By Aiden McLaughlin
30th March 2020
It’s 6am and the start of another week for the Radio Sport Breakfast show. The regular combination of Kent Johns, Nathan Rarere and Marc Peard isn’t together today though; Kent is in his usual seat in the Radio Sport studio at NZME Headquarters in Graham Street, Auckland, but Mark Kelly, producer of the All Sports Breakfast and Radio Sport Weekender, is Kent’s sparring partner this morning. New Zealand has been in Level Four restrictions since 11.59pm on the 25th March and the sporting world is in lockdown. With a lack of sport to talk about, each show is a challenge. Usually the start of the week would see Super Rugby chat and reaction, NRL talking points, plus a raft of other sports to cover, but there was none of that.
Rarere and Peard are at home, on annual leave. It wasn’t leave that they had requested, they had been asked by the company to take it. Like many businesses faced with uncertainty as a result of Covid-19, station owners NZME were conscious of accrued leave sitting on their balance sheet and with a lack of obvious show content, this seemed like a good time to reduce those liabilities.
At 9am Kent and Mark finish up. They are mentally shattered. Creating a three hour show when you are struggling for content is taking its toll.
‘I said to Mark, don’t worry about Thursday’s show, don’t think about Wednesday’s either, let’s just concentrate on one at time.’ Johns left the studio and embarked on his journey home. Driving over a deserted Harbour Bridge, he thought about how surreal that sight was. A city eerily quiet, the trip was the fastest it had ever been. Little did he know he wouldn’t be doing the same twenty four hours later.
9.07am. After the news, it’s time for Jason Pine and Sam Hewat to take over with Radio Sport Mornings. Unlike Johns and Kelly, they are, as usual, in different cities. Pine is in Wellington and Hewat is in Auckland. Physical distance between work colleagues around the would become commonplace in the weeks and months that followed, another consequence of the pandemic, but this was normal for this partnership and it had no impact on their ability to put together a successful show.
Pine had arrived early to prepare, as usual, at around 6am. The Wellington office was, in his words, ‘a ghost town’.
Hewat recalls the mindset that they had adopted:
‘We were trying to put sports shows together when there was no sport on. We were trying not to just resort to easy content like ‘what are athletes doing to pass the time?’ It was a tough ask but Piney and I had sat down and were fully prepared for the next few weeks and months ahead.’
During their show, there was a twist; Pine recalls what suddenly happened in the final hour:
‘We were invited to a 12,15pm meeting at 11.15am. I signed off at 12pm with my normal ‘See you tomorrow.’ Daniel McHardy and Louis Herman-Watt had prepped their afternoon show and we ready to go on air at 1pm.’
Invitations to the Zoom Call had been sent out by email and in some cases, phonecalls were made to ensure staff didn’t miss it. Johns, now at home, received a call from his boss’s secretary:
‘I was curious. I thought there would be a temporary stoppage of the station.’
‘The general consensus was that they’d probably take us off air while we were in Level Four – both for safety and for cost saving measurements.’
At 12.15pm, NZME Chief Executive Officer Michael Boggs delivered the news that the station would be closing with immediate effect. The call was audio only, no videos switched on. Marc Peard recalls that ‘it was ruthless.’
Daniel McHardy, due on air next, says:
‘We were told only 30 minutes before my show was due to start and the news came down like a hammer blow. It was all over, just like that. I was stunned and deeply saddened. The hours that followed are bit of a blur. To be denied the chance to say goodbye and thank all the fans on-air that day pained me. In fact, it grates me to this day….I had just finished the 2nd part of a documentary about the 2015 cricket World Cup. Part 2 never played on-air. Shame, it was good.’
In an internal email to staff, Boggs said:
‘With the cancellation and suspension of virtually all local, national and international sports events and competitions, we have been forced to look closely at the level of sports coverage, including live events, across all our platforms. The impact of the cancellation and suspension of events, along with the overall impact of Covid-19 on NZME revenue, has been significant. We have made the incredibly difficult decision to stop broadcasting Radio Sport from 1pm today. Radio Sport frequencies will now carry Newstalk ZB programming indefinitely.’
Four weeks later, the staff got their chance to say goodbye. On 27th April, ‘Radio Sport Extra Time’ was broadcast. A three hour show, anchored by Jason Pine, was indeed the final chapter; there would be no more.
In the months that followed, as life returned to relative normality, there was reflection – a strong feeling from many, inside and outside the organisation, that the decision to take the station off air was one that would have taken sooner or later – and that a global pandemic had simply sped up the decision. For a number of years, staff had felt there had been a lack of investment in the station, a reluctance to experiment with new types of content, fresh technology and a resistance to embrace less traditional sports to try and engage new listeners. The loss of cricket commentary had been confirmed just over a month before the station went off air, with NZME opting out of renewing the rights. An early nail in the coffin? It seems like it was.
‘I think about it about the time; we shut down just four days into lockdown. That said, even if Covid-19 hadn’t come along, I don’t know if Radio Sport would still be going now. In the weeks that followed I was a full time Dad as my partner was working. For me, there was a delayed reaction – two months later I was thinking ‘what do I do now?’ I don’t miss the horrendous hours though – Nate and Marc are still stuck with those, haha.’
‘My involvement at Radio Sport was fairly brief. I started part time when the Rio Olympics was on and I thought one of the best parts was hearing Nige, Daniel, Gash (Brian Ashby) and the others commentating sports off the tv tubes and them all sounding incredible. It was so exciting and they all did the radio skill of painting pictures with words. It was so good.’
‘Something like that is a massive pillar in your life. At first there was anger, but I knew I couldn’t have done any more. There’s no resentment now.’
‘In the days and weeks that followed, I had a major case of survivor’s guilt. I was fortunate enough to be offered an ongoing role with NZME but many of my colleagues, most of them far more proficient than me, weren’t so lucky. It was a difficult time for me, but I still had a job. For them, I can’t imagine how tough it was. I offered support where I could, but I often felt like a fraud, given I was still employed by the company who had got rid of them. Eventually I decided the best way to honour the legacy of those broadcasters was to continue to strive for high standards in whatever I did and continue to do. That’s what drives me every day.’
Earlier this month, Australian based company SEN (Sports Entertainment Network) announced that they are planning to acquire the TAB’s 29 AM/FM radio licences across New Zealand. Brendon McCullum has been confirmed as the host of their breakfast show. Upon the announcement earlier this month, he said:
‘I’m obviously hugely excited to be taking the lead on such an inventive move forward for sports radio in New Zealand….I still live for sport and this is another opportunity to remain immersed in it in my own country, putting my stamp on SENZ’s coverage and hopefully having a lot of fun along the way!’
Sports Entertainment Network CEO, Craig Hutchison said:
‘New Zealand is one of the most passionate places in the world for international and local sport and we are delighted to have reached agreement to unleash SENZ onto an unrivalled radio footprint across the whole country. Our business has long championed local content for local fans and that’s exactly our plan in NZ. Our 24/7 sports talk format will include shows hosted by some of New Zealand’s most loved sporting identities – as well as a block-buster line-up of live sport – all delivered through a fiercely local lens.’
It’ll be a difficult task. The balance of engaging old Radio Sport loyalists and their expectations, with a modern, innovative approach to bring in new listeners. The launch and development of the station will be intriguing.
Tomorrow. Where are they now?
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