All change at the stationby Karl du Fresne
After 38 years, Morning Report’s Geoff Robinson signs off with dignity.
This article was first published in the Listener on March 19, 2014.
Time for the bird
By Karl du Fresne
When Geoff Robinson took over as co-presenter of Morning Report, New Zealand’s population was just over three million. The police drove battleship-grey Holden Kingswoods, Sir Keith Holyoake was Governor-General, homosexual acts were a criminal offence and the Bay City Rollers were riding high in the pop charts. Guyon Espiner, who takes over from Robinson on April 2, was just starting school.
It was 1976 and Morning Report had already been going for a year. Its introduction had caused outrage among change-averse National Radio listeners who were accustomed to bland orchestral music with their breakfast. Robinson remembers lending his fountain pen to the show’s founding presenter, the Canadian Joe Cotê, when the programme ended each day so that Cotê could write mollifying letters to the complainers.
If it seems a lifetime ago, that’s because it was. When Robinson announced in November that he was quitting, you could almost sense time freezing momentarily across the nation as Morning Report’s 350,000 listeners absorbed the shock. New Zealand Herald columnist John Roughan wrote that “Robinson’s calm voice in the mornings has practically defined the character of RNZ National for as long as I can remember”. Robinson’s former colleague Sean Plunket said it was like the Pope resigning.
For 38 years, Robinson has been one constant in a turbulent universe. And now he’s going. On April 1, Geoff Robinson will leave the building.
You get the impression it’s going to be more traumatic for listeners than for Robinson himself. He’s as relaxed about his impending departure as he seems about everything else. He made the announcement without fuss or drama and that’s the way he’ll go out.
In a world of media egos, Robinson paradoxically stands out simply because he isn’t one. He once said, “What we do is more important than who we are”, and a colleague who has worked closely with him for more than a decade says it’s a mantra he lives by. “It’s not the Geoff Robinson and Simon Mercep Show, it’s a news programme, and it’s the news stories that are front and centre.”
BANKER TO BROADCASTER
The Robinson backstory has been told before, but for those who came in late, here it is again. Born and raised in southwest London, he arrived in Wellington in 1965, aged 21, as an assisted immigrant. He recalls that Wellington had only one cafe then and the pubs closed at six o’clock (Robinson voted for the first time in the 1967 referendum that resulted in 10 o’clock closing). But he liked it enough to stay.
He worked in a bank, as he had done in England. But a bank customer had once complimented him on his pleasant voice, so when he saw an advertisement seeking announcers for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, he applied and was accepted. A three-week announcing course was his only training. One of the lessons drilled into him there was that the broadcaster is a guest in people’s homes, a principle he still lives by.
He was never formally taught journalism skills, but learnt as he went. To this day he sees himself as a broadcaster rather than a journalist. If he hadn’t been on Morning Report, he insists, he would have been just as happy on RNZ Concert.
He married Elizabeth, a New Zealander with whom he would have two children, and spent his early radio years at Dunedin commercial station 4ZB. By 1975 he was back in Wellington, where Morning Report emerged from the upheaval created when the NZBC was split into separate television and radio arms. Robinson made his first appearance on the programme in June that year, filling in temporarily for Cotê, and took over permanently when Cotê returned to Canada the following year.
Apart from several years in the 1980s presenting a news programme on Radio New Zealand’s commercial network (since sold off to private interests), Robinson has hosted the flagship news programme ever since.
In that time, Morning Report has undergone a metamorphosis. For years it ran for only one hour, from 7 till 8. Live interviews by the presenters, now a signature feature of the programme, were a relatively minor component. Most of the content was supplied by reporters and the presenters filled the gaps in between.
In the latter half of the 1980s, the show became Good Morning New Zealand and was extended to three hours. Robinson says a series of dramatic stories, including the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the first of the Fiji coups, had demonstrated the need for a fuller examination of the day’s events.
