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The Listener, 80 years on, still living dangerously

Pamela Stirling, editor. Photo/Michael Rooke/Bauer Media

It was Charles Dickens who first raised the idea. Early one morning in January 1847, tiring of life in London, he wrote to his friend John Forster: “Disposed to go to New Zealand and start a magazine.”

It was a fine plan, flawed only by the complete lack of a viable readership. Dickens contented himself with publishing some New Zealand stories.

It was to be almost a century before the launch of the New Zealand Listener, in 1939. And, by then, Dickens had presciently provided the perfect quote for the circumstances in which the young magazine found itself: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”

There could hardly be a darker or more inauspicious moment in which to launch a magazine than on the eve of a world war. By 1942, six of the 10 male Listener staff were in uniform, and the number of pages had been drastically cut due to paper shortages.

And yet, in the deepest of ironies, the war was to be the Listener’s saviour. In August 1939, New Zealand Finance Minister Walter Nash was in Britain renegotiating the country’s loans. The treatment he received was hostile and condescending, with the British government and banks reluctant to subsidise New Zealand’s welfare state. However, just two days after Nash’s arrival home on September 1, New Zealand declared war on Germany – and within days Britain offered to buy New Zealand’s entire exports of meat and dairy products. As James Belich once told the Listener, in a sense, World War II saved New Zealand. And without it, he added, the government-funded Listener “might have lasted only a year”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

No one then would have expected the Listener, long since stripped of its government funding, to be celebrating its 80th anniversary this year in such fine form. In a world of profound change, however, people gravitate to brands they trust. Driven by the strength of its content, this publication has become New Zealand’s bestselling current affairs magazine with a per capita circulation higher than Time, the New Yorker or the Spectator. At a time when, sadly, the indicators are flashing red for many publications internationally, the Listener’s circulation is remarkably stable. It now sells more than twice that of its nearest local current affairs magazine competitor and has overtaken most New Zealand women’s and lifestyle magazines. The readership now stands at 201,000 – up 5.8% year-on-year in the latest Nielsen survey.

How do we do it? In a world of fake news, our aim is to produce an independent, respected and compelling magazine that is not afraid to rattle cages but which is a positive, energising force in New Zealand’s cultural, intellectual and political life.

From the beginning, the Listener clashed with the stifling conformity of its times. A 1940 article on the US elections met with government disapproval and a Listener poster was removed from the streets by order of the Prime Minister. Editorial comment on US isolationism was also “regarded with disfavour”. The editorial courage and integrity of the first two editors, Oliver Duff and Monte Holcroft, built the foundations upon which this magazine still stands. On its 10th anniversary, the editorial noted, “There are times when to be alive is a sort of a miracle, and in its infancy the Listener had to live dangerously.” Duff used to send prime ministerial memos back unanswered.

The Listener proudly continues the tradition of independent investigative journalism and it advocates strongly on issues of importance. Our first climate-change cover, a subject of so much controversy at the time, was published 15 years ago, long before publications such as Time did so.

This magazine will always champion New Zealanders. It printed Janet Frame’s first short story as an adult, as it did the first fiction of Keri Hulme and many others. It published Lorde’s first-ever interview. We were honoured to publish Sir Edmund Hillary’s last interview.

On this special anniversary, we’re delighted to share with you some of the often-moving Listener content as it recorded the journey of our nation over the past 80 years. Not everyone has approved – after the very first issue, one reader thundered, in suspiciously Dickensian language, “Sir, to what purpose is this waste?”

It was not, thankfully, the only letter. There were many messages, including this: “Please to accept my congratulations on No 1 of the New Zealand Listener. I don’t know how you did it … I expect you must have been pretty well standing on your head by the time it went to press. In fact, there is evidence of that in the position on each page of the heading and page number.”

It’s the lively, engaging and stimulating readers who have made it such a joy and a privilege for all of us who have worked on the Listener over its 80 years. We hope you enjoy this celebratory issue.

The Listener turns 80 this year and in celebration of reaching that milestone we're delving back into the treasures of our archive. Pick up a copy of the 80th Anniversary Bumper Issue and see for yourself.