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Gone By Lunchtime
The spirited life and sudden demise of Radio Sport

Dana Johannsen

Talking about it still gives Jason Pine goosebumps.

The veteran broadcaster, who up until Monday was the host of Radio Sport's nine to noon show, has plenty of highlights to choose from when it comes to his most memorable broadcasting moment.

As the excitable voice of New Zealand football, Pine has called bizarre on-field bust-ups, shock losses and historic wins.

Radio commentator Jason Pine is the excitable voice of NZ Football. DAVE LINTOTT

But the moment that sticks in his mind wasn't anything that happened on the field. It was a talkback call from a regular Radio Sport listener with a far-from-typical story.

Early last year, Christchurch man Ian Walker called into the show from his hospital bed to thank Pine for helping with his recovery from a serious accident.

Walker, a well-known handcyclist, had been in an induced coma for four weeks after a ute crashed into him while he was out for a training ride in rural Canterbury in January 2019. It followed a cycling accident in 2006 that left him permanently paralysed.

In a moving piece of audio, Walker told of how his family flicked Radio Sport on in the ICU one day. What followed was a cinematic outcome.

Handcyclist Ian Walker before his 2019 accident. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

"[My family] tried talking to me … and then they actually played a bit of Radio Sport. You were on about Liverpool's trials and tribulations a couple of weeks ago," Walker, a mad Liverpool fan, tells Pine live on-air.

"Apparently when you made mention of the word 'Liverpool', I didn't sit straight up but I clenched my mouth, pumped my fist and then I started waking up an hour later. So a lot of it goes down to you, Mr Pine."

There's a long stretch of silence. Jason Pine, a man adept at filling the at-times long stretches in between talkback calls with his own musings, is rendered speechless.

"He rang completely out of the blue. I didn't know any of this until he called me on the air," Pine says.

"To be told you played a role in a guy coming out of a coma, just by talking on the radio, was amazing. I was gobsmacked. Yeah, that's the moment that stands out for me."

Walker was not available for an interview when Stuff called this week. His partner Louise says he is taking a break from talking about his accident.

"But I don't think he will mind me saying that he loved Radio Sport and he will really, really miss it."

Veteran broadcaster Lesley Murdoch was a regular on Radio Sport's rugby commentaries. JOSEPH JOHNSON

It was, as Pine puts it, a "fairly swift chopping off at the knees".

He received word at 11am, just as he was about to launch into what would be the final hour of his show, that a meeting had been called for all Radio Sport staffers at 12.15pm.

By 1pm Radio Sport was no more. Twenty-two years of history erased in a lunchtime.

Over a wonky Zoom call (audio only, of course), NZME chief executive Michael Boggs delivered the news to around 30 staff members that the station was to be taken off air with immediate effect.

Boggs explained the shutdown of sport, combined with sharply declining advertising revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic hitting the media industry hard, had left the company with no other option but to close Radio Sport.

Morning breakfast host Kent Johns also commentated Warriors home games. PHOTOSPORT

For many sitting in on the meeting there was some confusion as to what they were being told. Some initially thought that station was being put on hiatus during the sports shutdown, only to later realise it was terminal.

"I can understand why people might have been slightly confused, and that would have been through pure shock. It was very, very difficult to absorb that information and process it. We were all just stunned," says morning show host Kent Johns.

"Me personally, I took it immediately to mean Radio Sport was a dead duck. It's over. Done."

And it was. By the time the meeting was through, the station's social media accounts had been deleted and technicians were preparing to switch the frequency over to sister station Newstalk ZB on the stroke of 1pm.

Many were upset by what they considered an "undignified" end, having been shut down without any formal on-air announcement or opportunity to say goodbye to the listeners.

Radio Sport breakfast hosts Marc Peard (bottom left), Nathan Rarere (top right) and Kent Johns (bottom right), livestreamed a farewell show on Facebook following the shock news. MARC PEARD SPORTS/FACEBOOK

It is understood the decision to pull the plug straight away was made by radio operations managers, as opposed to the NZME executive, in the interests of protecting the staff and sparing them from potentially having to put together programmes they didn't want to do.

Johns and his morning show co-hosts Nathan Rarere and Marc Peard took matters into their own hands and streamed their own farewell show on Monday evening over Facebook, but he says he would have liked to sign off properly.

"I know from talking to the guys that there is that sense of unfinished business, that it was an undignified way to go out," he says.

"I completely understand where management were coming from, I must say I hold no grudges against them, but I would have preferred that we front up and try and do it properly right to the last. I think we needed to thank our listeners and tell them that we will be OK."

While there was shock at the suddenness and finality of the decision, there were signs NZME's commitment to sports radio was waning before Monday's announcement. In February the company confirmed it had chosen not to renew the rights to broadcast live cricket commentary.

