Radio legend Merv Smith, one of New Zealand's pillars of broadcasting, has died.

Smith, who was 85, held the number one position in the country's radio breakfast ratings for 26 years.

He remained active until the end, but was admitted to hospital on Friday and died this morning.

He started in breakfast radio at 1ZB in 1961, aged 28, and left for Radio I when Paul Holmes came in to start the Newstalk format in 1986.

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Photo gallery: Merv Smith - photos from a legendary career

After he retired from radio he dived into his true love - trains - and ran Merv Smith Hobbies in Newmarket.

Former colleague Barry Holland said he was the first of the big radio personalities - but was a very humble man.

He said his enduring memory of him was his humour and timing.

Smith was very involved in radio drama, then on TV in Personality Squares.

His breakfast show included birthday calls - and a spider, McHairy, for the children.

When he left 1ZB he started a country music radio show from Albany.

Merv Smith in the Britomart underground railway station in Auckland in 2005. Photo / Adrian Malloch
Merv Smith in the Britomart underground railway station in Auckland in 2005. Photo / Adrian Malloch

He volunteered for the Blind Foundation for 48 years; narrating nearly 200 books and countless magazines.

He also featured in numerous radio and television commercials as well as a children's video series called Buzz and Poppy.

Former NewstalkZB station manager Bill Francis said Smith was first heard on the station as a member of Tom Garland's school-age Friendly Road choir.

After leaving school, he worked as an office boy in radio stations in Auckland and Whangarei before getting his big break on the 1ZB breakfast show in 1961.

"He was just a great guy to wake up to in the morning," Francis said.

"In those days of 1ZB it really was all things to all people, so he would do all the birthday calls for the kids going off to school, but he could also be relating just as well to older people and working people and so on.

"Despite the fact that he was a bit of a funny guy, he also believed intensely in the production of a good voice and correct pronunciation."

In his book ZB - The voice of an iconic radio station, Francis said Smith's "natural talent for talk, clarity of delivery, facility for mimicry, jokes, great laugh and all-round cheerfulness made him the number one choice of most Aucklanders for their first contact with the world every morning".

Smith's weekly conversations with his character McHairy were "frequently hilarious".

After moving to Radio I he achieved a further two years as number one before Paul Holmes eventually took the top slot back for NewstalkZB.