an iconic voice, not the voice of an iconic station?), Francis’ book tells the stories of how some of our culture’s priests have gone about mirroring it. It has the easy tone of Saturday-night nostalgia on ZB.  Francis is a journalist who reached the top of his trade, but he is also ZB’s manager and so he ducks all but the stalest celebrity gossip. He has a few salacious stories, such as alcoholism in the newsroom and pretty announcers sleeping with the Bee Gees, but the actors are all dead. ZB is home to many household names and an independent history might have collected more contemporary stories of louche behaviour. Some decent tabloid celebrity dirt, after all, would be a kind of vanishing point of cultural reference: the ultimate mirror to hold up to ZB.

Today’s Newstalk ZB continues to broadcast popular culture, just as the first broadcasters to use the initials wanted it to. These days, though, it has thrown off many of the restrictions that were put in place to make us all better citizens. So what remains is a radio station reflecting its impression of common popular values today. Its sounds – entertaining, informative, funny, infuriating – are the sounds of what New Zealand is really like.


John Pagani is a Wellington reviewer and broadcaster.


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