At the same time, Maggie Barry replaced Lindsay Perigo as his co-presenter, introducing a male-female partnership that continued when Barry was succeeded by Kim Hill. That was the start of the good cop/bad cop dynamic – the courtly Robinson probing gently in interviews, his co-presenter taking a more aggressive approach – that remained a feature of the programme till Simon Mercep replaced Sean Plunket in 2010.
Running through the names of co-presenters Robinson has outlasted is like unearthing a time capsule. He can list at least 13 people who were formally appointed to the programme and another 30-odd who filled in temporarily.
They included Philip Sherry, Peter Fry, Bill Saunders, Brian Hudson, Peter Sledmere, Jim Sullivan, Boris Moiseiwitsch and Perigo – and of course, more recently, Barry, Hill, Mike Hosking, Plunket and Mercep.
Other than Fry, whom he still sees around the RNZ building, he hasn’t kept in contact with them. He agrees with his old boss Buzz Harte, RNZ’s former head of news, who likened the relationship between the Morning Report co-presenters to an arranged marriage. “You sit in the studio with someone, you work closely with them for three hours, and then you have a choice: you can get to know them after hours or you can make it an entirely professional relationship. I’ve tended to do the latter.”
He does, however, play an occasional nine holes of social golf with colleagues including newsreader Nicola Wright, reporter Eric Frykberg and Rick Young of RNZ Concert, and chortles with delight at the memory of a hole in one last year.
Off air as well as on, Robinson is a model of restraint and discretion. Undergoing what might be called his exit interview with the Listener in the Morning Report studio, he talks willingly enough, but you sense he’s never going to say anything out of turn. And although he’s affable, it’s possible to detect a certain English reserve.
You could drive yourself mad trying to dig the dirt on him. There isn’t any – or if there is, it’s buried very deep. It would be equally idle to expect Robinson to spill his guts on colleagues he dislikes or politicians he couldn’t bear having to interview. Right to the end, he’s the consummate professional.
When he does express an opinion about people he’s interviewed, it’s neutral or complimentary. Winston Peters, for example. “I like Winston,” he says, almost guiltily – though he notes that Peters, like the late Sir Robert Muldoon, has a habit of trying to draw interviewers into a debate, which Robinson resisted.
Asked once who were the most difficult people to interview, he tellingly replied: “Anyone whose point of view I agree with.” He was complimentary about Don Brash, describing him as a polite man who was a challenge to the media because, unlike other politicians, he actually answered the questions put to him. (That eventually changed, Robinson notes, after Brash fell under the influence of media trainers.)
Robinson’s a stickler for propriety too, and always declined Helen Clark’s invitation to address her by her first name. “I wasn’t interviewing ‘Helen’, I was interviewing the Prime Minister. The office deserves respect.”
ONE GOOD TANTRUM
Almost uniquely in a business known for bitchiness and touchy egos, Robinson seems liked and respected by everyone. The worst anyone can find to say about him is that he’s fussy about people using the studio and not leaving it as they find it – a trait he demonstrates after our interview when he rearranges things that have been shifted by the photographer.
Colleagues say he’s not only as solid as a rock (they can set the clock on him arriving at 4.20am), but also a rare example of the public persona being virtually indistinguishable from the private man.
Barry, who worked with him for several years, says the courteous, unflappable Robinson listeners hear is the same man his colleagues know. The two are seamless, she says – a rare quality among broadcasters.
She heard him swear only once, and it happened in extenuating circumstances.
It was day one of the revamped Good Morning New Zealand and an apprehensive Barry, making her debut, copped a choleric outburst at the start of the programme from a female producer who was bitterly opposed to the new format and, according to Barry, “was not happy about me, a woman in the job and a young woman, at that”.
Barry’s transgression was to depart slightly from the script and open with the inoffensive words: “Good morning New Zealand, and welcome to Morning Report.” As she and Robinson ran through the summary of what was coming up, she was subjected to a furious tirade through her headphones – “a deranged rant”, heard also by Robinson – for daring to ad lib.
When the programme cut to the newsreader and the on-air light went off, the producer stormed into the studio to continue the haranguing – at which point, Barry says, Robinson stopped her in her tracks, excoriating her for her unprofessional behaviour and telling her to “get the f--- out of the studio”. The producer dissolved in tears and spent the rest of the programme “wailing loudly in the ladies’ lavatory”, Barry recalls.
