A year ago Sean Plunket abruptly left the mainstream media after decades in prominent roles. Now he’s back, with a well-funded plan to find an audience tired of ‘cancel culture’.
For most of the past three decades, Sean Plunket has been one of New Zealand’s most prominent broadcasters. He started as a reporter in TV3’s star factory press gallery team, fronted iconic shows like Fair Go and 20/20, and was co-host of Radio NZ’s Morning Report for 13 years, during a pre-social media period when both the show and the medium were far more central to the national conversation. He’s 57 – the same age as fellow talk radio legend Mike Hosking, who remains the most powerful and well-compensated talent in New Zealand media.
In any other country, in any other era, someone with Plunket’s CV would have an agent lining up competing offers, readying him for his next big gig. Instead he’s been out of work for a year, and is now essentially self-employed. Yet he has been busy, building what’s shaping up to be the first serious right-wing (though he would bristle at this descriptor, and may have a point) media start-up since Whale Oil.
The Platform, his new venture launching in the coming weeks, uses an intriguing mix of language to describe itself. On the one hand it positions itself as “the resistance” to “the twitterati, the woke and the wackos”, which feels very of a piece with the queasy conspiracy theorist culture which is, as of writing, occupying much of the area around parliament.
Parts of his planned venture back this vision up – the reactionary Michael Laws as a morning host, and his planned use of copy from the blog site of former MPs Michael Bassett, Don Brash and Rodney Hide, the latter of whom seems to have announced he’s unvaccinated and says he’s “100% behind” the convoy protesters. The Platform’s digital editor is Ani O’Brien, whose previous gig was as ex-National leader Judith Collins’ press secretary and is known chiefly for her role in Speak Up for Women, an organisation widely perceived as existing to resist the trans rights movement.
Yet ask Plunket about his leanings and he’ll say “I don’t have any politics”, and The Platform says it will hold both the government and the opposition to account. He’ll also be syndicating copy from lifelong leftists like Chris Trotter and Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury, indicating that he aims to achieve a kind of centrism through balancing extremes.
If any unifying cause animates Plunket and The Platform itself it’s a disdain for “cancel culture”, a phrase highlighted in red on his site’s landing page. He says he wants The Platform to be a place where ideas can be debated and discussion heated, with participants willing to hear out a good argument and have a beer afterwards.
The definition of cancel culture is slippery. Beyond himself, his key talent is former Whanganui mayor Michael Laws, ex-Three presenter Leanne Malcolm and former ZB sports broadcaster Martin Devlin. Were any of them cancelled? Laws was once a popular, if divisive, columnist and fell from favour after a series of controversial comments started to inflict more brand damage to employers like Stuff and MediaWorks than the value of the audience he brought in. Devlin was let go after allegedly attempting to punch one colleague and sending unwanted emails to others. Malcolm seems to have drifted out of roles without much controversy at all.
(One prominent former radio host Plunket won’t be employing is former star of The Edge, Dom Harvey, who exited MediaWorks after a long career at very short notice days before a landmark review of the company’s culture landed in mid 2021. A source says that MediaWorks’ director of content Leon Wratt, who hired Plunket and was Harvey’s boss, asked Plunket whether he would consider hiring Harvey. A spokesperson for MediaWorks admitted that Wratt had spoken to Plunket “a number of times” since he left the organisation, but that “Leon asked the question rather than making the suggestion”.)
Has Plunket himself been cancelled? His last mainstream media gig was as the afternoon host on Magic Talk, the MediaWorks talk radio brand soon to be replaced by Today FM, featuring a clutch of high profile hires led by ex-Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien. He left around a year ago, not long after an incident involving John Banks in which the former Auckland mayor allowed some shockingly racist language from a caller to go to air unchallenged.
While Plunket had recently had a BSA complaint against him upheld, this was not the cause of the end of his MediaWorks’ career, and he will not comment on the record about the circumstances surrounding his departure. For its part a MediaWorks’ spokesperson will only say that he “decided to leave nearly a year ago and we look forward to seeing what he does with his new platform”. Confidentiality agreements bind all involved, essentially.
Ultimately Plunket’s position is similar to the likes of Brash, Hide, Bradbury and Trotter. All are less cancelled than stranded swimming the wrong way when the tide of history went out, still debating yesterday’s issues using framing and language from another time. What Plunket is betting is that this bundle of formerly prominent politicians and commentators retains an audience, and that such views are more widely held than they are expressed in the mainstream discourse. Which is probably true.
Still, what he’s trying to do is very hard. When he first announced it, The Platform seemed like another figment of an angry man’s imagination, a kind of cover for his wounded pride and unlikely to ever materialise. Whale Oil’s Cam Slater announced a major platform called Freed in 2014, talking about huge sums of money secured, but nothing ever came of it. The Platform is, if anything, more ambitious – radio streaming online for 12 hours a day, available through an app and a website, coming out of three studios dotted around Auckland, Wellington and Central Otago. A very complex exercise.
