Planet FM: the nicest radio station in Auckland

Leonie Hayden went in search of the people behind community access radio station Planet FM, and their newly minted and very silly Twitter account. She discovered a group of people who love their jobs and the communities they help. 

Community access radio station Planet FM gives good content. If you had any investment in this year’s hotly contested Bird of the Year race, you might have seen their campaign for the kōtare that involved a lot of questionable fan art and even more questionable puns.

Or you might have spied their coverage of the royal visit by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

All Aucklanders know that Planet FM exists, and that it plays an important role in our migrant and non-English speaking communities, but most of us can’t honestly say we’ve ever tuned in. When their delightful tweets started featuring regularly in my newsfeed this year, I realised how little I knew about the organisation, and how much I’d like to meet the people behind it.

The first strains of Planet FM community access radio were beamed out across Auckland in 1987 from a basement on the Auckland Technical Institution campus (now AUT). Founded by the Auckland Ethnic Council, the radio station was a chance for non-English speaking communities to hear their languages, news and music, and allow them to have a public presence in a country many of them had lived in for years, if not generations.

In an an address delivered at an NZ On Air seminar in 2009, then Planet FM broadcast manager Terri Byrne prophesied that by the year 2020 media would have splintered into so many niche channels that the ‘mainstream media’ would no longer exist.

“It will not be about ‘them’ becoming like ‘us’ or hopefully by 2020, it will not even be about ‘them’ explaining themselves to ‘us’. Hopefully it will be about all of us discovering who we are becoming as a nation.

“And we should not imagine that only non-English audiences are interested in so called ‘ethnic’ content.”

Many things have changed since the ’80s. This awesome console is not one of them. Image: Leonie Hayden

She wasn’t wrong. Subscription media has taken much of the the power away from the linear media giants, plus broadcast radio consumers have more choice than ever. In Auckland alone there are 28 FM radio stations broadcasting on 38 frequencies and 17 AM radio stations broadcasting on 15 frequencies, not to mention the countless digital-only stations and podcasts being produced from bedrooms and garages. New Zealand has more radio frequencies per capita than any other country in the world.

And yet Planet FM, now housed in a charming bungalow on the Unitec campus in Mt Albert, is still plagued by the ‘ethnic radio’ label and still faces many of the same problems it did in 1987 and 2009. NZ On Air still only fund 50% of their operations, and have announced that won’t change any time soon, and their membership fees haven’t gone up at all in 30 years.

“If it goes up we’re going to lose people, because they can’t afford it!” station manager Christine McKechnie (Ngāpuhi) tells me. “We vote every year at the AGM for keeping the same airtime fees. That’s why I get crabby when people complain about the website not working properly,” she laughs.

Christine has been with the station for 23 years, having no background in radio before that. She tells me she came from the Beer, Wine and Spirits Council (not entirely irrelevant experience for a career in broadcasting). She worked alongside Terri Byrne for the majority of that, before Terri retired earlier this year, bumping Christine up to station manager. “She did all the broadcast side of it. I’m not a broadcaster at all, but by default I’ve had to learn.”

“Basically we’re all fucked if Christine dies,” deadpans communications and community liaison Jo Holstead.

“And she’s not allowed to have another baby!” laughs Christine.

“It’s a gentleman’s agreement.”

Jo has been with the station for seven years, and is a tireless cheerleader for her work and the people that inhabit Planet FM. An AUT communications graduate from the same year as David Farrier and The Spinoff’s Hayden Donnell, she decided that commercial radio wasn’t on the cards and spent a few years travelling. On her return she applied for a tech role at Planet FM. She got the job – but over a year after she applied for it.

“The person who’d got the job left and for some reason Terri remembered my CV. She called me up literally on the last day of a job that I had quit because I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Christine, Paul and Jo are three quarters of the team behind Planet FM. Image: Leonie Hayden

She’s been recently promoted to a comms role, which is when the revamped Twitter account came into our lives.

