Here's the thing about student radio: everyone has their own story. Even people who never set foot in a studio remember that time Mikey pulled off some momentary madness, John Campbell said "stiffy", or Silke played their track. Given that inevitability, Paul Casserly did a remarkable job of rendering the culture into a TV hour's worth of Radio Punks: The Student Radio Story on Prime last night.
As narrator and 95bFM alumnus Jeremy Wells observed, there are a range of views on on exactly when the great era of student radio was (or is), but I think it's fair to say that it was in the 1990s. On one hand, the student stations had the stability of a guaranteed place on the dial, thanks to the Broadcasting Act 1989, and compulsory student union fees to underwrite their activities – and on the other, acres of space to play in a media environment which generally couldn't see past the end of its middle-market nose.
The latter was certainly in my head in 1991 when, not long back from London, I took up Graeme Hill's challenge to turn up the following Friday and provide some of the savvy news commentary I'd told him was lacking on 95bFM. The internet had not happened, niche wasn't a thing and no one else had anything to say to me and my friends.
I'm pretty sure I had the name "Hard News" from the first broadcast, which shared, slightly awkwardly, some of the madder moments from an interview I'd done with then-Labour leader Mike Moore. Hard News' opening salutation, "Good morning mediaphiles" soon became "Good Day Mediaphiles!", so it could be replayed on the Drive show. Eleven years later, I signed off and the weekly rave became this blog. Yup, still raving.
Along the way, Hard News led directly to me becoming the founding host of Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch. And the Public Address Great Blend events we ran became the impetus for a TV show called Media7. I had learned to talk on air and to interview for broadcast, and I never lost the love for just playing music on the radio (which I think I did for the first time on the old Radio B in 1983). I might never have been a student, but it was certainly an education.
There was a period of years when the B-Net Awards were more interesting, edgy and important than the New Zealand Music Awards. They were certainly more fun. But if there was a peak point in 95bFM's influence on the wider culture, it may have been around 1999, when I had just joined the bFM board and the station bought into the radio ratings survey for the first time in years – and, with Mikey Havoc at the peak of his powers on Breakfast, returned a resut that made the whole radio industry sit up and take notice. We on the board briefly fancied ourselves to be brand geniuses.
After that point, Channel Z and George FM began winning over listeners on its iwi radio frequency in Ponsonby. But perhaps more significantly in the long term, 1996 was also the year that the internet went mainstream in New Zealand, offering a place for every niche.
The memories are fond: from the mad parties to the Breakfasts on the bus. One of those bus trips was, happily, captured on video and provides some of the best archive footage in Radio Punks. In the brief part where you see me ranting in Takapuna while Marcus Lush holds my script, I'm telling Alan Gibbs to go fuck himself. I referred to that and another story that still makes me laugh in that sign-off broadcast:
My favourite Hard News story involves Doug Myers and Bill Ralston. People used to think I sounded a lot like Ralston on the radio – which I suppose I did at the time. So one night at some corporate do, Doug Myers rushed up to Ralston and exclaimed “You called me an arsehole!” Did I? Said Ralston. “Yes! On the radio!” Er, which radio? “That student radio!”
Yes, folks, it was me. I called Doug Myers an arsehole and I would cheerfully do so again. He had written a smug little essay about local government for the Herald, in which he declared that libraries were not a public good, and it didn’t benefit him if some poor sod read a book for free. Coming, as it did, from someone who had never wanted for anything, I found that not only foolish, but unspeakably arrogant.
I recall a similar response when Alan Gibbs made a speech to a conference on the family in which he advanced the neo-Victorian view that poor people’s problem wasn’t so much a lack of money as a lack of morals. He even went so far as to blame the contraceptive pill for this moral decline. But only for the poor, presumably. Rich people can handle contraception, right? I used some stronger words than “arsehole” in that case.
Amazingly, Gibbs repeated that same odious philosophy more recently in a Sunday morning interview with Wallace Chapman, and I am pleased I still have a platform from which to publicly affirm that he can still go fuck himself.
Ironically, Gibbs' daughter Debbi, a friend and a former station manager, played the key role in first extending Radio B's hours and then laying the groundwork for the station to go FM. She's one of thousands of people who have played their part in what happened.
Actually, what happens. It was pleasing that Radio Punks ended on a series of positive notes. Firstly, RDU coming back from what might have been earthquake oblivion and finding a new site for itself. And secondly, up at b, where the endlessly engaged and optimistic Silke Hartung is doing great things with Freak the Sheep, the New Zealand music show named and founded by my buddy Chris Esther in the 1980s. And where former teenage receptionist Hugh Sundae has come into the general manager's role with a sense of the station's legacy and an eye for its future. Good things are happening there.
The "student" stations in 2015 have varying relationships with the universities that spawned them, and face challenges and competitive pressures in an evolving media world. But what they do is still important. Whenever I talk to broadcasting students, I try and point out that the most influential people in student radio are the people who come in with something to say and can revel in the freedom to say it. That still matters.
And if you missed Radio Punks or want to enjoy it again, you can sign into to Sky Go and watch it on demand.
If you just need some more Radio Punks, there are also 13 minutes of out-takes, edited at a more leisurely pace and featuring Rick Breeze, Ross Clark and Gemma Gracewood, among others.
PS: Anyone who remembers Radio Active's Saturday night request show with Fiona Rae, sing out.