“Geoff kept going, as I did. That’s the thing about radio – no matter what’s going on in the studio, you’ve just got to keep soldiering on.
“He used to say, ‘Throw one good tantrum a year and make it work’, but I only ever saw him throw that one and it was completely justified. I was quite shocked at the time; it was my very first programme on my very first morning.”
She describes Robinson as very much a team player, “not the type of person to ever let a colleague flounder”. And he was generous to learners, often making himself available for staff training courses. Not for Robinson the fear that if he passed on his knowledge, some smart young whippersnapper might take his job. “That’s an alien notion to Geoff.”
If Robinson gives the impression on air of being mild-mannered, or at least a man who keeps his opinions to himself, it may be more than mere professional detachment. Spend an hour with him and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he’s genuinely a man of moderate views.
He once described himself as relatively passionless – a masterfully equivocal phrase, and apparently delivered without irony. A cynic might infer that he keeps his own opinions out of the programme because he doesn’t have any, which would explain his exemplary even-handedness as an interviewer.
He does have views, of course, but they seem mild ones, unlikely to give offence. When he does express an opinion – as when he chides the “younger generation” for being too interested in itself – it’s with the air of a man who sometimes startles himself with his own forthrightness.
Religion was once part of his life – he was active in the Church of England – but he now describes himself as being in a post-Christian phase. Pressed to elaborate – atheist? agnostic? – he answers disarmingly: “I’m honestly not sure where I am. Probably nearer atheist than anything.”
His political views remain strictly private. Barry, now the National MP for North Shore, says that in the years she worked with him, she never got a hint of his leanings. Robinson says even his wife doesn’t know how he votes.
The closest he comes to a political statement during our interview is when he reflects on the loyalty of Radio New Zealand’s audience. “I think it has been one of Radio New Zealand’s political strengths that every time a government has looked at slapping us down or whatever, there’s a constituency out there that writes in and says, ‘No, we like what we’ve got.’”
READY TO GO
Approaching his 71st birthday, and in apparent good health apart from having to use a hearing aid, Robinson says he’s ready to step down. There’s reading to catch up on – he likes history and biographies and has collected every book by the American detective-fiction writer Rex Stout – and a library of DVDs to enjoy (anything starring Kevin Spacey or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman gets a tick).
Will Morning Report change? “Of course. There will be two different people here [Espiner and Susie Ferguson] and they will have their own approaches.” Robinson is pleased that Radio New Zealand is persisting with the Wellington-Auckland split, which he recommended as long ago as 1976, and approves of the return to the male/female double act.
In a rare acknowledgement of his personal popularity, he says some people will be upset by his departure. He has received touching messages from listeners. But then the detached professional persona kicks back in. “It’s only a radio programme. Life goes on.”
Guyon Espiner: ad-free radio a treasure
By staff writers
Do you need to go to radio to do serious current affairs?
The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that serious current affairs does still exist on television but it gets the ghetto slot on Saturday and Sunday mornings when the audiences are tiny. The “serious current affairs” beast does creep into prime time occasionally but it is then caught between the competing forces of journalism and commerce. There are some excellent journalists in television trying extremely hard and doing great work, but the commercial arm of the network always wins the fight – they are there to make money, and if a show, or a type of story, doesn’t rate and generate enough income from advertising, then it’s chopped. It’s as brutal as that.
Do you prefer the rhythms of public service broadcasting to commercial?
As a listener it’s a treasure to have a commercial-free broadcaster. I was going to say it’s a luxury but it’s not. We deserve it. We need it. We need a place where you don’t have to be bombarded with advertisements and messages from sponsors every few minutes and where the content isn’t compromised as a result of that. As a journalist, if your thing is covering the serious stories of the day – the big political, economic and social issues – and someone asks you whether you want to work for Morning Report, where a story is covered because it’s newsworthy, rather than because it’ll rate and bring in advertising revenue, then you don’t have to think too hard before saying: yes please.
