Quake queen: Broadcaster Vicki McKay on staying calm on air

by Clare de Lore / 09 December, 2016


Vicki McKay at her Wellington home. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Broadcaster Vicki McKay brought comfort to many by calmly carrying on during the 7.8 Kaikoura quake and aftershocks. But she already had nerves of steel, as this wasn’t the first time she’d been on air during a disaster.

Suddenly shaken awake, sometimes hurt, invariably frightened and often with no power, many people turned on their radios to help them through the terror of the earthquakes that have twice struck in the lonely dead of night.

Broadcaster Vicki McKay was on air on September, 4, 2010, when Christ­church was hit by a 7.1 magnitude quake at 4.35am. On November 14, she was only part way through reading the midnight news on RNZ National when the Kaikoura quake struck, at 12.02am, registering a thumping 7.8.

What was perhaps the understatement of McKay’s broadcasting career – “And yes, Wellington, we are undergoing a fairly dense earthquake at the moment. So please just get to somewhere where you are safely under some protection because this is long and rolling and getting worse” – was delivered in her husky voice with no hint of panic. She continued broadcasting for another six hours as much of the South Island and Wellington continued to shake.

You’ve been on the BBC and other major news websites, with accolades for carrying on throughout the big shakes and aftershocks. What do you make of that?

It’s ridiculous. I got a message from someone saying, “You’ve gone global, you’re on the Huffington Post, the BBC.” When I woke after that shift, and I hadn’t got much sleep, the funniest thing was my daughter saying, “Mum, you’re famous, you’re all over social media. They’ve recorded you when you were on air and it’s on social media.” I cracked up, of course. I was just doing my job. What else was I going to do? When I think about all the things that have happened over the years while I’ve been on air – 9/11, the Hillsborough disaster, the first Gulf War – all that sort of stuff prepares you. You know there will be a cast of thousands and you have to just hold the fort till they arrive. It was a treat that Susie [Ferguson] came in, because I did September 2010 on my own. I was lucky, too, that the Kai­koura quake hit just after midnight because the Morning Report set-up team were still around and we were able to swing into action really quickly. I knew it was going to be crazy. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of text messages, emails and tweets came in.

with Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker at a Civic Awards ceremony in 2012 at which she was among those honoured for their acts of kindness, service or heroism during Canterbury’s quakes. Photo/Christchurch Council

Where do the nerves of steel come from?

The adrenaline was flowing, but as soon as it started to ease, I knew we would be fine. You’re nervous, unsettled, but it wasn’t the first time, so I am a bit used to it. And I grew up in Wellington – I am used to earthquakes, although that one the other night just went on and on. My chair moved sideways, but I was being bounced up and down. I did wonder about the huge noise coming at me from above and thought maybe the ceiling would collapse. I’ve found out since that it was because the music library, the biggest in New Zealand, is on the floor above, directly above me, and the huge cabinets had banged and crashed into one another.

What’s foremost in your mind in an unfolding drama such as this?

People are absolutely terrified when this happens at night. I played a two-minute song and went straight to the text messages, brought up GeoNet, and started talking. Then I needed to move studios because Suzie was on the way in. I played a bit more music, but people hate that, they need to hear a voice, so I explained that I’d be back shortly.

You cannot be in any way dramatic or hysterical. You can’t add to the problem. You have to be very calm, collected and solid. In any crisis or in dramas on air over the years, it’s always been the same – stay calm and focused, get the messages out there, people will get those messages and they will be able to breathe again.

Sharing people’s stories via text message gives other people listening some comfort because they know people are facing the same problems. It’s the little things like the dogs are on the bed or there’s a mess on the floor – little things, because you cannot see the big picture then, just share the small human things that are going on. It’s a very intimate time of the night.

You’ve been doing this midnight-to-dawn shift four nights a week for more than 20 years now – I presume you’re a night person?

I hang out with the bats. I have been a bat person since I was a child and now I am Batwoman. I have always much preferred night shift and I am naturally a night owl. When I was a nurse in a previous life, I worked night shift, too.

Do you get by on little sleep or do you sleep a solid eight hours during the day?

A bit of both. I need at least five hours a day and now I am getting older, a bit more. When I get home at about 6.30am, I have breakfast, and then I go to bed at about 8am. I sleep until about 1.30 when I go and collect my grandchildren from school, as their mother is working. I have them until evening, then I make sure I get one hour’s sleep before my shift. I alternate the shift with Lloyd Scott and do four nights and have four nights off.

Do you unwind a bit with a book when you get home?

My eyes are usually pretty tired by the time I get home, as I have low light in the studio and I am looking at screens during the night. So I don’t read books to unwind. I listen to the radio – I am one of those people who have a radio in every room. When I do read, it is invariably on my laptop, sometimes even while I’m in bed. I am a news junkie, and I read news, watch news on all channels such as the BBC and Al Jazeera, which is a favourite. The exception is Fox – I won’t look at Fox. I love keeping up with what is going on in the world.

Any thoughts about what you might do differently on air if and when the next big shake comes?

I have thought about that, but only because people said, “How did you keep going?” I have always been service driven; keep the customer happy. You don’t have dead air, you keep going. I’ve tested the microphone now to see if it will stretch far enough if I end up broadcasting from under the desk. It does and I will.

This article was first published in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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