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Appointment Viewing: ‘Radio Punks’ Surveys the Rise, Fade and Possible Future of Student Radio

“So you want to tell the history of student radio in New Zealand,” asks Mikey Havoc of his one-time sidekick Jeremy Wells. “Do you think you’ll be able to do it in a commercial television hour?”

Havoc is, as always, deeply cynical. And perhaps right to be – student radio might be seen as a niche pursuit to outsiders, but the history of bFM alone was hoary and complex enough to warrant a 40 part series of interviews under the name ‘The 95bFM Historical Society’ a few years back.

Radio Punks, which aired last night on as part of Prime’s excellent NZ Season documentary series, didn’t pretend to that kind of ubiquity, but managed to somehow roll half a dozen stations, five decades and hundreds of big personalities into a messy whole which captured the soul of one of the most vibrant sections of our media.

Created by Jodie Molloy, Paul Casserly and Jeremy Wells, who also narrates, it began and ended with b. There’s the fascinating prehistory of Radio Bosom (“because we were obsessed with breasts”) in the ‘60s, sailing around the inner Waitemata with a generator, chased by government goons in unmarked vans. It suggests an enduring theme of the documentary – young voices, with opinions and attitudes which don’t mesh well with those of the mainstream, finding strength and community within a frequency.

The documentary’s technique is at times as haphazard as the radio it covers – staggering drunkenly up and down the country, and back and forth through the years. It doesn’t aspire to comprehensivity – that would be impossible – instead a series of interlocking portraits collectively suggesting a culture.

There’s excellent archival tape of John Campbell and Jim Scott’s alternative rugby commentary for Radio Active, which in their homoerotic preoccupations and dick jokes prefigured the Alternative Commentary Collective by 30 years. We also see footage of the boozy bus rides of b’s 90’s heyday, peopled with familiar faces, then fresh, now more grizzled.

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These are interspersed with shots of the stations as they stand today, in various states of repair. Dunedin’s Radio One seemingly emboldened by an attempt to sell it off. Palmerston North’s Control in surprisingly rude and vibrant health, thanks in no small part to its umbilical relationship to the local Council-funded studio The Stomach – a bright idea on which I’ve long felt NZ On Air might better deploy their funding.

While shot through with affection, it’s not all acid trips and freedom. Christchurch’s RDU, beaten but not broken by the quakes, is operating from a caravan and dreaming of a return to solid ground. Like Wellington’s Radio Active, it’s estranged from the University from which it sprang, and each seems slightly adrift as a result. And the grand old dame of b itself, finally released from what Wells politely terms “a period of stagnation”, with Hugh Sundae at the controls and the whiff of reinvigoration on the air.

It concludes with some conjecture about whether there’s hope for the medium today. John Campbell, sentimental as ever, remains optimistic about its fortunes, perhaps excessively so given the level of competition it faces, and the mainstream’s co-option of some of the medium’s values. That both Hauraki and Radio New Zealand are now largely populated by ex-student radio identities is given only passing mention, but is transparently part of the challenge from above.

Both Russell Brown and Nick D give more clear-eyed assessments of the challenge from below: the impact of the internet’s ‘1000 cultures bloom’ on the stations’ centrality to a particular kind of New Zealander’s life. There remains the opportunity to pivot and renew, just as there is for every media brand, and radio remains the most resilient of all the ‘old media’ from a revenue perspective. But whether that comes to pass or not Radio Punks provided an affecting and effective survey of the most dynamic and chaotic media form in recent New Zealand history.