Classic Hits: Radio that won’t fade out
Julia Proverbs – Saturday, February 26, 2011 8:49
Fifty years ago commercial radio came to Tauranga. Julia Proverbs looks at the evolution of Classic Hits – what has changed and what remains the same.
The reception area of The Radio Network in Tauranga is very 2011.
The scarlet rug echoes the red spiral logo on the wall and the black and white retro leather sofas with zebra print cushions look as if they were made exclusively for the derrieres of the rich and famous.
Like television, radio has an air of glamour about it. And when you take the lift to the fourth floor of Harrington House, home to Classic Hits, you are not disappointed.
But I am sitting on a dated purple sofa, more 1980s than new millennium, and beside me general manager Andrew Love is leafing through a scrapbook of black and white photos and yellowing newspaper clippings.
In his modest office, behind the facade of glamour, he is taking me back in time. To a time when, despite being invisible to their audience, radio announcers always wore a suit and tie, and clouds of cigarette smoke swirled around the studio. When the tick, ticking of a needle on vinyl was the lead in to a song, not the tapping of a computer keyboard.
“They sat in a collar and tie and they had to talk properly,” he says and rolls an imaginary plum around in his mouth.
Classic Hits 95.0FM is celebrating its 50th anniversary and Love’s office is littered with memorabilia as he plans an Easter reunion.
“It’s 50 years since commercial radio started broadcasting in Tauranga,” says Love, who joined Radio 1ZD, Classic Hits’ predecessor, 41 years ago as a salesperson.
“Before that it was the National Programme – it ran all the time. We were one of the last areas to get commercial radio.”
Love is leaning back into the embossed sofa, having kicked his brown leather sandals under the table. He’s barefoot and without a tie. It’s tempting to say he is dressed for radio. Until he reveals he is going into hospital the next day for an operation on his foot.
“I don’t usually wear sandals. We like to present ourselves in a professional way,” he says.
But, none-the-less, his cobalt blue, open-necked shirt has an air of casual about it.
Soon after, Breakfast’s “roving” producer, Grayson Ottaway, swans in wearing denim shorts, jandals and a black polo shirt.
“I have even ended up doing the show in my pyjamas,” he says. “At the end of the day, I sound the same.”
But their attire is a minor point of difference. While things have become more casual on the clothing front in the past 50 years, technically things have become much more sophisticated.
The first broadcast by Radio 1ZD, with John May at the microphone, was made on the evening of February 25, 1961, and ran for just three hours.
“In those early days when they used to announce on radio they had a little thing – what do you call those things?” Love gestures, striking the air with an imaginary stick.
“Ah, yes, a xylophone. Ding, ding, ding,” he peals out a tune.
“And everything was on 45 discs and cassettes. Now it’s all on computer.”
By the time Love joined the team in 1970, the original staff of 10 had swelled to 38, nine of whom were technicians.
“Now have a staff of 17. We haven’t had a technician on site for 12 years,” he says of how technology has replaced people.
Gavin “Nobby” Coxhead was the station’s first trainee technician. The now 67-year-old started in 1965 and stayed about six years, playing commercials, tapes and episodes of serials, as well as recording outdoor broadcasts. “The announcer played the records,” he says.
It wasn’t uncommon to see Nobby around town carting “heavy old tape-recorders and batteries”.
Now living in Whangamata, he believes the job today would not be as satisfying, thanks to computers doing most of the work.
“It was a guess and by gumption game,” says Love. “You put a record on and you didn’t know if it was going to be good or bad. If you had to do a broadcast at the beach it was like moving the royal family.”
Love, who became general manager four years ago, has had several guises in radio, and is perhaps most well known as a sports commentator. Turning his hand to management was a natural progression for someone so immersed in the industry, and he has won the network’s manager of the year award for the past two years.
“I have a really good understanding of the industry and how it works. Having been in it for so long I can do everything you can do in radio,” he says.
But it’s clear radio has as firm a grip on him as he has on it.
“You never go to work knowing what’s going to happen. It’s never a mundane job. Radio has that immediacy. It has that wonderful excitement,” he says.
“There is a little bit of glamour to it but it’s not like the old days when they would come up to the station to peer through the windows to see what the announcers looked like.”
“Lots of identities have moved through this place over the years. It’s a big stepping-stone to doing something else. Grant Bridger, Brent Harman …” He wracks his brain for more.
“Who haven’t we had here?” Ottaway says.
“The most watched man on television, Steve Parr, from Wheel of Fortune. Kerre Woodham was here too.”
And then there are the guests.
“The original cast of Shortland Street, Charley Pride, Rolf Harris …” Love rattles them off.
“The Grays-man” then leads me through a rabbit warren of corridors to a disused voice booth and a whiteboard covered with signatures.
