Great radio

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.

Choosday

Well, it looks like National Radio aren’t going to archive the 3D Radio show that I was on back on New Years Eve, but fortunately one of my co-panellists, James from Noizyland, has kindly hosted the whole shows as a podcast (i.e. an mp3) for your listening pleasure.

[Oh – it’s not there any more. OK, I’ll figure out somewhere to host it and get back to you.]

Before the show started there was the long-range forecast which went on for ages. As I sat there listening, I realised that I find the National Radio long-range weather forecast to be somewhat soothing and reassuring. It probably came about from my mother always having National playing in the kitchen when I was growing up. It’s the way the place names are recited in order – Tauranga, Taupo, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua. I think that’s the same kind of feeling that Damon Albarn wrote about in the Blur song “This is a low”, which was inspired by the British shipping forecast.

However I was soon snapped out of my peaceful lull by one word – Tuesday. See, the forecast reader pronounced it really well. He didn’t say “Choosday”. He Tyewsday with a sharp T. I suddenly started thinking about my pronunciation. I’d probably say “Choosday,” and surely that wouldn’t be the only word I wouldn’t pronounce with elegance and grace.

Fortunately by the time it came for me to speak I’d forgotten all about vowels and consonants and just talked. Having listened to it now, I’m happy with the way I sound. And, after all, it’s not really about me (in my intro, Jon calls me a cultural spectator – awesome!). It’s about good radio.

Mai FM

My car radio can only pick up two FM stations. The talkback station Newstalk ZB and the urban pop of Mai FM. I listen to Mai FM. The music’s ok but I still can’t stand Ja Rule. He really needs to give up the pop-rap thing and make bad films where he pours malt liquor on his dead homies’ graves.

But anyway, Mai has its own culture. A sort of South Pacific wannabe gangsta thing. It’s fun and there’s a real sense of enthusiasm and enjoyment. And unlike other radio stations, Mai FM’s DJs don’t annoy me or make me yell “shut up and play some music!”.

After listening to Mai for the last six months, I have learned the following things:

Area codes

In America there’s hundreds of area codes. When Ludacris and Nate Dogg perform “Area Codes” and brag about how they got “hoes in different area codes”, it’s fairly impressive (they must do a lot of gardening). But in New Zealand there are five regional area codes. So having five hoes isn’t really all that impressive.

So if someone rings up Mai FM and wants to give a shout-out to their area code, shouting out to the oh-nine would include the north of the North Island, from Auckland upwards. And that’s a lot of people to be shouting out to. I think there may be a quota on the limit of people who may be shouted out.

To get around this major problem, instead shouting out to the area code, instead the first three numbers of a person’s phone number are considered to be their “area code”. For example, if I lived in Otara I may wish to give a shout-out to all my crew in the two-seven-four. If I lived in Kelston I would be representin’ the eight-one-eight, which would be extra cool because that’s the same as one of the Los Angeles area codes.

As it is, if I were to give I shout-out based on my phone number I’d be doing it to the six-three-oh, which would be a waste of time because most of my massive are in the oh-two-one (that’s the Vodafone mobile area code, y’all).

Shout-Outs

An important part of the Mai FM listening experience is the interactive audience participation activity known as the shout-out. This is not unlike when I used to ring up Kiwi FM and dedicate songs “to Catherine P from Matthew K”. Only, you know, they’re not called dedications, they’re shout-outs and therefore are hip and urban.

I think they have an answer phone type of set up where you can ring up and leave your shout-out. Then someone goes through and picks out the ones that aren’t obscene and they get played on air. It’s very exciting to hear one of the DJs say that the shout-outs are “being processed”.

A typical shout-out will go a bit like this:

“Um, I just want to give a shout-out to Tahli and Ana and Pete and Darius and Kelly and Sali and all of the notorious Mt Roskill Intermediate southside crew. Keepin’ it real.”

From listening to the shout-outs it appears that most 11- and 12-year-olds are ruthless criminal gangsta villains, flakin’ and perpetratin’. Yeah, that’s what I remember intermediate school being like.

Representing

If you ever ring up for a competition, near the end of the call the DJ will probably ask you what you are representing. The expected answer does not include any of the following:

  • That you are representing Mt Roskill Intermediate in the interschools athletic sports tournament.
  • That you are representing all that wrong with modern society.
  • That you are representing yourself as you believe the court-appointed defence lawyer is incompetent.

Instead you are supposed to say that you represent one of the following:

  • Your “area code”, i.e. the first three digits of your phone number.
  • Your side. This will usually be southside or westside. Occasionally it will be eastside, but no one ever says northside. I’m not sure what happens if you live in the inner city suburbs. Centralside just doesn’t sound right.
  • Your suburb. But only if it’s a cool, urban suburb. Like, don’t say Ponsonby, say Grey Lynn. Don’t say Botany Downs, stretch over a few kilometres and say East Tamaki.

So if I ever rang up to go in the draw for some Dickies pants, and the DJ asked me what I was representing, I could say:

  • The six-three-oh
  • South central AK (I don’t have a side but is in south central Auckland)
  • Mangere (yeah, I don’t live there, but it sounds cooler than Mt Eden).

Bonus hint

Most competition draws have some sort of skill component. This is usually a trivia question, but sometimes the winner will be required to sing a bit of an Ashanti song. I recommend that you familiarise yourself with the opening lines of “Foolish” and work on your best sweet soul seductress voice.