Will you miss the chance to do things such as television election debates?
I’ve done quite a bit of that on TV1 and TV3 over 10 years in television. I loved it and I’m grateful to the TV bosses who’ve given me those opportunities. I’m proud of what I’ve done but I’ll bank that and move on. My motto is: do the job you’re in to the maximum of your ability, never over-stay your welcome and don’t go back.
Why is there reluctance by some politicians to come on Morning Report?
I guess they’re keen to come on when they think it might suit them and reluctant when they think it won’t – but that’s how politicians are, isn’t it? There is no reason they should be reluctant to come on – it’s New Zealand’s most listened to radio programme, so it’s a huge audience of potential voters they’re are reaching. I think politicians get points with voters for fronting up. If you can’t defend your policies, then you shouldn’t really be advancing them. I’m aiming to hold people in power to account but I’m also aiming to give them a fair hearing.
Is television current affairs too concerned with entertainment these days?
The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is yes, very much so. It’s hard to know who drives what: whether the networks are just giving people what they want or whether the audience is simply responding to what is served up to them by the networks. If you look at what generates mass ratings, it doesn’t leave you in a happy place: talent shows and some American sitcoms are watched by three to four times as many people as the current affairs offerings. World’s Deadliest Roads would screen on a Wednesday night before 3rd Degree or The Vote and often the ratings would drop significantly when the current affairs show came on. If a cheap American programme about people driving on dangerous roads is more popular than an expensive, locally made programme screening New Zealand stories and debates, then a commercial network is going to respond to that.
Has the arrival of a baby daughter been useful prep for the RNZ’s early starts?
She’s been a great help. She started by getting me up at 1am, 3am and 5am and now sleeps until 4am, which will be about my new wake-up time and feels like a pretty good night’s sleep.
Have you missed the excitement of daily political news coverage since you’ve been doing weekly journalism?
I have, actually. It can be a bit frustrating when a big story is going to break and you know it will twist and turn in a dozen ways before you get to go to air.
Do you think RNZ National’s audience has an appetite for combative interviewing? Will you be the hard cop or the soft cop?
I think the listeners have an appetite for getting some straight answers and will accept a combative style when that’s what it takes. Being combative for its own sake – or when it’s just not warranted – no one really wants to listen to that. Some people will see me as a bad cop. I’d prefer fair cop.
How have social media and the popularity of partisan blogging affected people’s news diet – that is, their attention span for analysis, their patience with go-to commentators and interest groups and their trust in the mainstream media?
These things have affected the media a lot, but in the case of radio it’s mainly positive. You’ll often see a debate on Twitter about an interview or story on Morning Report, so that’s a great way to engage listeners. The other thing is that as the media fragments and print and TV struggle with their business models, public radio is only going to be more valuable.
Are you glad to be sitting down in your job after all that standing around with Duncan Garner?
Over the years TV viewers – and critics – have helpfully provided plenty of in-depth analysis about my posture, my hand movements, my suits and ties and stuff like that. It would drive you mad if you dwelt on it. Hopefully the feedback on radio will be more about substance than style.
What will you do with the rest of your day after going off air at 9am? Luxury!
I think my wife, Emma, and my five-month-old daughter, Nico, have some things mapped out for me so I don’t get bored.
Susie Ferguson: steady under fire
By Karl du Fresne
You’ve filled in on Morning Report in the past, but your listeners don’t know much about you. Tell us about yourself.
I came to New Zealand about four and a half years ago. I grew up in Edinburgh but left when I was 18 and went down south, initially to do a drama course, then went on to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where I did a degree, and stayed in London for my postgrad diploma in broadcast journalism.
You originally aspired to be a theatre director. What changed your mind?
[Laughs.] I suppose I didn’t want to suffer for my art. It suddenly dawned on me in my third year that, oh my God, how am I ever going to make any money? Not that it’s all about money, but …
You went into journalism for the money?