“Richard Hadley, Frank Bunce, Carly Binding (we had all of TrueBliss in here, that was funny), Kim Willoughby, Gary McCormick,” he traces his finger over the scrawls.
And past a double-wardrobe-sized cabinet of black boxes and flashing lights, transmitting seven stations from The Radio Network’s Tauranga offices to its 87,000 listeners.
The equivalent 50 years ago would have filled a room.
“I can talk into a microphone and it goes up here, through here and into people homes – and it’s instant. It’s amazing,” says Ottaway, pointing at the labyrinth of cords.
Then into the studio that is home to the Breakfast show, where he reaches under the sofa and reveals a closely guarded secret.
“We are one of the only stations in the country that has still got a turntable … we use it for really special events,” he says, blowing dust off it.
“We were told to get rid of it,” says Breakfast announcer Brian Kelly, known by listeners as BK.
“So we hid it,” he grins, his gold-capped tooth glinting.
When the studio was being refurbished he bribed the builders with beer to make a cubbyhole for it on his desk.
“Every now and then a song comes up and we know the song isn’t there, so we get a record out and play it.”
The records are filed away in the building’s dark recesses but in this room the names are more current, a poster signed by Brooke Fraser, a T-shirt signed by Lisa Lewis.
“Lisa Lewis came in and took her top off. She has no shame, that woman,” Kelly says and laughs.
Kelly came to Tauranga as a community broadcaster in 1975 and has been doing Breakfast since 1980.
“I had no intention (to stay in the job so long) … I thought some whipper-snapper would come up but the younger ones like to go out at night and play and they don’t want to get up at 4am and go to work.”
He prefers to keep his age to himself, saying it might alienate the target audience which is “30-49 year old female-skewed”.
And, in his faded jeans and black, short-sleeved Oakley shirt, it’s hard to pick. But his level of experience is a good indication of how long he has been on the block.
During the interview, Barry Muir, of Barry Muir’s Furniture Gallery, one of his longest-standing clients, comes in to record an advert. It’s a slick operation. The 30-second ad is recorded in precisely 30 seconds, in one take.
“It’s like flying an aeroplane,” Kelly says of the computerised studio. “This is the flight deck and you’ve got to look at all the buttons, know what direction you’re going in and what to do at certain times.”
Completing the Breakfast trio is 25-year-old Charlie Helliwell, who Kelly refers to as “the new girl on the block”.
“She keeps us all young.”
With her long, blonde hair, up-to-the-minute fashion and not a hint of denim she adds some yesteryear glamour, says Kelly.
But Helliwell sees her role as more parental. “I am the babysitter of the group. I might be the youngest but I keep them in line,” she giggles.
Having come from a smaller station in Wellington, it’s her first big break in radio.
“I like to be able to just talk. My mum said to me when I started that I’ve been practising for this since I was 2 years old.”
She is the same age as the son of one of the station’s most avid and long-standing listeners. Bethlehem’s Heather Parnell has been listening to BK and the crew for more than a decade.
The 52-year-old first tuned in to the station when her boys, now 23 and 25, were at Matua Primary School and she’s remained loyal.
“I’ve even got a photo of BK with hair,” she laughs. “He did Quacker Duck at the primary school.”
When her youngest son and “little guy” Antony was 5, Parnell recorded a conversation he had with Kelly on air. It was Christmas Day and an excited Antony had relayed to him in detail how Santa had visited, and a reindeer had left a half-chomped carrot on the lawn.
“He [BK] is so down to earth and really caring.”
As her boys grew up, she continued to listen to Kelly and his various “off-siders” over the years.
“I put my own name in the birthday bowl [now] because no one else remembers.”
She has a collection of mugs and wine glasses with the station’s name imprinted on them, and regularly rings up for requests.
Every morning BK’s voice filters through her house while she’s “buzzing around”.
“Sometimes I get mad with him because he’ll say they’ve got something interesting coming up on the show and I’ll wait around and then, Murphy’s law, it’ll happen when I’m in the shower.”
Parnell has on occasion tuned in to other breakfast shows but she always comes back to Classic Hits.
“I just have it going all the time. It’s just like a part of the fabric in the morning.”
This connection with its listeners is something that has not changed. For instance, Kelly is often contacted on his mobile to settle debates over music.
“We are a true community radio station as such. We’ve got people established in the community and we know a lot of people and are involved with a lot of community activities,” he says.
So where will radio be in the next 50 years? “Remember that song, Video Killed the Radio Star?” says Love .
“Well it didn’t did it? It’s just become a much faster, smoother operation.” Even if those sitting behind the microphones don’t wear ties any more.
© Bay of Plenty Times 26 February 2011.
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