When the leftie-baiting talk radio host Leighton Smith began his long stint in broadcasting from Auckland, he was working for a state-owned business.

That's how it was in 1985. Kiwis had hardly heard of espresso coffee, our GST hadn't been invented and the French sank the Rainbow Warrior.

You could smoke at work, you couldn't buy beer at supermarkets, and many shops still had to close on Sundays.

The Greenpeace protest vessel Rainbow Warrior lying partly submerged at Marsden Wharf in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour after an attack by French agents in July 1985. Photo / Ben Motu
The Greenpeace protest vessel Rainbow Warrior lying partly submerged at Marsden Wharf in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour after an attack by French agents in July 1985. Photo / Ben Motu

David Lange's Labour Government and its swing to the right had only just begun to shake off New Zealand's form of 1970s socialism. Newstalk ZB was still going by its old moniker of 1ZB and it would remain in the commercial arm of state radio for another 11 years.

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David Lange's Labour Government introduced big changes to New Zealand society and the economy.
David Lange's Labour Government introduced big changes to New Zealand society and the economy.

Virtually all of the country's tsunami of change since then has been acclaimed or debated or decried through the microphone of the award-winning Smith, one of New Zealand's longest-reigning broadcasters, who has announced he will retire from ZB at the end of next year. He will be replaced in the morning time-slot by afternoon show co-host Kerre McIvor.

Kerry McIvor will take over the 8.30am to midday timeslot on Newstalk ZB. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Kerry McIvor will take over the 8.30am to midday timeslot on Newstalk ZB. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Having arrived from Australia in 1980 and spending five years working at 2ZB in Wellington, Smith went to Adelaide with no plans to return to this side of the Tasman.

But he missed New Zealand and was lured in 1985 to Auckland's 1ZB, which was in the early stages of its transition into the Newstalk format. He got the 8.30am-midday time-slot, which he has held since.

It was a time of big changes in radio, with the introduction of FM also under way.

And it was when Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA reached number one in New Zealand, Painted Years by Netherworld Dancing Toys won NZ Album of the Year, and Keri Hulme's The Bone People won the Booker Prize.

Paul Holmes was the breakfast show host at Newstalk 1ZB. Photo / Paul Taylor
Paul Holmes was the breakfast show host at Newstalk 1ZB. Photo / Paul Taylor

In March 1986, 1ZB became Newstalk 1ZB, with Paul Holmes in the breakfast broadcasting seat, followed by Smith, and in the early afternoon Auckland's recurrent civic chief and music promoter Phil Warren.

Smith has described the tough times after the switch: "Holmes did not have a good start. Things got very rocky. Ratings tumbled from the mid 20s to 8.3 per cent. Mine went from 22 per cent to 11.5 per cent, the only programme to retain double digits."

"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.

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

It is the talkback host's job to provoke and Smith hasn't shrunk from the duty.

Giving his opinion on Smith's planned departure, Duncan Greive of The Spinoff bade farewell to "NZ radio's crankiest uncle".

Smith had made his colleagues look like "calm moderates" with his "climate change denial and warnings about 'chicky-babe' Jacinda Ardern", said Greive.

Smith told the Free Radical magazine in 2007 he couldn't easily define his politics, although he was "certainly no left-winger".

He believed in charity, a shallow welfare safety net, having a few rules about commerce, and western education.

"The country's progress is going to be hampered until every child is encouraged to succeed, tribalism takes its rightful place in history and socialism has a stake driven through its heart."