“Terri had set up our social media accounts five years ago. When I logged into Twitter after taking on this role, we had 11 followers… I thought, I’ll just write some earnest stuff about what we do. No one gave a shit about that. Then one day somebody left some frozen meat in the fridge and I mentioned it on Twitter, and it went pretty well.”

“Our audience isn’t on Twitter. Everybody that needs to know about Radio Pekapeka is already listening to Radio Pekapeka. So I figured there’s no harm in having someone who’d never had us on their radar before, read something funny and like our page instead of thinking ‘that’s that ethnic radio station’ and ignoring us.”

The mandate of the station is to help people produce their own radio programmes. They can produce live radio or pre-recorded shows, use a Planet FM tech, or they can produce it themselves. Training is available for all of it, Jo tells me. “We charge an airtime fee, which for an hour programme is $46. So that’s to get you on air. Every thing else is free, to get you to the level you want to be at in order to make your own media.

“We don’t have any editorial input at all. We might advise on how to better engage an audience but we don’t tell them what to do.”

After seven years as a tech, Jo describes the people she worked with week in, week out as ‘family’.

“The best thing about this place are the people that come through these doors. That’s where you can see how important this facility is, people having their own platform, being autonomous in that role. You can see how much it affects their wellbeing. You get the coolest people crossing paths under this roof.”

It makes for eclectic and entertaining listening. Christine tells me there are 32 languages and 95 programmes on air. There are shows that have been on since the beginning – Radio Shalom, a Jewish programme in English; Le’o Felenite, made by the Tongan’s women’s association; Niuean language show Radio Pekapeka; Ireland Calling; Pacific Island Health and the NZ Tamil Association have had various programmes on air since 1987.

“In the weekend there’s a Niuean church service, and they sometimes come in with the full band. There’s only five mics but that’s enough for a party,” Jo says.

“John’s in there now doing Korean Catholic Radio. They do 10 hours of progamming a week, two hours Monday to Friday. It’s our biggest show.”

John tells me he’s lived in New Zealand for 25 years and started his show on Planet FM soon after arriving.

“The Korean community is very big. There are 35,000 people in Auckland. We guess about 10% of the Korean community listens… in Auckland and Hamilton maybe 3,500 people listen to our programme.

“My favourite part is the news presentation. At 10 o’clock we’re doing 15 minutes, at 11 o’clock 25-minute news. Every day we are introducing Catholic knowledge to the Korean community.”

Korean Catholic Radio is Planet FM’s biggest show and John is the man. Image: Leonie Hayden

Contrary to Terri’s 2009 prediction, the station still very much has to explain itself to the powers that be. The station’s NZ On Air funding comes under section 36C of the Broadcasting Act, which means it must ensure that a range of broadcasts are available to provide for the interests of women, children, persons with disabilities and minorities in the community. Jo and Christine often find the boxes that go along with each of those specifications frustrating. They’ve been told they need more programming for women, children and people with disabilities, but argue that many of the people producing cultural content have a range of physical abilities, are women and cater to a family audience.

“Nearly all the shows include all of those types of people! They not making a ‘kids’ show, they’re making a Niuean language show with children’s stories and songs in it. But it’s not a ‘children’s show’ so we can’t put that on the form,” says Christine.

“It’s integrated so it’s hard to prove,” Jo adds. “We have an issue with being known as that ‘ethnic station’. You have to tick those boxes in order to prove you exist, but it almost feels like by ticking those boxes you’re taking a step backwards in terms of trying to present people as equals and individuals and not just treating them as their demographic.

“I’m a Caucasian woman in my mid-30s with a very vanilla existence, I don’t want to be the one that pigeonholes the people that come through these doors, they’re friends and family to me. They’re just people coming to make a radio programme and you miss the realness of people when you put them on a form and talk about their physical attributes. I just want our people to be out there as people.”

It’s worth learning and repeating, although when your funding depends on it there’s not much you can do. But Aucklanders can support them – as always, visibility is key. Chuck a like on their Twitter or Facebook, or tune in to hear the authentic sounds of multicultural Auckland. They really are the nicest people on the planet.

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