And a very expensive one. Plunket is the sole shareholder of The Platform, but claims to have secured private funding which will run it for at least two years – an eternity by media startup standards. He won’t say who has funded it, or whether it’s a loan, a grant or some kind of convertible note – a lack of transparency which somewhat undermines his claims to being “not in the pocket of any corporate”, because how would we know? As to how much money he has, he won’t say, but admits that fitting out the studios required gear which cost a cool $750,000.
There seems to be plenty more where that came from. After I interviewed him for my podcast, The Fold, former Kim Hill producer Mark Cubey got in touch to recount an encounter with Plunket in Wellington late last year. It was set up by a mutual acquaintance, and Cubey admitted to having very briefly considered working with Plunket out of a kind of morbid fascination, though eventually Plunket balked at his price. Not before revealing to Cubey that he had $3m in place to set his new venture up, and that he had spent $300,000 on an app and website, and was building multiple studios. Plunket would not confirm the scale of his funding, but did not dispute the $3m figure, either.
There is an air of chaos around Plunket at times, which is partly why his announcement of The Platform seemed somewhat unlikely to ever come to fruition. During his period as communications manager for The Opportunities Party in its Gareth Morgan-era prime, he called me a cunt more than once, and acted like one at least as often. But he also has an amiability and inability to hold a grudge which makes even those who find some of his statements and behaviour awful end up enjoying chatting to him. I might be one of them. After the podcast went up, I got a number of messages from people expecting to hate him who came out of our interview with a grudging respect for how he held himself.
There were more who found the fact that I’d spoken to him at all distasteful. This is part of a valid perspective, common among sections of social media users, which says “don’t give them oxygen” – ignore them and hope they go away, essentially.
I get that. Devlin is a distasteful hire, as is Laws. A number of his columnists are worse, at their worst. Plunket himself has said a bunch of horrible things. But also, based on what’s happened in Wellington this week, marginalising those whose views we disagree with doesn’t seem to be working out that well for us as a society. If taken at his word, Plunket will provide a prominent and professionally run forum for debate which is likely, at the very least, to be better moderated than most Facebook comment threads.
This is clearly the most optimistic case. If he even makes it to launch – still a big if – the utopian vision of talkback requires a near mythic quality of caller, and often runs afoul on the grim reality of both what gets debated and how the host is feeling on any given day. Plunket says he won’t tolerate racism and was supportive of action taken against the convoy protest when we spoke this week, but can also be erratic in his temperament and the content of the BSA complaint against him was ugly.
Still, when on form, he is undeniably a very good broadcaster. Allied to what seems like a huge pot of money, a bunch of famous names and an unsettled period for our society, there might really be a media business there. Which is why I had him on The Fold – to get a sense of his vision and his headspace as he builds his raft for a less constrained debate.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity
Duncan Greive: Tell me what The Platform is, and who it’s for?
Sean Plunket: I guess the market will decide who it’s for, but what I perceive to be is for a large number of New Zealanders who feel disconnected from news media at present, and disconnected from discussion about what is happening in the country and where the country is heading. And they are turning off traditional mainstream media in huge numbers.
What will it produce?
The Platform is going to be a digital media entity that delivers three main streams. A live talkback radio product for 12 hours a day, podcasts, which are highlights from that and other material. Most of it generated by The Platform and its staff, but also aggregating podcasts and content from other groups and people who might not get a crack in mainstream media, who might not be considered commercial or fashionable in the current environment.
We will have an app that’s almost finished, so we don’t have to rely on Rova, or iHeart radio, or indeed Spotify. And really when I looked to build I said we need to be self-contained, and we need to be robust in terms of resisting possible take-out, and resisting those who would seek to take us off air.
What motivated you to do this? It’s one thing to feel like the environment isn’t as welcoming of these kind of opinions, it’s quite another to spend months, and no doubt a very significant sum of money actually making this thing happen.
If I go back to, say, December of 2020, and I was doing the Magic Talk gig, and people said “What do you think is going to happen to you next year?” And I said “I think they’re going to take me out and shoot me. I give myself til April.” You could feel the cultural wind blowing and MediaWorks changing. The Banks thing came up which I had nothing to do with. In fact I warned MediaWorks, having air-checked Banks when I was up in Auckland at the start of the year that he was not comfortable and there was trouble coming, and I got told to stay in my lane.
In some ways I was prepared for the rather unusual series of events that befell me at Magic. I had been thinking to myself for some time that I’ve been lucky in my career to mostly be in employment in media and broadcasting, but to stay in the swim I was probably going to need to do something that took what I did to the next level. To run my own shop.
So with The Platform, I sort of understand the sense that the Overton window for acceptable discourse has moved, and in part this is a response to saying you’re uncomfortable with that, but is there a line? At one extreme there is 8chan, absolute chaos, and at the other you have the strictures you’re uncomfortable with. What is the line for you? What would you have done with the Banks call?
I think you could’ve let that call happen – but in the sense of the debate – chop that person into tiny little pieces, and actually make an entertaining call out of it. And you know I have used the phrase “time for a cup of tea and a lie down” – you need to take the listener and the caller to the point where everyone thinks they need a cup of tea and a lie down, and that guy was the perfect example of that.
