Holmes, Hosking, you and us: Leighton Smith spills the beans on 30 years at Newstalk ZB

By Leighton Smith

On this date, March 16th thirty years ago, the radio station formerly known as 1ZB, announced a new format, a new on-air line-up and a new name. Newstalk 1ZB was born. The reaction was immediate and brutal.

Opposition stations had a field day. Some laughed, some wrote off the move as a loser and others plotted and schemed how to capture the mantle of what had been for a long time the number one station in Auckland and therefore the country.

Having arrived from Australia for my first New Zealand sojourn, I spent 5 rewarding years at 2ZB in Wellington. In early 1985 I left for Adelaide with no intention ever to re-cross the Tasman.

It was surprising how much I missed NZ and was coaxed, bribed and talked into returning, this time to Auckland and 1ZB, later that year. It was the first stage of what was intended to be a gradual conversion to a Newstalk format.

As I had discovered previously in the geographical climb up the broadcasting ladder, alien outspoken/opinionated announcers are not necessarily welcomed with open arms. The programme's rating dropped from 19% to 15%, paralleling the criticism the station received.

The industry was in a state of flux - the newly established FM format meant new radio stations were carving up the old AM band audiences.

During the Christmas break of 86/87 the king of the breakfast ratings for 25 years, Merv Smith, quit and moved to what was then Radio I. This was the geopolitical equivalent of the outbreak of war/major earthquake/tsunami.

Barry Holland, ever the professional, found himself behind the breakfast mic with barely a warning. But the listeners' mood was rebellious.

Many followed Merv and others left for elsewhere. In the year prior my ratings had risen from that 15% to finish '86 on 22%. We didn't get a chance to find out where they might have gone.

Management was working quickly but quietly to restore 1ZB to its assumed rightful position.

On Friday March 13, those on the front line were commanded to attend a "council of war" on both Saturday and Sunday. I'd been given a heads up on what to expect but there was a lot more to come.

Saturday morning delivered us Newstalk 1ZB. We were introduced to the new line-up. Paul Holmes on breakfast, Phil Warren ex-Auckland Deputy Mayor on 12-3pm and John Cordery on drive were the most important changes. Mornings remained my domain.

There were others who came and went. Psychologist Gwendoline Smith and weather forecaster Sandra Pericolini spring to mind.

Nights, as in 8 to mid was fluid until Chris Carter was poached from his long-held night time roost at Radio Pacific. The "traitor" word got a big workout from the station at the other end of the dial.

That weekend of the 14th and 15th March was intense. There was uncertainty afoot but, with the new format launching so quickly, not much time to sweat it. Monday was a stressful day.

In hindsight I had a couple of advantages. My move to Adelaide was accompanied by the launch of a new format there also, so I knew what to expect. And having been through a rejection on arrival in Auckland I'd paid my dues.

Holmes did not have a good start. Things got very rocky. Ratings crashed and revenues tumbled. Breakfast dropped from in the mid 20's to 8.3%. Mine went from 22% to 11.5%, the only programme to retain double digits.

Murray Deaker. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Murray Deaker. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Over the course of that year there were crisis meetings, rearrangements, clashes involving delicate egos, departures and arrivals. And criticism, loads and loads of criticism.

Through it all there was one aspect that resulted in eventual triumph. That was, having the right people in the right place at the right time.

Brent Harman, who was charged by Radio New Zealand Director-General Beverly Wakem with success, was arguably the only person in the country who had the ability to see it through.

Brent brought on board those he needed. Kevin White and Trish Carter, both who knew their craft and executed it well (along with a few heads).

It continued that way. Trish left and was replaced by Bill Francis who had been head of sport. Showing my usual business acumen I commented to someone what I thought of that choice - in a word - terrible.

Bill occupied the position of Talk Manager for 17 years and didn't put a foot wrong. Bill was outstanding and when he announced he was moving on there was considerable distress.

However, the firm continued to show its wisdom with the nomination of Dallas Gurney who had quietly been identified as next in line and coached accordingly for a couple of years.

I will always be amused that Dallas grew up listening to me and STILL wanted to work in radio.

When he decided to change direction, eventually his best mate Jason Winstanley filled the role. With both, the pre-programme discussion has proved to be one of the day's highlights.

They can be so much fun I recently suggested filming and posting online.

Paul Holme and Leighton Smith were some of the first voices on Newstalk 1ZB at the launch in 1987. Photo / Supplied, Leighton Smith
Paul Holme and Leighton Smith were some of the first voices on Newstalk 1ZB at the launch in 1987. Photo / Supplied, Leighton Smith

It took Newstalk 1ZB three years to claw its way back to the top. The credit goes to the breakfast host who wouldn't surrender.

Holmes engineered himself a stint on TV One over the quiet Christmas period of 88/89. It was a trial that turned into the Holmes Show that ran for 15 years and became the pre-eminent current affairs TV programme in the country.

That success fed back to radio, and we all benefited from it.

It was tragic news when Paul was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but what made it worse was the advanced stage of development of the disease. Two years later I had the same diagnosis but less advanced and with the help of a great surgeon, beat it.

When you consider that John Cordery, our first drive time host died of it at 52, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is something dangerous about working in radio.

I should not leave out Pete Montgomery and Phil Gifford, both of whom dealt with prostate cancer.

Of course sport has been a big part of the Newstalk format. Murray Deaker remains a sports broadcast icon and his successor Tony Veitch continues. Both have had their demons to deal with and they are not alone.

When Holmes retired from breakfast, the mantle fell on a very patient Mike Hosking. For years Mike had to be satisfied with Saturday mornings knowing the time would come.

He is an incredibly talented broadcaster, who can if he chooses stay there forever. I doubt he wants to. I also have faith that one day he'll outgrow ripped jeans.

I'm often asked who my favourite fellow broadcaster is, to which I answer "I don't do favourites". When pushed, I've found Larry Williams usually gets mentioned. Larry replaced John Cordery on afternoon Drive. His dry wit, not always intentional, makes me laugh and groan, often together!

The fine tuning and occasional adjustments have continued.

In conjunction with changing lifestyles (which just may be connected with Auckland's traffic woes) the station introduced Early Edition with Rachel Smalley. If traffic build up continues, Rachel may have to start at 4am instead of 5.

And Kerre McIvor (nee Woodham) - what a stalwart. Kerre has graced the ZB corridors, committed to nights for years and now afternoons with Mark Dye. She has been here so long, she's gone from being unmarried to recently becoming a grandmother.

And to the team of characters who make up the Newstalk ZB newsroom, far too many to name, know that each and every one of you is appreciated. That such a variety of politics and lifestyles works with such unity is amazing.

There is one change I must mention. For a long period of years there was a stand-off, if not a war between ZB and the NZ Herald. At times you could feel the venom. The Herald even used to white-out the ZB on our microphones in their pictures. I used to enjoy the clash.

Since we came under the same ownership and especially since we moved under the same roof and share the same floor space, I now find that "I walk amongst them"! I am amused by it on a daily basis. There are, it may surprise you, some good people at the Herald.

Finally a tribute to my producer Carolyn Leaney, who in June will have worked with me for 29 years. Is that a record? She is simply outstanding in both her formats.

So Newstalk ZB, happy birthday! Where the hell has that 30 years gone?!

- NZ Herald

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