A farewell to Leighton Smith, NZ radio’s crankiest uncle

After more than 30 years, Newstalk ZB’s pause-loving, conspiracy peddling morning talk host is hanging up the headphones. Duncan Greive tunes in.

Leighton Smith has delivered the bad news. Not as bad as it seemed for a second this morning when he told his loyal Newstalk ZB listeners, “We’ve come to a decision that I am going to terminate,” but still bad: he will retire from his morning talk slot in a year’s time. “This programme, my programme, will come to an end,” he told us, before dropping one of his trademark X-Factor-length pauses, “soon. But not as soon as some would hope.”

“Soon” for Leighton Smith is December of 2018, at which time he will be succeeded by Kerre McIvor – the first woman to break into the prime ZB slots eternally occupied by Smith, Williams, Holmes and latterly the whipper snapper Hosking.

Shockingly, Smith’s is only the second-longest preamble to a retirement announced in 2017, after Simon Barnett gave listeners 545 days’ notice in July. The longtime morning host made the announcement after a Monday spent vigourously defending Donald Trump’s performance, decrying the media of which he is a part for “all the lies they tell” and placing a $100 bet with a listener that the US president would see out his term.

“There are still people who think Trump’s in trouble over Flynn,” he said during one unscripted monologue. “Trump’s not in trouble. There was no role, there was no collusion. Get over it.” Then, in one of his familiar jabbed afterthoughts, he added: “Hillary lost! Get over that, too.”

Now we will have to get over the loss of Smith, the longest-serving host on commercial radio. He has happily sat in the wake of the heavy hitters in the 6am slot – they interview politicians and public figures to set up the day’s issues while Smith, for the most part, litigates them with retired New Zealanders.

Leighton’s book

Despite his having been permanently situated outside of the bright lights of drive and breakfast, Smith never has had cause to doubt his power, his value. In a piece covering the station’s launch earlier this year he noted the ratings crash which occurred station-wide on the conversion to the talk format. “Mine went from 22% to 11.5%,” he recalled, before modestly observing that his was “the only programme to retain double digits”.

Those doldrums didn’t last. Holmes began on One, becoming the kind of dominating hit which spilled over onto his radio show, and soon the whole station. Through the ‘90s ZB was the zeitgeist station, dominating, directing and diagnosing the national mood.

Latterly it has moved from feeling like it accurately represented middle New Zealand to being more of a cranky, conspiracy-theorist uncle. Still a loud voice in the family, but a bit odd too. None odder than Leighton Smith, who managed to make his colleagues look like calm moderates with his climate change denial and warnings about “chicky-babe” Jacinda Ardern and her deep-seated communism. That he is being replaced with a moderate and empathetic woman looks like a sea-change for the station.

As part of his valedictory he held forth on recent changes in his work environment, as ZB has fused with the wider NZME organisation.

“I come in on a Saturday to get a free Herald,” he said, before commenting on the glorious café culture of the Nelson St-Victoria St intersection. It’s as if 33 years frozen in that studio and timeslot has prevented him from ever truly knowing the outside world.

Now – and by now I mean in a year’s time, obviously – he will have the chance to experience it. “A cause for celebration”, he said this morning, with a trademark mix of pomposity and sly self-awareness. This strange, maddening man has been around a very long time, and while it was necessary and important that he leave, he will also be missed.

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