Peter Williams had departed suddenly. His morning radio audience was mad as hell about it. And, somehow, Leah Panapa nailed it.
At 9.46am this morning, a press release shot into the inboxes of journalists with this tongue-twisting subject line: “MediaWorks Media Release: MediaWorks Appoints Dallas Gurney as Director of News and Talk and welcomes Lloyd Burr”.
Even more headline-worthy announcements were to be found within. Firstly, Ryan Bridge would be taking over The AM Show after Duncan Garner’s resignation two weeks ago. Secondly, Peter Williams would be retiring, effective immediately. The latter was covered in only two lines:
“Meanwhile, Magic Talk Mornings host Peter Williams has decided to retire. At the age of 67, and nearly half a century in the media industry, he wants to enjoy life with fewer commitments.”
Williams’ last months as host had been marred by the veteran dealing in anti-vaccine views, UN conspiracy theories and climate change denial. His departure is the latest in a run of high-profile on-air changes at MediaWorks this year, following John Banks being officially taken off the air due to racist comments he made about Māori while filling in for Williams, Sean Plunket departing his own show Magic Talk Radio, and Duncan Garner resigning last month over “brutal hours”.
Unfortunately, the press release went out 46 minutes after his show went to air, where Williams’ fellow Magic Talk host Leah Panapa was filling in, permanently.
“Now yes, normally I know you would be joining Peter Williams who has been here since the inception of Magic Talk some two and a half years ago,” starts Panapa, as jovial as one could be expected to be in a new job with less than 48 hours’ notice. At the start of the show, Panapa reveals she was informed only at the weekend that she would be taking over from Williams. And if there was a list of jobs you wouldn’t want sprung on you, “hosting a talkback show the Monday after a terrorist attack” would be pretty high up on it.
She continues, because she’s contractually obliged to. “Look, I’m more than happy if you want to talk about Peter, but in a positive way: there’s no point shooting the messenger. I want to continue Peter’s good work. As I said, I’m honoured and excited to be here.”
The show starts off promisingly, with Panapa opening the audio floor for viewers to ring in and discuss their responses, emotional and otherwise, to Friday’s attack. The first caller is Neville, who wishes Peter Williams well. The second caller, Eric, gasses Leah up. “There’s no use being nervous, you know you’re a good radio announcer! We will miss Peter but there’s no need to be nervous. Everybody’s respects you, you’re all good.”
Then we get to David from Christchurch. “I know you won’t have much to say about it Leah, and you probably might end up hanging up on me, but has your radio station gone woke?”
David continues, as Davids are wont to do. “First Sean Plunket, then Tony Amos, now Peter Williams have all been given the boot … Obviously something’s happened to one of your people you get sponsorship from or something like that – they’ve had enough of the way Peter talks on this radio station and has decided if you don’t get rid of him, you’ll be gone.”
Panapa reminds David that she only learned about it at the weekend, as she explained at the beginning (“I didn’t hear it,” interrupts David). She goes on to repeat, not for the first time and not for the last, the list of reasons that Williams might not be here (wants to spend more time with his family, is old, doesn’t want to work, etc).
“Sometimes,” she sighs. “People do just leave.”
David is one of those people who just leaves, apparently. “Well, you’ve lost yourself a listener too, Leah. I’ve got no drama with you whatsoever but every other presenter that’s been replaced by these other people, they’re not for me anyway so… I’m not listening to Magic Talk any more. Your radio station’s gone woke.”
Panapa manages the impressive feat of putting an eye roll into words. “All right, David. I’ve given you three minutes of your opinion. So I’ve proven that I do let you have an opinion. You got to say what you wanted to say, I let you, I didn’t hang up on you. And we will miss you as a listener, hopefully you’ll come back.”
Another lost listener is Michael. He can’t believe that Peter Williams has retired, any more than he can believe that John Banks had. “I think your management has to look seriously at themselves, because they have lost me as a listener, as a poster, as a contributor.” Panapa says she is sad to hear that, which I’m sure is true on many levels.
If things weren’t bad enough, the second hour of the show is plagued with the aforementioned sound issues – Panapa appears to be on a five-second delay with every caller, and also appears to have to explain to everybody who calls in that this is happening, even though you’d assume they’re listening to the very programme she just explained it on.
She soldiers on. At one point, she exclaims, “What a nice baptism of fire today, let me tell you! Lovely. Peter’s gone, phones don’t go. Boy, this is great for day drinking! And I shall keep talking just to annoy you even more!”
The rest of the show continues are you might predict. Chris believes there’s a rat amongst the Peter Williams resignation, then calls Panapa by the wrong name (Pania). A man called Michael recommends a book that “not a lot of people might have heard of” that reflects current events at the moment – George Orwell’s 1984. Panapa states flatly that she’s heard of it and, by the grace of broadcast, moves onto the news.
The one time the host comes close to losing her remarkable cool is in the last half hour. After another caller, James, goes on what could charitably be called a “ramble”, she says, “I would like to think after 35 years of radio … I would like to think that Peter’s audience can still converse with me. I’m not going to shut them down. I’m probably one of the few announcers or broadcasters that do let both sides on. As wonderful as Peter is, he was one-eyed. You have to admit that.”
If there’s anything that this debut proves, it’s that Panapa has the skill and guts to handle the job. While we all staggered through the specific kind of Monday blues that settles in during lockdown, Leah Panapa had the patience of one of our better saints. In one three-hour period, she had to deftly navigate the emotions of people not just reacting to the sudden loss of a (subjectively) beloved radio host but a terrorist attack, while fielding not just sound issues but the issues of a listenership that doesn’t appear to actually listen.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. After a Williams-adjacent rant, caller Reuben wishes her well. “All the best with your new time slot there.”
She answers with an audible grin. “Cheers, mate.”