By Jodi Bryant
It's hard to believe radio personality Charmaine Soljak used to get anxiety about speaking to the public.
But for the first two years on the air waves between the ages of 17-19, she would break into a sweat, go bright red and cry.
Fast-forward 32 years and Charmaine breaks off our chat at The Hits studio in Whangarei to slide on the head phones, sit up straight and, beaming, animatedly conduct a 12-second voice break like she's chatting to her best friends.
And in a way she is.
"Connecting with the listeners is my favourite thing about radio," the 49-year-old enthuses. "The people are awesome. Yesterday I had this really beautiful thing occur where one of my regular listeners had rung in to win a prize. She came into reception to collect it and I got to meet her face-to-face and we had a big hug. Actually meeting them in the flesh is just the icing on the cake.
"At the supermarket, people will stop to talk to me and pick up on an on-air conversation I might have been having about my kids. They feel they know me because I've been in their bedroom, their kitchen and in their car."
You would be forgiven for thinking Charmaine has always entertained. But, in fact, she started off with other ambitions. Raised in Wellington, she joined her family's marine construction and hydraulic engineering business as an industrial scuba diver. At age, 17, she moved to her tribal home of Rotorua in pursuit of researching family land. There, she joined Te Arawa Trust Board, which ran Maori access schemes for those wanting to upgrade their skills. The trust decided to launch a community-based radio station and, deciding Charmaine would be a great ambassador for both Te Arawa and Maori, offered her a role.
Radio Te Arawa was born and, with it, Charmaine's career in broadcasting.
"Radio was super-exciting at that time. We built the radio station in an empty building. That first experience was massive because they taught me everything – how to produce music sound, write ads, record it, put it on air. But they told me they thought I was more of an announcer.
"Really I had the fear right through until I was 21. You can tell when someone is comfortable on air by their breathing. I've still got those first tapes and I sound really awkward and young. I actually can't believe they let me do that," she laughs, cringing.
"I used to speak like a Maori kid from the bush," Charmaine breaks off to give a demonstration but now struggles to pull it off. "I had to refine my pronunciation," she finishes.
Those tapes she mentions became the way of radio after LPs/vinyl records. Charmaine recalls editing involving physically cutting the tape at a certain place before sticking it back together with sticky tape. Tapes evolved to CDs before the audio computer software system used today.
By then it was 1997 and love had brought her north, leaving the by-then, renamed Raukawa FM, followed by a six-year stint as creative director and breakfast show host at Lake City 96FM, and nights in the metro market at Mai FM, Auckland, in her wake.
"I met my children's dad and moved to Tutukaka to live the dream," she says.
While the dream was not to last on the home front, her love of broadcasting has. After several years at the then-named KCC-FM with, among other roles, her own Saturday morning show, the already mother of one, took ten years off to have and raise two more children. She returned to the work force and eventually moved to The Radio Network in 2014 where she now entertains listeners as NZME's The Hits day show host from 9am-3pm.
Today's computerized audio system allows the national programme to take over if there is a glitch but Charmaine can recall many a faux pas over the years. In fact, her first experience at Rotorua is one she now laughs about.
"The first show I did was a Robin Trower special. I didn't realise I was playing the whole show at 45-speed instead of 33. My cousins were sitting at home laughing the whole time."
Then there are the times she forgot to push the off-air button and listeners were privy to some rather personal conversations, punctuated with the odd expletive. Or the time she hadn't pre-read the news and its shockingly-rude details gave her a fit of the giggles.
But back to that question of what she loves about radio.
"I don't think there's anything sexier than radio because it's so instant. Working here, a journalist might ring and say there's a whale stranded on the beach and help is needed. While you can read about that story the next day, I can open up the mic and instantly direct help to the location, while posting a picture online so I also make social media work with me. It's slick and it's fast.
"Everything is structured but part of the craft is keeping the momentum moving forward and making it seem natural," says Charmaine, adding that she spends an hour preparing local content for the following day. "The craft that I developed is in telling a story and bringing it to colour and life and adding sound effects. It's headlines and you need to be able to project that feeling and vibe but it's also about listening to people."
Then there are those 'wow' moments of giving prizes to deserving listeners and Charmaine vividly remembers the first time in Rotorua she presented a trip for two to the UK to a lady whose sister was dying of cancer.
"Everyone was standing around at the windows watching and it was really emotional. I get those 'wow' moments a lot and that first time, I really saw how impactful what we did could be."
While her children are now used to their mum, whose role involves MCing events, being approached in public, they are also right at home in the studio.
"They're radio kids. All three of them are comfortable with a mic in front of them and, every day, they come into the studio after school and, if I'm in a meeting, they set the music to their liking."
Besides being a busy mum and radio host, Charmaine's still into her diving and anything around the water. Then there's CrossFit – she recently returned from the Master League Games on the Gold Coast with a medal - and she does traditional Maori flax weaving for both the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and friends. She also loves riding around their farm on the horse but is about to trade farm life for beach life as the family move to One Tree Point.
It's now time for another voice break – this time to coincide with an eight-second instrumental and Charmaine, again, slides on the head phones and develops her natural radio persona that many know and love.
"I overcame my fear through years and years of training through all the people in radio," she adds, before:
"This is The Hits, you've got Char …"
Yes, she is right at home.