Life on the ledge
Contestants lived on a platform underneath a Fanshawe Street billboard. (Screengrabs: Video Taxi / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

BusinessJune 11, 2022

Life on the ledge: The ’90s radio contest that became a marathon battle of wills

Life on the ledge
Contestants lived on a platform underneath a Fanshawe Street billboard. (Screengrabs: Video Taxi / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

Twenty-five years ago, 10 New Zealanders stepped onto a ledge in an attempt to win $20,000. Six months later, some were still there.

It was nearing 5pm in downtown Auckland when months of work came undone with a simple mistake. Dave Herlihy had spent 24 hours a day for almost four months living on a small wooden platform alongside the rest of the contestants in New Zealand’s first “living billboard” promotion. Conditions were cramped, everyone was bored, and they were constantly exposed to the elements. Unable to leave his designated space except for quick toilet stops and the occasional shower, Dave passed the time sleeping, playing chess, waving to fans and cracking jokes.

A psychiatrist had vetted 10 contestants to take part in the 1997 Radio Hauraki promotion. They formed a random cast of everyday New Zealand characters, including free-spirited guitarist Linda Buhagiar, “stubborn” mum Rochelle Allport, out-of-towner Jessica Sharp, tech-lover Rodney Elliott – who packed his Nintendo Game Boy and a walkman – and Darren Te Huia, who folded his pyjamas and his favourite shirt into a small travel pack, then carefully placed his bible on top. “This is where my strength will come from,” he said. “That’s me. I’m ready to go.”

Life on the Ledge
Contestants settle in for the first day of Radio Hauraki’s Life on the Ledge promotion (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

In February, the group gathered in a dusty carpark on Fanshawe Street, a major Auckland arterial route, to be introduced to their new accommodation. Each was given a spot measuring 2 x 1.2 metres atop a platform erected underneath a billboard. Anticipating searing sun, as well as wind and rain, they set themselves up with home comforts like mattresses, chairs and pillows. They stuffed toiletries, tarpaulins, umbrellas and clothes anywhere they could. A countdown kicked off the competition. Loudspeakers blasted Radio Hauraki’s classic rock hits 24/7 across the carpark.

The idea, borrowed from a Californian radio stunt in which contestants lived together in an open-air space, like an early iteration of Big Brother, would see the last person standing win $20,000. Back then, that money would go far – one contestant wanted to buy a Harley Davidson, and several others planned to use it as a house deposit. “There’s a bit of a housing crisis at the moment,” said Sharp. “I’ve got nowhere to live so I thought I’d go and live on a ledge for a little while.”

With his bald head, mullet, goatee and “sweet as” attitude, Herlihy emerged as a fan favourite. But competition was fierce. “Everybody thought it was going to be about a month,” says one who was there. But the hardy bunch breezed past that milestone, then broke California’s world record of 105 days. By day 110, four contestants remained, holding onto hope as winter battered them with chilly winds and rain. Herlihy bullishly claimed he could make it to Christmas, another six months away.

Life on the Ledge
Jessica Sharp passes the time with a sock puppet (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

After that long, people were tiring of the promotion. Media buzz was dying down, contestants were no longer interviewed on air and Radio Hauraki was being accused of giving up on them. Life on the ledge had come to a brutal standstill. The remaining four refused to step down unless they were each paid the $20,000 prize money something Hauraki refused to do. “I’m not sitting up there for three months and getting a measly $3,000,” complained Paul Hendri, wary of splitting the prize. At the time, another contestant, Brad Cameron, described the collective mood as “a progressive decline towards insanity”.

All of this was going through Herlihy’s mind that chilly June evening. As the winter cold settled in, he thought he heard his name called for his allotted toilet break. He left his spot and climbed down from the platform, the place he’d left his family home for in search of a life-changing sum of money. He wandered over to the check-in desk, the same routine he’d followed several times a day for nearly four months. But he’d heard wrong. It wasn’t Herlihy’s toilet time. His name hadn’t been called at all.

Hauraki’s management rushed to the site. They spent the next four hours deliberating whether Herlihy should be eliminated. “Disqualification is up to our discretion,” confirmed stern-faced radio boss Guy Needham, the man who is credited with conceiving the promotion. Finally, Herlihy was pulled into the on-site office and told the bad news. Rules were rules and he’d broken number seven: anyone leaving the platform outside of their designated time would be eliminated.

After 110 days of living on the ledge, Herlihy would need to pack up his gear and leave.

Dave Herlihy
Dave Herlihy is told the bad news (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

It was an exit that left the three remaining contestants in tears. They claimed the contest was rigged and accused Hauraki of finding any reason it could to eliminate them just to get it over with. “It doesn’t seem fair,” sniffed Herlihy’s ledge neighbour, Brad Cameron. “He’s such a nice guy.” Now, Cameron, Jessica Sharp and Rodney Elliott were left battling it out for the prize money.

