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RNZ's Matinee Idle: the music show that's student radio for grownups

Simon Morris (left) and his Matinee Idle “other half”, Phil O’Brien, in the studio at Radio New Zealand in Wellington. Alec Morris, Simon’s son and Matinee Idle’s trusty sidekick is centre.

If it’s summer, it must be time for Matinee Idle, the music show that’s like student radio for grown-ups.

With only minutes to go before the show begins, Radio New Zealand’s Matinee Idle host Phil O’Brien checks his emails and texts. The complaints are already coming in thick and fast. “We must be the only show in radio that gets complaints before we go on air,” he laughs.

His other half, Simon Morris, has forgotten to put together a programme. He blames it on the fact that he’s given up smoking. It doesn’t matter. The summer-holiday music show has been on air since 2004 (O’Brien has the date tattooed on his right arm) and the pair are used to winging it with their eclectic knowledge and quick wit. 

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The show runs from noon to 4pm on weekday afternoons, through the summer break, and also on selected public holidays. When North & South visits the studio, it’s Labour Day, and the theme is clapping – which quickly descends to “a dose of the clap”, “getting the clap” and “giving the clap”. “Please, no more clap jokes!” pleads Morris. A request comes in for “Unsquare Dance” by the late US jazz musician Dave Brubeck, a piece that consists almost entirely of clapping. It gets played, but not every request makes the airways.

Listeners are central to the flow of the show, with their lively feedback and constant critique, often motivated by the chance to win a free Matinee Idle T-shirt, designed by Dick Frizzell. One tells a gag about dating a bluegrass player: “In the end, she two-four timed him...” he says.

“Is this the RNZ Got Talent show?” asks another. “Then don’t give up your day job.” Definitely no T-shirt there.

“We have got to stop people thinking Matinee Idle plays rubbish music,” says O’Brien. “We play a little bit of rubbish music, but ironically. It’s a joke. Then we play good music...”

The show – half-audience participation, half make-it-up-as-they-go-along – has built a large and loyal fan base. Half an hour on air and the two hosts are already falling all over themselves, laughing at their own jokes and in-house music trivia. “There is going to be no Eric Clapton on today’s show,” announces O’Brien. “Even we wouldn’t stoop that low,” Morris interjects.

Alec Morris, Simon’s son and Matinee Idle’s trusty sidekick, handles the technical stuff, social media and fact-checking. Later, he’ll represent the tastes of a younger generation by being allowed to pick a song as “Alec’s Choice” – a tradition that dates back to the days when production assistant Kelle Howson (who started working for Matinee Idle while she was a student at Kapiti College) was a popular part of the crew. Alec reckons “at least one” of his mates listens to the show, which reflects an era of superior musical tastes. “Well, according to the Matinee Idle listeners, anyway.”    

Meanwhile, the emails and texts keep flooding in, some from as far off as the US Midwest, where fans are tuning in despite the time difference. Other, disgruntled listeners are threatening to change radio stations forever.

O’Brien sums it up like this: “We’re just a couple of middle-aged guys fighting over the CD player, with the windows wide open and the music turned up to 11.”  

This was published in the January 2018 issue of North & South.