Smalley blasts 'Ken and Barbie' TV

By Andrew Koubaridis

Presenter speaks of growing frustration with limits before she left TV3 and the paranoia in television circles.

Rachel Smalley in her Newstalk ZB studio. Photo / Dean Purcell
Rachel Smalley in her Newstalk ZB studio. Photo / Dean Purcell

Broadcaster Rachel Smalley has spoken for the first time on why she turned her back on her high-profile TV3 role.

Smalley - who had been the host of Firstline and The Nation - shocked many when she announced she was leaving those presenting roles for a 5am one at Newstalk ZB.

In a candid Herald interview, she told of growing frustration because there was "nowhere for me to go".

"I didn't feel that there was any desire to invest in women in senior primetime roles and I knew I couldn't keep doing those hours. So I was at a real crossroads. I was frustrated.

"I didn't feel either programme had the support of senior management, the top levels of management of MediaWorks, so there was only so far I could take both programmes."

She was realistic about the amount of resources and marketing that could be pumped into non-primetime shows. "But that didn't help the programmes I was on."

Smalley said she loved her time at TV3 but was enjoying gentler surroundings than the sometimes cut-throat world of TV journalism.

"The reality with TV is it can sometimes be like working in a crack den because there's so much paranoia swirling around the corridors and there's a lot of patch protection. And that's quite exhausting." She attributed that to new shows and uncertainty in the world of current affairs. "And that's the environment you're going into every day. It can be quite lonely, I think, working in television."

She described herself as "purist journo" who was in the business because she loved knowing things - not the recognition - which in her opinion isn't always the case in television.

"There's a lot of people coming into media now, particularly TV ... and the reality is a lot coming into TV now really should apply for X-Factor because they want the celebrity and the fame that goes with it," Smalley said.

"I really do love what I do, I don't do it because it triggers some element of recognition. I just love it. ... I love knowing everything I can about something. I found it fascinating being so involved with what's going on and it's fun - and work's got to be fun."

At Firstline she was sole anchor which is a format she thinks works best for television news rather than the traditional, in New Zealand at least, male/female newsreading duo.

"Now, I despair at the Ken and Barbie style news presenter. I don't think you need a male and female fronting your news, you just have your journalist or whoever the best person to front that is."

News and current affairs director Mark Jennings said TV3 had a strong desire to invest in all the people who had roles, both men and women.

"Women have key roles on-air and many of our top producers and managers are women. Two of the most important stories of 2013 were the Teina Pora and David Bain investigations, led by Paula Penfold and Melanie Reid."

He disagreed with Smalley's views about uncertainty leading to patch protection. "If there is any it comes from the highly competitive nature of our journalists ... They all want to produce the best possible programmes and do the biggest stories.

"We are known for the fact that all our presenters are journalists ... Yes there are egos but I don't think any of them are in it for the profile, many of them really dislike the fact that the print media see them as celebrities ... It is simply too tough a job for that."

Radio provides fresh - and early - start

It's 5am and Rachel Smalley's voice can be heard on radio stations throughout the country.

Her new show on Newstalk ZB, Early Edition, is just hitting the airwaves and she has an hour of news, weather, interviews and debate to get through.

Like the show's name suggests, it's an early start for the broadcaster whose alarm goes off at 3am at her Piha home ahead of a drive into ZB's central city base.

It's not entirely new for Smalley - before she joined ZB she was the anchor of TV3's early news programme Firstline, and also fronted The Nation, the network's weekend political programme.

It was her decision to leave those programmes and TV3 for the radio role that surprised many, both inside and out of the media industry.

"It was odd. I found the reaction odd. People didn't understand why you would walk away from television. I found that quite baffling, but perhaps that's because of the perception of television - that people think its so glamorous and the pinnacle of journalism. And it's not."

The new show has a broad scope and is a mixture of live and pre-recorded interviews, news and occasional editorialising by Smalley. It's a challenge she is relishing.

"What I'm doing on Early Edition at the moment is learning the craft. It's a learning curve for me, because you're winging it. It's much more intimate. Sometimes I talk about my little boy, what I did the day before ... It's much more than the blonde bobbed woman you saw sitting on the television who just told you what was happening in Afghanistan or whatever."

But there are still many who would regard it as a backwards step. Smalley disagrees.

"I think that's the perception of television [that it's a destination], but I got into journalism to write, that's what I really wanted to do. The first job I was offered out of Wellington Polytechnic, as it was then, was working for radio for IRN, so working for Newstalk ZB. From there the natural progression isn't really to print, it's across towards television."

The decision to leave the network after several years that included time as Europe correspondent was difficult but she feels she had little choice.

"It was a really hard decision to leave. I think, I was doing two tough programmes ... It was a lot of television, and I loved it because you had to be across everything ... [although] it was exhausting. But I did that to myself."

She sat down with her husband and they discussed her options.

"He said you can't keep driving yourself into the ground and there's nothing on the horizon."

It was at that point Newstalk ZB made its initial approach and Smalley decided it was the perfect time to leave a fulltime role within the television industry.

She told the Herald she knew the people there and found that a comfort.

"Radio is simplistic and it's intimate and that's what I love about it. You don't - I don't think - get the big egos and the big personalities you do in TV. People would find that hard to believe, but I think that it's true."

Before the Newstalk ZB offer Smalley gave serious thought to leaving journalism and discussed her options with female media people she respected.

"That was really enlightening, to spend time with senior women who had done well and been in media and moved on beyond that. I found that really helpful and it gave me confidence that if you step away from one position then doors open up."

And that's exactly what's happened. Since she left MediaWorks, her former rival, TVNZ - where she had never set foot before she'd signed her ZB contract - offered work on Q & A and Sunday.

On her departure to radio, she said:

"Was it bold? I don't think it was bold. Maybe it was brave stepping out into the unknown, but it was a good move for me. And once you get over that, 24 hours after you've resigned, then you're full steam ahead."

So what is it about radio?

"There's longevity in radio - it's not going anywhere. We'll always be listening to something through an ear piece on our phone in the car. I love radio for its intimacy - that I can wear Chuck Taylors and a pony tail and be on air speaking to thousands of people. But radio only ever feels like you're speaking to one person, whereas on TV you feel like you're sitting in front of a couple of hundred thousand people. I don't know what it is but for me radio only ever feels like I'm talking to Mum, or a friend."

What also appealed to her was it led into Mike Hosking's programme. She calls him a brilliant broadcaster.

"His skill base is remarkable so I get off air and go for run and put earphones in and listen to the programme. He's very clever, very slick."

Early on in her career she set goals and wanted to map a clear path ahead but now she is happy doing what she is doing.

"I'm just having a good time at the moment and don't have any burning ambition. I feel like I have ticked a lot of boxes in television ... The biggest challenge for me will be putting together investigative pieces for Sunday because that's the top level of long-form current affairs and that's a huge step for me ...

"People would say, 'why go to radio'. But I'm lucky I'm in a position I can do something I really love to do. I loved my time at TV3 but radio is where I'll quietly grow old, I think."

Rachel Smalley

* Studied journalism at Wellington Polytechnic in 1997.
* First reporting job was at IRN.
* In 2001 became the first non-Irish news presenter on Ireland's TV3.
* Worked at Sky News UK as senior producer 2004-2006.
* Between 2006-2009 was London-based Europe correspondent for TV3.
* After she returned to New Zealand was appointed Nightline host.
* Smalley's Early Edition day
* Arrives at Newstalk ZB at 3.30am.
* On-air between 5am-6am. Afternoon spent researching.
* 4.30pm: chat with producer Laura Heathcote about the next day's show.

- NZ Herald

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