But were they fighting each other – or Radio Hauraki? As Herlihy packed up his stuff, including a dirty foam mattress and pillow he’d been sleeping on for the past four months, he shot some parting words at them. “Hang in there,” he said, “and take Hauraki to the cleaners.”

Radio stunts like this were a truly 90s phenomenon. Back then, the internet’s domination of ad-share was well over a decade away, so print, TV and radio were the main options for those wanting to reach the masses. Radio station bosses would go all out to grab their share of the market, because any increase in ratings meant more advertising revenue. Competitions were popular, with The Edge marrying strangers, and shock jocks like Iain Stables making headlines with outlandish pranks and stunts. All of it was designed to woo listeners, and in turn, advertisers.

Life on the Ledge
Jessica Sharp, Robert Millward, Brad Cameron and Dave Herlihy live life on the ledge (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

After decades of being known as a pirate radio station, Hauraki’s offer of $20,000 prize money – well over half the average yearly salary at the time – was a promotion worthy of the big leagues. The ledge’s competitors agreed it was worth doing nothing in an attempt to win it. But the challenge was tougher than it looked. Strict rules were enforced. No tents, awnings or secondary structures were allowed. No cigarettes or alcohol could be taken onto the platform.

Aside from toilet breaks every three hours, and a daily 15-minute shower, contestants had to stay in their allocated spot. As Herlihy discovered, stepping off outside of your allotted free time meant kissing the $20,000 goodbye. In return, Hauraki provided around-the-clock security, an on-site doctor and nurse, a psychiatrist, and other amenities. Food was delivered by contestants’ support teams, mostly friends and family who’d been roped in to help.

Boy racers do burnouts near the ledge (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

It rained for the first three days, the soggy conditions pushing two contestants to their limits. Robert Millward, who wanted to spend his winnings on a Harley Davidson, simply disappeared one morning, and didn’t even say goodbye. Te Huia left clutching his stomach, complaining of food poisoning.

A week later, Rochelle Allport’s blood pressure was so high the doctor refused to let her return to the competition. It was a good call – she was pregnant, and gave birth to her second child, a son she called Michael, eight months later. “We call him our $20,000 baby,” she told me recently. A fourth contestant, AnnaMarie Makris, left because she didn’t want to lose her job.

Life on the Ledge
Rochelle Allport packs up her things, including a large knife, and leaves (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

All this drama was soaked up by Hauraki’s DJs, who checked in with contestants every morning. The constant airtime and rolling coverage in newspapers and TV news, locally and internationally, turned contestants into minor celebrities. Party buses full of people showed up on weekends, and it became the go-to spot for bogans to do burnouts, often enveloping the platform in smoke.

Other bystanders would grab beers from the bottle store and sit there drinking, watching contestants like a live theatre show. “They thought they were watching us,” Allport says, “but we were watching them.” Celebrities showed up to pose for pictures, including Australian Gladiators host Kimberley Joseph, the American rock band Live, and Marc Ellis.

The buzz couldn’t last forever. As months passed by, the headlines died down and boredom set in as the unusual radio marketing trick ran out of steam. Making sock puppet characters became a popular pastime. Buhagiar wrote a theme song on her guitar. Cameron used his 10-minute slots of freedom to sprint to the shiny new Sky Tower and back.

Sharp kept piercing her face, taking one metal rod out, and putting it in somewhere else. “We’re the best in the world at doing the least,” she declared. With no smart phones, their contact with the outside world was limited. “These guys have no idea what’s going on in the real world,” Radio Hauraki promotions manager Angela Hooper told a newspaper at the time.

Life on the ledge
Jessica Sharp on day 149 of Radio Hauraki’s living billboard promotion (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

By day 80, six contestants were left, and things were getting tense. “Conflict became an everyday part of our lives,” said Cameron at the time. Promoters began spot searches, looking for contraband. Cameron protested, accusing the station of looking for reasons to evict them. He had a major argument with Hooper, quoting the Privacy Act. It was all too much for Paul Hendri, who climbed down and headed straight to the bottle store. “I’m getting my beer and I’m gone,” he said, waving goodbye.

Within days, there was more controversy. Buhagiar had used her break to smoke a cigarette, but returned to the platform with her lighter – a banned item. She attempted to sneak it out the following day by stuffing it inside her bra, but it fell out in full view of management. “I’m not going to make a big mess out of this,” she said. “I’m just going to leave on a good note with everybody.” Because she’d been disqualified, Buhagiar also wasn’t eligible for any of the runners-up prizes of sponsor products.

