Waikato University’s student radio station Contact 88.1 FM (nee Contact 89 FM) is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Contact was a station that changed my life, and that got me thinking about my life of radio.
My earliest memory of radio is actually of television, not radio. It’s a Datsun ad on the telly in the late ’70s. But after that my earliest memory of radio is the National Programme (now Radio New Zealand National), which my mum always had on in the house.
There was the little silver radio with the brown leather case that sat on the kitchen windowsill, and the larger silver radio that sat on mum’s bedside table (the radio was on her side, Dad had the phone on his side).
I generally hated the National Programme. It was all talking, usually BBC comedy panel shows where people said things that weren’t funny but caused raucous laughter. What music was played seemed to be either classical pieces or bloody sea shanties.
I don’t know if it was the aged radios or the general quality of AM, but National always seemed to have an omnipresent dark drone to it, almost like a groan of annoyance at having to listen to the National Programme again.
Well, ok, there was the Sunday morning children’s show with the mellifluous tones of Dick Weir. I always remember feeling like those children’s stories on the radio sucked me in a little bit too much, like rather than just listening to the story, I was part of it. Books never took me that far, neither did TV.
Growing up in Hamilton, there was the local commercial AM station, 1ZH (now Classic Hits), which (as Wikipedia jogs my memory) was known as 1300 1ZH and also Hits and Memories 1ZH. Hits and Memories sounds like the biography of a boxer.
1ZH was cool, but it was also AM and therefore not totally cool. It would play all the songs that were in the charts, but it still had that slightly institutional Radio New Zealand feel to it.
What was cool was 89.8 FM (pronounced “eight ninety-eight”), later Kiwi FM (no relation to the current Kiwi FM; also, now ZM). 89.8 had Ronnie and Andrea in the mornings and they were all lively and energetic and cool and people would come to school talking about what they’d heard on the breakfast show that morning.
Except by the late ’80s, Hamilton’s radio stations weren’t playing the music I wanted to listen to. It was MOR pop and rock oriented, and I wanted to listen to that hip hop and house-influenced pop that was emerging at that time.
I discovered that if I put my little pink ghettoblaster on the top level of my bedroom shelves, at night I could tune into Auckland’s 91FM (now also ZM). While 89FM was the popular Auckland station, 91FM just seemed nicer.
Radio on shelf, I’d listen nightly to the Hot Nine at 9 show. The listener-decided countdown was just different to the music that Hamilton listeners requested.
When I was in the seventh form, I started listening to the aforementioned Contact FM. Someone at school told me they’d heard a hilarious rude parody of C+C Music Factory’s hit song “Gonna Make You Sweat”, so I’d tuned into Contact on the off chance that I might hear it.
I didn’t. But what I did hear was “Typical Male” by “radical activist recording and performing group” Consolidated. Sample lyrics: “The typical male thinks with his dick. That’s how he rationalises shallow sexual conquest as a means of self-expression and fulfillment in a world of alienation and emptiness under modern capitalism.” This is good to be exposed to when you’re 17.
Yeah, so Contact changed my life. But not through painfully right-on hip hop. It introduced me to music that I liked, that made sense to me. I’d left school and I was on the dole and I spent much of my weekly $110.69 payment on tapes (CDs cost about $10 more).
I ended up doing newsreading on Contact, which started out being fun but eventually got a bit boring. And, besides, I really hated having to get up early on my days.
Hamilton radio in the ’90s spawned the Edge and the Rock, both of which have gone on to dominate the respective pop and bogan corners of today’s radio market. Bloody hell.
When I moved to Auckland in 1997, I assumed that I would listen to 95bFM, but I found myself strangely taken in by the station The Dot 96.1. It had been set up in direct competition to alterno-lite station Channel Z. The Dot had no live DJs, just recorded announcements for songs, and claimed that the first 10,000 songs played were commercial free.
I think it was this minimalistic approach that appealed to me. In a way, it was a bit like listening to an iPod on shuffle. It didn’t pretend to be my friend, it just played music, and most of it was OK.
Strangely, though, when I think back to the sort of music The Dot played, it was stuff like Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth. Did I used to enjoy that? Or did it just not matter?
Near its end, The Dot had live DJs, including Jaquie Brown on the breakfast show. That didn’t quite have the same appeal to me, but I kept listening, anyway.
On 1 January 2000, after a night that ended on a tiresome, sad note, I was driving home, listening to The Dot. Slowly I realised that all I’d been listening to was R&B songs. Oh no – The Dot had changed formats. It was now an R&B station, no doubt trying to crush Mai FM, just as it had attempted to crush Channel Z.
Actually, let’s just skip back to late 1997. My friend Dylan had somehow found himself in the position of running an IRC channel during the Sunday night youth talkback show on Newstalk ZB. Dylz used to cart his PC into the office and have that set up, chatting with the handful of early adaptors who were also listening.
The highlight of the ZB experience was when the host, Timothy Giles, raced out, grabbed me by the hand, pulled me into the studio and said he had Bic Runga live in the studio. Because I have the improv skillz, I immediately did my best Bic Runga voice (nice, clear, a little nervous) and wished viewers a happy new year. I still don’t know what that was all about.
Then in 2000, Giles was over at Radio Pacific (now Radio Live) doing a Sunday afternoon show called Computer Chat, and Dylan was in the studio as a computer expert.
Somehow I ended up going from hanging out in the studio, writing show summaries, to actually being in the studio, making up advice for people with computer problems. Worst moment – when Dylz had a coughing fit, leaving me to help some codger with his printer. “You could try turning it on and off… and maybe contact the manufacturer?”
By the way, the worst thing about Radio Pacific was the constant interruptions for the live horse racing commentaries. We’re now going live to Addington to hear about some ponies running around in a circle.
In 2002 I bought a Japanese import car that could only pick up Newstalk ZB or Mai FM. I chose Mai, and with it entered the world of hip hop, R&B and the teen culture that goes along with it, which I’ve previously documented.
I was listening to so much Mai that I could recognise a partially disguised version of the 50 Cent Remix of Mr JT’s “Cry Me a River”. I became obsessed with Ja Rule. I would sing along with “I’m so sick of being lonely every night while my man goes out with his homies. I wanna know how it feels to be loved, be lo-uh-uh-oved.”
So when I crashed my car and sold it, I missed not having the Mai soundtrack in my life any more, but I soon got over it.
But since then, radio of the live tuned-in variety hasn’t been a big part of my life.
Sometimes I would listen to bFM on my tinny clock radio while I was straightening my hair, but I don’t even do that any more. I couldn’t even say what the Wellington radio scene is like (though Radio Active seems good).
But instead I consume radio content in podcast form. This year I’ve been listening to the 95bFM “Historical Society” series of interviews with past station staff, and I’m subscribed to various podcasts from stations like BBC, ABC and NPR, and – oh, have I just come full circle? – I listen to Radio New Zealand National online too.
There’s something intimate about good radio. I like it when it’s one voice – not a “morning madhouse” cacophony – someone who’ll talk to me and who I can listen to; to lie down or sit or walk to a voice who’ll guide me through thoughts, ideas or just a good song.