I think John, because he was pressured, I think he literally wasn’t listening hard enough to know what the person was saying, and who knows if he was coming up to a commercial break or something else was happening, but having figured out what was happening, he either should’ve dumped the call, or engaged that caller and bested him. Engage the racists and best them in debate rather than kick them to the curb and chop their heads off.. I’m saying to people: do not respond with offence, respond with engagement, but never accept racism, incitement to violence, or to be frank – gross stupidity.
Tell me about the rest of the line-up. The columnists, the other identities involved. What is the thing about them that brought them together that makes you confident?
Anyone who’s been following my social media already knows this. Unlike other people in the media I’m not doing billboards or putting out self-important press releases about how wonderful people they are, because this is digital and the news spreads virally through social media and other things.
I’ll be doing Breakfast, back on the tools. But I’m not trying to be Morning Report, and I’m not trying to be Mike Hosking. We will take and genuinely engage our audience before 9 o’clock. The talkback line will be open before 9 o’clock. I’m not trying to cover everything. I’m trying to say: what is the most important and entertaining thing in the morning? I’m not a journal of record, and I don’t need to be.
Would you say that ZB has become the last commercial talk entity that entertains a difference from the liberal orthodoxy?
ZB are pretty focused on what they do and they do it pretty well. Magic Talk essentially collapsed after my departure. Look at the ratings, we were going up; it just flattened. And they’ve destroyed the brand.
And now they’ve spent a shit-load of money on Today FM. What’s your sense of that line up and their prospects of succeeding against the twin towers of Morning Report and the Mike Hosking Breakfast?
It looks to me like they’re trying to do Newstalk ZB lite. I don’t think there’s a market for that, I think talk radio is a different beast. I have respect for Tova O’Brien as a journalist. I thought her restraint of trade decision was wrong. But I think Tova engaging through the radio medium… it’s a lot different sitting in a studio for three hours in the morning, with rolling news, than producing an item for the 6 o’clock news and walking in front of a green screen.
But you managed to do both. People have traversed these mediums.
And she probably will, because she’s a talented person. And Today FM, think it was old mate Dallas Gurney, came out and said we’re going to make a safe space for advertisers. And I thought well that sounds like a boring space for your audience.
I look at your line-up on air and in columnists – most of them are older Pākehā people, largely men.
Well my digital editor is a 30 year old woman. Called Ani O’Brien. Who, while it’s not relevant I think, is gay. To be honest I looked over the staff the other day and I’ve got two young women who I think will be fantastic broadcasters.
How are you funding all this?
I imagine I have spent less in my entire operation than, for example, Mediaworks has spent in a single week on setting up Today FM. [Who is funding me] is stuff I can’t really share with you, because that’s – if you like – the back-end of the business. But I have enough money to get started.
What’s the current business model plan, without being hostage to advertisers, how will this be sustainable longer term?
I’ve broadly identified four income streams for a digital media organisation that’s doing talkback radio. Traditional radio spots or programme sponsorship of programmes. Though, I do not want to be like Mike Hosking, [who’s] gotta talk at 500 miles an hour and get 15 ads in a half-hour. I think that’s a jarring turn off for an audience who wants to engage with you.
We have digital advertising on the website and through the app, which is the second stream. We have the ability, if we need to, to create sponsored content on the podcasts and, of course – I have been surprised, looking into this, how big a part it might be – we have subscriptions.
How confident are you the audience will find you? One of the big reasons radio retains its reputation as the media’s cockroach that just can’t be killed is that it’s the frequencies that are the moat. And you’re going to flip the switch on something that’s talk radio, but it’s not on the radio.
I hardly see anyone walking around with a transistor radio any more. I see a lot of people with phones.
So there’s no doubt in your mind that the switchboard will light up? Even on these very large audience shows, they struggle for calls.
No doubt whatsoever. I’d like to think in fact – and I know that Michael did this as well, and Martin can – that we can drive calls and engagement. A dedicated and a passionate audience will give you as much content as a huge disinterested audience that is listening to the safe space for the advertisers.
The Media Council, the BSA, those institutions – will you be opting into them? Or do you enjoy the fact you may be beyond their reach?
Well we are, join the resistance, we’re the outsiders, we’re new kids on the block. I think the BSA, which I was on very briefly – until Action Station launched a sort of culture war to get me off – I think they’re past their use-by date. I think they’re politicised. I think the BSA is clearly politicised. I’m not publishing a newspaper, why would I go to the press council? If you don’t like what we do, sue us. But that doesn’t mean I’m setting out to be deliberately controversial or obnoxious.
So what you’re hoping for is an underlying civility, even if you can disagree quite strongly.
A robust engagement, which recognises that the only way forward is to talk, not to cancel. And it’s interesting – [look at] Neil Young and what’s happened on Spotify. I liked Joe Rogan’s response. I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of what Joe Rogan says or what his guest says, but his natural instinct is to engage. What does Neil Young say that’s so reflective of the liberal lovies on the left? It is to cancel. It’s not to engage, it’s to disengage, it’s to push polarisation of views, not seek middle ground.