No, but I had a road to Damascus experience. I had a very talented friend who was doing a one-woman show that I stage-managed at the end of my third year at drama school. She was working with a fantastic director who was 10 years older than me. She [the director] was absolutely brilliant; just watching her in rehearsal was wonderful. But after 10 years she was still only being paid expenses. She was waitressing just to make ends meet. And I thought, I’m not sure I want to do that; I’m not sure that’s what my life looks like.
I had another moment a few weeks later when I was working at a gap-year fair – promoting things for school leavers to do before going on to university – and I ended up sitting at lunch next to a careers adviser who said to me, “What do you like about theatre and drama?” And I talked about elements of performance, voice work, story-telling. She said, “Have you thought about broadcast journalism?” And I hadn’t. So I did the postgrad course and that’s where it all started.
The performance aspect of broadcast journalism was part of the appeal?
Absolutely, yes. I never wanted to be an actor – I’m not that good an actor. But I’m quite a reasonable performer on stage when it’s not about taking on a character.
Were there things you learnt in drama school that have been useful as a journalist?
Oh, things like constructing narratives, storytelling; how to tell a good story with impact. There’s a lot of crossover, though there’s obviously one large difference. Journalism is about the facts; theatre isn’t.
What brought you to New Zealand?
My father’s a third-generation New Zealander, but his family left New Zealand in 1947, when he was still a child, and went to St Andrew’s in Scotland, where my grandfather had been offered the chair in philosophy at St Andrew’s University.
When my grandfather died eight years ago, he left me a small amount of money. I wanted to do something worthwhile with it, so I came here with my then boyfriend, now husband.
I had a very strange sensation of travelling to the other side of the world and coming home. It was partly the friendliness and openness, but also the little things – like walking into a cafe and seeing melting moments for sale.
You had relatives here?
Yes, there are branches of the family over both islands. When I came here I suddenly realised that here was a whole country doing things that I had always assumed were just things my granny did – the food she made, the songs she sang, all that kind of stuff. It was a lovely sensation. On the trip back to Auckland Airport my partner and I thought, what would happen if we just didn’t get on the plane? Which obviously we couldn’t do, but that was the moment when the idea was planted.
At the time, we were thinking of leaving London, wondering what to do next. I was reporting from war and disaster zones for the British Forces broadcasting service and really enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to go on doing it forever. So we thought we’d give it a go. That’s how we ended up here.
You have children?
Yes, one who was six months old when we arrived here in 2009 and another who’s now 16 months old.
What will you bring to Morning Report?
People say to me that I’m not afraid of asking hard questions. I don’t know about that – I just ask questions I want the answers to, and I’m reasonably insistent about trying to get them.
You’ve described this as your dream job. Not just a PR phrase?
Not at all. I think this is the best gig in town.
Have you had a chance to get acquainted with your new co-presenter?
Yes, Guyon [Espiner] has been down in Wellington, so we’ve been able to get to know each other and talk about where we’d like to take the programme.
Isn’t it likely to be rather dull after working in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?
That was five years ago – it seems like another lifetime. Life changes, life moves on. But I wouldn’t say it’s dull. Three hours of live radio every morning – that’s not dull.
Was it useful experience, reporting from war zones?
You get to be good under pressure.
Ever feel your life was on the line?
There were a few moments. Someone once said to me that war is 95% waiting around and 5% shitting yourself, and that’s a reasonably accurate summation.
People talk about the good cop/bad cop dynamic on Morning Report. Will we see a return to that approach?
I don’t know. The good cop/bad cop thing seems a little old-hat. The bottom line is that whatever you’re doing, it’s got to be fair.
Can we expect changes?
Yes. If you listen on April 2, you’ll hear what some of them are. It will immediately sound different, but hopefully not offputtingly so for the listeners.
Wallace Chapman: the natural
By Jane Tolerton
Wallace Chapman did not apply for Sunday Morning because he didn’t think he’d get the job. At the last minute two friends phoned and pushed him into it.