At the time of the announcement Jason Winstanley, general manager of talk radio, said Radio Sport's cricket coverage had run at a loss - "something we've previously been prepared to wear, but we're now taking the opportunity to rethink our offering in this space".

Johns believes the loss of the cricket rights revealed the vulnerable position the station was in.

"Perhaps we should have been paying more attention when we dropped the cricket a few weeks back," he says.

"Radio Sport wasn't in a strong enough position going into this thing, and it didn't make it out."

The decision not to renew the cricket rights signalled the end for Radio Sport. PHOTOSPORT

If the loss of the cricket rights signalled the end of Radio Sport, securing them was effectively the launchpad for the station in 1998.

Radio Sport emerged from the privatisation of sports commentaries, building on the success of 'Sports Round-up', a popular National Radio programme in the 1980s and early 1990s that featured wall-to-wall sport over summer.

Former radio executive Bill Francis, who headed up talk programming at The Radio Network (TRN) for more than two decades, says the proposal to go to a 24-hour sports radio station nearly didn't get off the ground.

"At the starting point there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing going on because another player came into the market to bid for the cricket rights, and if they'd have won them, The Radio Network, as it was then, would have been in serious trouble with sport."

Along with cricket, Radio Sport added rugby, netball and NRL to its live sport offerings. But Francis says the real challenge was recruiting a line-up of presenters that could carry sports talk programming through the weekday shows.

The station's founder, John Howson, pushed for Francis to try a guy called Martin Devlin, then a breakfast announcer with alternative music station Channel Z in Wellington.

Former radio executive Bill Francis played a key role in getting Radio Sport off the ground. STUFF

"There were some very crucial and important things that were decided at the beginning. The decision to bring Martin Devlin on as the breakfast host was important and he immediately attracted an audience and then other quite pivotal selections of Brendan Telfer and those sort of people helped it get some real heft from those early days."

Devlin never thought it would take off the way it did. 

"I was scared s...less really, I just had no idea whether it would work or whether there would be anyone listening," says the fast-talking Devlin.

"On the first day, we got to 9am and we had an hour of talkback planned. I remember saying to my producer at the time, [the late] Dave Shirley 'What the hell are we going to do? There's no one listening'."

"And then someone rung up and said something about Man City and I was arguing with them and the next moment the phones just went, and they never really stopped."

The talkback format came into its own following the All Blacks' shock semifinal exit to France at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. As the nation went into a crazed state of mourning, Radio Sport became the outlet for the outpouring of anger and disappointment.

"We were basically grief counsellors to the nation," says Devlin, who signed off from Radio Sport in 2018 to take up a hosting role on ZB's weekend sport show.

"I think it happened on a Monday morning and I remember saying to Telf when he came in 'drop everything, just go to the phones' and it lasted like that for weeks, if not months."

A nine-year-old Guy Heveldt was one of those sports fans who clogged the lines for weeks eager to have his say about the All Blacks' failure.

"I think I only got through once. I was about to have a crack at Taine Randell, or something like that. How ridiculous, a kid having a go at the All Blacks captain. I remember being on-hold for probably half an hour and then I just got cut-off," says Heveldt, who spent the formative years of his career at Radio Sport and is now a sports reporter at TVNZ.

"But yeah, even back then I was desperate to be on air. Listening to Radio Sport was a big part of my childhood."

Francis says it was this sense of connection between the hosts and their audience that helped the station grow to a 6-7 per cent audience share in some markets, including Christchurch and Dunedin, in its early years.

Despite its rollicking start, the station lost $2 million in its first year. It would remain on a fiscal knife edge for most of its lifespan.

My Radio Sport career lasted all of seven months.

Martin Devlin helped build a strong audience in the early years at Radio Sport. (File photo) DAVID WHITE/STUFF

In one of my first weeks on the job a well-known host flung a young producer over his shoulder and unclipped her bra in the middle of the office. No-one said a word. Or if they did, it couldn't be heard over the guffaws.

There was a suffocating blokieness about the place.

During newsbreaks or quiet periods spontaneous games of indoor cricket would break out in the middle of the newsroom. The c-word was bandied about freely. And there were always reckons. VERY LOUD RECKONS.

Despite various attempts to introduce women into the on-air mix over the years and broaden its appeal, Radio Sport was never able to shake that macho energy.

Its image was not helped by high-profile scandals involving some of its hosts, including the station's marquee star of the mid-to-late 2000s, Tony Veitch, who was convicted of domestic violence charges in 2009. Veitch was stood down from his role as breakfast host in the fall-out after news broke of the offending, but was welcomed back into the fold 18 months later.