Life on the Ledge
Rodney Elliott looks on as Linda Buhagiar is eliminated (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

Once Herlihy departed with a similarly awkward disqualification, it was down to three. By then, the standoff between Hauraki and the contestants was playing out in a resurgence of media coverage. Sponsors saw this and leapt on board, donating wet weather gear to contestants. “They became almost like folk heroes down there on Fanshawe Street,” says Mike Regal, who was in a management role at then Hauraki owner The Radio Network. He uses words like “acrimonious” and “niggly” to describe the contest at that point. “You had companies … who started donating them things like tents and survival gear. A couple of them were so well set up on the platform they could have survived 12 months on Mt Everest.”

Regal believes the contestants’ determination was underestimated. “What better way to have your 15 minutes of fame than just hang in there?” he says. Cameron described the experience as a “weird spectacle of human determination”. Hauraki’s Hooper denied the rifts at the time, telling one publication the competition remained “a major focus”. But Rodney Elliott, one of the last contestants left on the ledge, countered with this: “We’ve helped give Hauraki huge exposure and after almost six months they should do the decent thing and give us $20,000 each.” It didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

Finally, eventually, it was over. On a Sunday morning – day 164 – contestants were warned an announcement was looming. Champagne buckets were filled with bottles and ice, and platters of ham and cheese croissants were laid out on white tablecloths. Life on the ledge was ending. To get things over and done with, Radio Hauraki did the thing it said it would never do and produced three giant cheques, each for $20,000. The contestants had won the stand-off. “I’m staying until the cheque clears,” joked Cameron, after it was handed it to him by DJ Leah Panapa.

Life on the ledge
Jessica Sharp and Brad Cameron with their winning cheques. (Screengrab: Video Taxi)

When he heard the news, Ondrej Havas breathed a sigh of relief. The founder of Omnicron Productions (now renamed Video Taxi, for obvious reasons) was commissioned to film a primetime documentary about the competition for TV2. Paid a flat fee of $25,000, the longer it dragged on, the more money he lost, as he had to cover the costs of running a full film crew. By the end, he was well out of pocket, with costs ballooning to $78,000. But the story was too good to pass up. “Who would stay out in the open for half a year?” he says. “It’s madness.”

Havas’s movie-length documentary, called Heartbreak Hotel: Life on the Ledge, aired in 1998. It was hosted by Cameron, who gave events a bleak spin, playing up the conflict between the radio station and contestants. It was never released on DVD, and isn’t available on streaming services. The Spinoff spent weeks searching for it, before finally being led to Havas, who claimed it was sitting in his attic. A few days later, a staff member produced a copy on CD-R. “You’re the first person in 24 years to ask us for it,” he said. At The Spinoff’s request, Havas recently uploaded the whole thing to YouTube.

It’s an incredible watch, a time capsule of ’90s New Zealand, and the only online record of the competition ever happening. But it doesn’t confirm one thing The Spinoff heard rumours of while reporting this story – that a relationship formed between two of the winners, Brad Cameron and Jessica Sharp. Cameron died tragically in a 2009 hang-gliding accident, and attempts to confirm this elsewhere proved unsuccessful. Tracking down others involved in the competition has been trickier. Guy Needham, Hauraki’s promotions manager at the time, refused to talk unless he was given express permission by Radio Hauraki.

Instead, The Spinoff had a brief chat with radio boss Mike Regal, who spoke from his Wānaka bed while recovering from Covid. “There has been many a radio station promotion that hasn’t gone quite the way it meant to, and this was one of them,” he said. “Interesting no one’s done it again, eh?” Contestant Rochelle Allport agrees, saying it was a “failed” PR exercise. “They did it for some quick PR,”she says, and never believed it would last as long as it did. “Six months’ worth of hiring the billboard, six months’ worth of 24-hour security… it cost that radio station 20 times more than [they expected]. I don’t think they’d be wanting to celebrate that.”

But Allport has fond memories of her time spent on a living billboard. She didn’t win, but managed to pull together a house deposit a few years later, and still owns that home, in the Auckland suburb of Glen Eden. “I live in the back of it, in a garage, and rent out the house, so I can keep it,” she says. Michael, Rochelle’s $20,000 baby, turns 25 this year, a quarter-century reminder of the time she spent two weeks sleeping on a fold-out portacot with string tied around her hands to stop her umbrellas from blowing away, unaware she was pregnant the entire time.

Would she do it again? “Probably, because it was an experience. I met some interesting people. It was a bit of fun.”

 *After this story was published, Jessica Sharp has confirmed there was a post-billboard relationship between her and Brad Cameron, but it “couldn’t survive in the real world”.

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