This holding back is strange because Chapman could see himself in that chair even 20 years ago when he had sudden success with a programme he started on Dunedin’s student station Radio One: someone local talking about the history of something local. “Rather than being a little specialised show, it was a juggernaut of a show,” he remembers. “I walked out of the studio one day thinking, ‘Imagine if I could do that type of show on National Radio.’”
If that makes Chapman’s interests sound like those of a quirky, boutique broadcaster, note, as Mediawatch did, that he was about the only one in the country to devote decent time to marking the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
“You have to be interested in everything,” says Chapman, whose versatility has been proven recently, as he has gone from RadioLIVE’s Sunday morning slot to the old Willie & JT talkback show.
Reining in political pub chaos on Back Benches, which will return to Prime later in the year, shows not only his intense interest in politics but a brand of showmanship peculiarly suited to Sunday mornings – with a hint of the pulpit about it, an echo of his Fijian Methodist minister father who died at 48.
“When I think about it, what Dad talked about from the pulpit were the kinds of things I talk about on my radio show,” Chapman muses, saying he hadn’t made the connection before. “It wasn’t about religion, but issues such as connecting with each other, what values we hold, what brings us together as a bicultural nation. That was a big thrust in Methodism in the 1980s and I was thinking about issues in a bicultural way before people were talking about it in the media.
“Even as a grumpy 17-year-old sitting in the back of the church, I used to listen to Dad and think, ‘I can relate to that.’ I do think I picked up an inkling of the way to make issues real, part of an everyday conversation.
“My Fijian grandmother used to ask, ‘When are you going to become a minister?’ I used to say, ‘Nana, I’m a broadcaster’, but that didn’t stop her asking.”
Chapman was born in Manurewa in 1969. “I loved the Rewa,” he remembers, along with the shock of moving to Nelson at age 10.
He completed an English and educational psychology degree at the University of Otago, but was held back from his future by Gaucher’s disease, a hereditary metabolic disorder, its major symptom being the wearing away of the bones.
Stuck in his flat on a sickness benefit, watching daytime television, thinking “this is my life!”, he was rescued by flatmate Richard Wain’s move in bringing home briefs for advertisements for Radio One. He became a copywriter in his own living room and took over Wain’s creative director job when he left. He was soon behind the microphone as well with his own arts and culture show.
Chapman used to go to hospital three times a week for infusions. Now it’s down to once every couple of weeks. “It’s part of the schedule of life, and you learn a lot of empathy in the regular hospital experience. I do think it’s affected my broadcasting, the ability to empathise with the voiceless. The stories I’ve heard in oncology. I feel privileged to be part of it. People’s lives are not what they seem.”
In the past month he has had more pain than usual. “I had to come home from the radio show and go back to bed today because the bone pain has returned, and it’s not a good development. But that’s what I live with. It’s having a disability. It’s quite important to say because I know I sound like a guy who emanates positivity, but boy, from day to day I can struggle behind the scenes. With my disorder, I suffer from bone crises – like a heart attack of the bone. It’s painful, but it passes.
“It’s a wonder to me and everybody else that I have never missed a day’s work. I think the body rises to the occasion. You get to the time when you’re on air, the pain disappears and your brain focuses.
“Pain is a very interesting phenomenon. I might explore it on my show. That’s the magic of Sunday Morning – that open brief to explore ideas and take them wherever you want to go.”
He was prepared to be trained into a Radio New Zealand National style. “But they said, ‘No, you bring what you have to us.’” A nice echo of his two friends’ insistence when they pushed him to apply that “what you do is what they’ll want”.
The previous format is being tweaked – with a 7am start, the first two hours to have a more hard news focus.
Chapman will do the show from Auckland where he lives with his wife, Tabitha, whom he married last year.
He expects to feel at home at RNZ. “National Radio was the go-to station for me back when I was 14. At varsity I had the feeling I was the only one, but in my twenties I found quite a high percentage of younger people were listening to it.
“It’s got a listenership that’s very hard to define in that it’s across the board. On commercial radio they say, ‘Your listener is a housewife; she spends half her time at home, she goes to cafes, she’s got two children.’ It’s very specific. But you can’t pin down what a Radio New Zealand National listener is.”
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