Likewise personalities such as Mark Watson and Kieran Smyth attracted the wrong kind of attention for their aptly named segment 'Controversy Corner'. The pair were accused of making misogynistic, racist and homophobic comments, reinforcing what one commentator described as sport's "Jurassic-era attitude to anyone who is not a straight white man".

Such hosts gave listeners the sense that Radio Sport was a safe space to air equally outdated views.

"I have a lot of respect for Radio Sport listeners, but there were a few of them that were very misogynistic. You would see the text machine go off any time there was a woman on air, or we would be discussing women's sport. It was pretty awful stuff," says Heveldt.

Francis believes the niche positioning of Radio Sport as the last bastion of blokedom ultimately led to a dwindling audience share, which has sat firmly around the 2 per cent mark for the last decade, and eventually, the station's downfall.

"Starting out there was the presumption that because it was sport and New Zealanders were sports followers and sports minded, it would have a ready-made audience, but as it developed that was shown to not be absolutely true. Not many people want to listen to sport 24 hours a day," says Francis.

"It was also troubled by the fact that stations like Newstalk ZB, its stablemate, were also covering sport quite heavily and so that also was dividing the available audience. So what you ended up with, and I have sympathy with NZME and where it has ended up, is that over those 22 years, the difficulty of securing sufficient audience to make it strong enough to attract money to the brand was not easy. Not the least because Radio Sport basically became a radio station for older men [40-64]."

For all its image problems, sports broadcaster Rikki Swannell says the camaraderie in the trenches at Radio Sport, particularly among the mostly young reporters and producers, was strong.

Former Radio Sport breakfast show host Tony Veitch was a divisive figure at the company. WARWICK SMITH/STUFF

Swannell started out on the sports news desk straight out of broadcasting school in the early 2000s. Following a stint overseas she returned to lead the team in 2010 until she quit to pursue commentary opportunities in 2016.

She remembers as a young journo trying to break into the industry being overwhelmed by the generosity of legendary broadcasters like Murray Deaker and PJ Montgomery, who were always happy to help out with phone numbers and contacts and provide words of wisdom. 

"We were a really tight-knit group. We've seen people become parents and been to their weddings and gone through loss together, and we're all incredibly supportive of one another and that's been obvious over the last couple of days as well with how everyone has been talking and catching up since [the closure was announced]," she says.

The lopsided economics of radio stations dictates the key on-air talent gets paid the big bucks for working limited hours, while at the bottom of the foodchain were the poorly paid sports journalists and producers, who work long hours for little reward.

Swannell says what bonded the team was a passion for sport and a hunger to work hard.

"It wasn't just any old job. And I know there were some members of the public that were envious of us getting to sit around and talk about sport every day. But people worked really bloody hard to make that place what it was, with little resource," she says.

"You don't work the hours that you do just because of it. You did it because we loved sport. Every single person I worked with there over the years gave their heart and soul to the place, I know the hours that people like Nigel Yalden put into prepping his rugby commentaries, and the extra things that Elliott Smith does that he doesn't get paid for and is there over time when a big story breaks.

"That was the real culture of the place."

Johns, who literally worked his way up from the basement at Radio Sport, with his first job at the station sorting and archiving tapes in the bowels of the TRN's old Cook Street premises, says he has been through "peaks and troughs emotionally" this week as he deals with all he has lost. To him, Radio Sport represents his entire working life. 

Broadcaster and commentator Rikki Swannell served as Radio Sport's news editor for more than six years. ABIGAIL DOUGHERTY/STUFF

"I think it was probably not until 48 hours later that it really hit home as to what I was losing and my colleagues were losing," says Johns.

"We were losing each other, and I guess we were all losing something that we fought really f...ing hard for for 20 odd years."

Johns says the hardest part of it all is with the timing of the decision coming while the nation is in lockdown, he hasn't been able to meet up with his colleagues to "have a beer, shed a tear together and support one another".

In a sliding doors world, on Monday they would have been gathering at the pub to toast the station's 22nd birthday.

If there's anyone that can provide an uplifting note to end on at this time of uncertainty and worry, it is Pine - the man who brought another guy out of a coma.

"Whether or not the station comes back, it will always be remembered. Twenty, thirty years from now, if you mention Radio Sport to a sport's fan, they'll know what it was.

"We may not have been around for a long time compared to some of the radio brands out there, but it certainly always provided people with a good time and an escape, and when things aren't going well, people need a few distractions in their life and whether that was talking a bit of sport or listening to a commentary."

"Sport isn't really real life as far as health, education, social welfare and things like that are concerned, but it does have an important place in society, and it will prevail. Sport will prevail."

- Stuff

© 2020 Stuff Limited April 5, 2020

This material remains © Stuff Limited and is only to be used for non-commercial personal or research use. Any other use requires permission of the copyright holder.

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