They have to be on air and presentable before most of us have even woken up. So how do they do it? Stewart Sowman-Lund asks some of our breakfast radio and TV stars about their early morning routine.
On her Today FM breakfast show last week, Tova O’Brien revealed the secret to her being broadcast-ready by 6.30am. Unsurprisingly, it involved a lot of coffee. At least three long blacks before 8am, to be precise. This sparked a fairly strong reaction from her co-workers, the audience and, in me, a desire to know more. Three coffees before 8am when you’re starting work before dawn has come anywhere near to cracking seems… perfectly reasonable to me. But is that how all our brekky stars manage it? And is there a better way to feel refreshed before the sun rises? I set out to find out more.
O’Brien admits she’s never been a morning person, but reckons she’s settled into the new hours on Today FM surprisingly well. That being said, it’s only been two weeks since her show debuted. “I’m usually very late to bed and as late as possible to wake,” O’Brien tells me. She has her first coffee around 4am – “it was 3am last week” – then smashes back “a metric shit tonne of Berocca”.
Now she’s trying to curb the caffeine (or at least the Berocca) by using a technique passed down by her new executive producer Carol Hirschfeld. “She suggested starting the day with apple cider vinegar in water,” says O’Brien, who started this new acidic wake-up last Wednesday.
O’Brien’s certainly not alone among our brekky hosts in drinking a lot of coffee. Newshub’s AM newsreader Bernadine Oliver-Kerby, who’s on air at 5.30am every weekday, confesses to drinking eight to 10 cups of the good stuff every day. Six of those are during a show, “say between 4am and 9am”, she tells me. Her co-host Ryan Bridge is a bit more mellow: “Usually two, both instant,” he says. “And then Bernie makes me a cup of tea at 7.30am after she’s read the news.”
Q&A host Jack Tame may have managed to escape the graveyard shift but the taste of coffee probably still lingers in his mouth. Tame fronted the revamped Breakfast on TVNZ1 alongside Hilary Barry for just under three years, starting in 2016. “You’re not just awake, you have to be alert, energetic and enthusiastic,” Tame says of his time on the show. “I used to have about four coffees during a shift on Breakfast. I’d finish a show and feel completely wiped out. I’d exhausted my day’s worth of social energy and I had nothing left.”
The coffee – he thinks it was Nespresso – probably didn’t help with his overall exhaustion, admits Tame. “I reckon morning shifts age you two days for every day you work. It’s like constantly being jet-lagged. I always had an afternoon nap, but it goes against all the body’s natural impulses to be rising before 4am.”
Tame’s former co-host, Hilary Barry, has just one simple tip: “Don’t ever under any circumstances hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off. And also, have an afternoon nap.”
Is it all about coffee?
Surprisingly, no. Not all morning risers rely on a caffeine fix to get them through the day. Newstalk ZB’s Kate Hawkesby, who starts her show at 5am and often arrives at the newsroom before 3am, says she has no caffeine whatsoever. I tell her she’s mad. “I haven’t drunk coffee for 20-plus years,” she says, instead advocating for “lemon in hot water and loud music on the drive-in in the car”. Husband Mike Hosking drinks espresso, says Hawkesby, “but only after work”.
AM’s Melissa Chan-Green sounds equally maniacal. “I don’t have any coffee in the mornings – or ever,” she confesses. “I get through the day far better without it. I’m usually just running off two Weetbix and a banana.”
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Shockingly, there’s more than two caffeine-free morning hosts – ZM’s Breakfast co-host Hayley Sproull is the same. She finds the morning hours alright. “I’m handling it remarkably well considering I’m a night owl boozer from way back. But it’s early days, maybe it’ll catch up to me,” she says. Along with staunchly avoiding the snooze button, Sproull’s routine involves an early bedtime and ditching the drink during the week. “And when you get home after work don’t sit on the couch or you’ll fall asleep for hours and ruin your routine,” she says.
John Campbell, who looks more awake at 6am than I feel at 10am, tells me that getting up at 3.15am means you often don’t feel “fully human”. When I ask him how he deals with his hours, he gives a perfectly Campbellian reply. “As I drive to work, I notice who else is on the road – and I think about where they’re off to, and what work they’ll be doing, and I daily remind myself that making television, even that early in the morning, is a privileged kind of life,” he says.
His tip? Don’t give into the desire to eat easy, snackable foods once you head out of the office at the time most people are arriving. “I walk the dog. Listen to music. Read. Come up with story ideas. Talk to the team about what’s on tomorrow. I have no techniques for dealing with this, and no advice for people doing it, other than don’t feed your tiredness with pies and sugar, which your body is constantly asking you to do.”
So what does the science say?
Buckets of coffee? Apple cider vinegar? Ditching alcohol? I wanted to know whether there was any proven way of functioning well on a morning shift. Turns out, not really. Dr Karyn O’Keefe, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre, says a 3am alarm is always going to feel like you’re working against what your body wants – because you are. “Sometimes people ask if we can adapt our circadian body clock to our work schedules but there is good evidence that this happens very rarely,” she explains. “The jet lag feeling comes because our internal circadian body clock timing is out of alignment with our social activities and sleep.”
Despite that groggy feeling after a nap, getting some kip in the afternoon is recommended if you’re on an early shift. Most adults, says O’Keefe, need seven to nine hours of sleep all up. “A nap will always provide you with benefits to get through the rest of your work day.”
It may seem counterintuitive when you’re struggling to stay awake at 5am, but limiting caffeine intake is also important. “We recommend using caffeine strategically,” O’Keefe says. “Only when you need it and at the minimum dose to increase alertness.” You don’t want more than 300mg per day, and try to avoid caffeine in the three to eight hours before bed. According to Medsafe, a standard cup of coffee (the good stuff, not instant) contains 70 to 180mg of caffeine. Of course, caffeine can be used as a strategy to “temporarily boost alertness”, O’Keefe adds.
Hayley Sproull mentions she’s given up alcohol on weeknights in order to help her get up in the morning. O’Keefe suggests going teetotal might not be needed, but it can’t hurt. “The recommendation is to limit alcohol intake to moderate doses – no more than two standard drinks – and to ensure you drink well before bedtime so that the alcohol is processed before sleep.”
As for tips like apple cider vinegar or lemon in hot water? Sadly, “there is no evidence that these improve alertness or your ability to cope with missing out on sleep or working against your body clock.”
But when you’re waking up at 3am, do you really care what the science says?