Computers

I’ve already established that I’m not a web designer. There was a brief period where I thought I’d have to declare that I was not a web developer, but fortunately people stopped calling me that. But then I realised that there are many folks who think that I am a computer geek.

No, no, no! It simply isn’t true!

1.
One Christmas in the early ’80s, my parents got my brother and I a Commodore Vic20 computer. I learned the basics of BASIC and made my name scroll down the screen. There was a text-based adventure game that displayed “CHICKEN SHIT!” if the player chose a wussy option. I thought this was really mean and rude, so I changed it to read “Oh well you played well but you’ll have to start again”. I liked playing with my Barbies better. Later we got a Commodre 64 and I liked “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiago.”

2.
At high school, a really popular subject to take for Sixth Form Certificate was Computer Skills. Everyone agreed that it was a really useful subject to take because you’d learn all the basics about computers and it would give you valuable skills that potential employers would look for. One day all the Computer Skills classes went on a field trip to Waikato University’s computer department. In the whole of the sixth form it seemed that the only people who didn’t go were all the really smart people – the ones who now are working on their PhDs – and me. I wasn’t going to waste my school days studying computers.

3.
I was at Waikato University experimenting with tertiary education. I was in the computer department. I was sitting at a computer doing practical work for a paper called “The Computing Experience.” I only took it because it seemed like an easy credit. It hated it so much. Every vein in my body was filled with self-loathing whenever I stepped into the computer lab. It was so, so uncool. All I can remember is that on the first day one of the lecturers rambled on and on about RSI, about some guy who lost the use of his hands from overuse, had to use his head, but ended up getting RSI in his neck. Like that’d ever happen to anyone taking that course. I also remember that I finished the practical work (“Task 1: Print out sample1.doc”) in half a semester and I got an A.

4.
I ended up working on the helpdesk of an ISP. I didn’t know much about internet connectivity, but I didn’t need to because most of the work involved logging calls. However, about ten minutes before the helpdesk closed every night, we had to “take ’em as they come,” i.e. give out help on the phone, then and there. Most of the time I just told people to call back the next day. The helpdesk supervisor changed and the new supervisor was somehow under the impression that not only did I know how to do tech support, but that I had previously done it. Fortunately after a month on the helpdesk I moved to the accounts department where my only real challenge was figuring out which was debit and which was credit.

5.
I got another job working as an HTML editor on large web site. For the most part it was OK, but I’d find myself in meetings with programmers having discussions about stuff and not really be able to understand what was going on. I also didn’t know anything other than HTML. I had no knowledge of things such as JavaScript that are useful, if not essential for any good website creator. HTML is easy but everything else makes my brain hurt. Since I left the job my HTML skills have atrophied. I’ve not done any major HTML work for over a year, and I doubt I’d be skilled enough to go back to a similar job.

6.
I was moving flats. The moving guys came and started hauling away furniture. I’d refered to one of the pieces of furniture “the computer desk.” One of the guys said, “so, you’re a bit of a computer whiz, eh?” Er, no. Owning a computer doesn’t make me a computer whiz, just as owning a car doesn’t make me an expert driver.

7.
I’m not sure how it happened. One moment I was just hanging out at the station to see what happens behind the scenes on talkback radio, the next minute I was sitting in the studio, headphones on, rockin’ the mike as a sidekick on a computer-themed talkback show. There was the host, who kept things going and made sure that things didn’t get too geeky, the expert geek who tackled all the callers questions, and there was me. I’m not sure what I did, other than engage in witty banter. I think once when the geek had a coughing fit and left the studio, I had a wild stab at answering someone’s question about a scanner problem. But most of the time the question “any ideas, Robyn?” was met with, “uh, no.” The most fun had was the time we snuck into the classic hits station and raided their prize cupboard. I left the country, left the show.

8.
I saw comedian Rita Rudner perform once. She joked that if you ask a man what kind of car he’s got he’ll tell you all the specs, everything that’s under the hood. If you ask a woman what kind of car she has, she’ll say, “a blue one” – or whatever colour it is. I’m like that with computers. I have no idea what goes on inside. I’m sure if I’d taken Computer Skills I’d have a better idea, but I’m reasonably clueless as to what goes on under the hood. I used to have a beige computer. It was running Windows-something (probably 2000). I don’t know how big the hard drive was, or how fast the processor was or whatever else is measured. But I got sick of it because it was big and beige and boring. So I sold it and got an iBook. I’d had minimal experience with Macs before, but I’d never owned one before. It was lovely. Everything worked so smoothly and easily. There was very little bullshit to contend with. The best thing, though, was that it was really pretty. The new iBooks are cool, white and silver. Yes, that’s right: I like my computer because it’s pretty.

9.
I’m not a computer geek. Some people assume that I am. They tell me that I must because I own a computer/have a web page/had a job involving a computer. But I’m not.

A woman I used to work with used to often say, “I’m not technical,” whenever someone tried to engage her in geek talk. Well hey, I’m not technical either. I know a few things and I once knew what TCP/IP stood for, but mostly I’m not technical and I have no idea what most of the stuff in a computer shop is.

And I like that. I like the fact that if I watch a movie like “AntiTrust”, it’s not really obvious to me that there’s stuff being done that can’t really happen with real computers. I like that I don’t really know what’s going on behind the silver and white case of my iBook. I’m going to concentrate on what I like doing, what I’m good at. I shall leave the technical stuff to those who like that stuff. I use a computer, but I don’t care about computers.