Former Act leader Rodney Hide is joining ex-TVNZ newsreader Peter Williams and anti-vax influencer Chantelle Baker in a hectic new online media startup. Duncan Greive reports.
“I can’t talk to you, mate,” says Rodney Hide. “I’m literally up to my arse in manure.” Quite. The former Act leader is one of four names headlining Reality Check Radio, anti-vax group Voices for Freedom’s brand new entrant in New Zealand’s burgeoning free-speech-centric online radio scene. Hide, once one of the country’s most prominent politicians, is now hopelessly devoted to a quite different cause. “I love and support VFF enormously,” he says during a brief call. “They rescued me from a very dark time during the lockdowns.”
It’s this emotional attachment which is the animating force behind Reality Check. A launch video appeared on YouTube over the weekend, voiced by Paul Brennan, the longtime RNZ newsreader who radicalised during Covid and became a founding part of The Platform, Sean Plunket’s free-speech-focused media startup, which launched a year ago this month.
The clip features a stock image of a smooth-haired terrier with headphones on enjoying Brennan’s deep, powerful voice, set to a throbbing EDM beat. He explains the concept behind Reality Check Radio. “You’ve heard the words ‘open, fair, both sides of the story’. It’s easy to say them but practising them often feels like a bridge too far.” Audio grabs of Brennan, Hide (“the man who cares so much”, according to the voiceover), conspiratorial influencer Chantelle Baker and former TVNZ newsreader Peter Williams, who asks “where is the evidence they actually make a difference?” He doesn’t need to say what “they” are – the audience already knows.
As of now, Reality Check Radio is more of a dream than a reality – the holding company was only incorporated a week ago, with three core VFF leaders as shareholders. The YouTube launch clip links to a website which encourages you to sign up to a mailing list. As of today it is a Twitter account, a YouTube channel and a Rumble page. All have the same short teaser, making the same promises. Signing up to the mailing list gives you a little more of the flavour.
“The other side of the story will not be held captive any longer… We’ll be covering the issues the establishment won’t, we’ll be challenging the voices the mainstream media don’t, and we’ll be leaving you to discern the truth for yourself after you’ve been given the full story. The voice of reason is coming soon, and you can bet your cotton socks it will not be coming quietly.”
Voices for Freedom launched the station on Saturday, with an equally excited email to their database written by VFF’s Alia Bland [emphasis retained from the original email]: “Today we’ve got huge news. I can barely contain my excitement… I’m sure you’ve heard the tired old lines from the MSM and the trolls. “What’s VFF going to do now that the mandates are over?”. “Pack up and go home?”… Many thousands of Kiwis are still affected by workplace mandates. And secondly, all of the legislation that enabled the tyranny in the first place is still around.
“And what about all those people who did really bad things? Are they just going to get off scot-free? Not A Chance… We don’t stop until everything that has been done – is UNDONE, and those responsible are held to account.”
Voices both loud and curiously quiet
For all that swagger and menace, the public faces of Reality Check are reticent to further explain what exactly the media startup is, or even when it will launch. “I’m not interested in talking to you,” said Hide. Brennan was only slightly more forthcoming: “I’m happy to talk, but it will have to be later in the week.” None of Voices for Freedom, Baker or Williams responded to repeated requests for comment.
Others are not so shy. Plunket has been aware of Reality Check’s looming launch for some time, and characterises it as a kind of single-issue media platform. “I call it ‘rabbithole radio’,” he says, and describes the movement driving it as “a little butthurt that I am not here for their specific ideas”, despite The Platform having hosted Voices for Freedom many times in 2022.
The existence of Reality Check Radio has been rumoured for weeks now, with a source suggesting that along with Voices for Freedom, the Taxpayers’ Union is involved. This is not correct: “I can absolutely assure you that we have nothing to do with them,” says its founder Jordan Williams.
Driving the rumours is the fact Reality Check’s Peter Williams (no relation) is on the board of the Taxpayers Union, and hosts its podcast, Taxpayer Talk, as well as being a founding face of Reality Check. Jordan Williams is adamant that whatever Peter Williams’ role in Reality Check Radio is, it is done in the broadcaster’s freelance capacity, and will have no influence on the TPU’s activities.
A platform for those deplatformed by The Platform
If and when it does launch, Reality Check Radio will share some DNA with Plunket’s startup, the first entry in a now-crowding space for those feeling angry and marginalised from both the political response to Covid-19 and the social change which ran alongside it. The Platform grew out of Plunket’s breakup with MediaWorks’ Magic Talk, a station which was closed after a run of bad publicity over dicey on-air comments from multiple hosts (including Plunket), and was eventually replaced by the much more modern vibe of Today FM. Plunket pulled together a crew of similarly semi-cancelled presenters, including ex-Newstalk ZB sports presenter Martin Devlin and former Stuff columnist and politician Michael Laws.
The Platform was lavishly funded by the hugely wealthy Wright Family, founders of the Best Start early learning centres, along with a host of other business interests. Its pitch was strikingly similar to Reality Check’s – “an untarnished view free of political interference… with your support we can beat the woke culture warriors”.
Yet the very existence of Reality Check Radio implies that The Platform’s speech isn’t free enough – that it might have actually gone woke, at least in the eyes of some of its hosts. Part of the animus comes from the fact the links between the organisations are legion. Brennan was a crucial part of The Platform’s early setup, relied on for his deep knowledge of radio infrastructure, and is still working there as of today (his last day is scheduled to be Wednesday). Hide was a fill-in host until, Plunket says, he stopped booking him due to a lack of interest in debating anything beyond vaccines and mandates. The Hide audio clip on the Reality Check launch is taken from a show on The Platform, and both Peter Williams and Baker have been hosts and guests on the station.
According to Plunket, The Platform moved away from regularly working with the anti-vaccine crowd after a discussion with co-founder Wayne Wright Junior late last year. The Platform had seen huge numbers for clips that interviewed Voices for Freedom, Baker and many of the stars of Stuff’s Fire and Fury documentary, but Plunket says that he and Wright eventually tired of hosting those consumed with a single subject. While it generated massive engagement online, he says “the fact of the matter is that audience is limited and will never grow”. Plunket now believes “the tide is going out” on a group he calls “the anti-vaccine, anti-mandate nutters”, and believes their disappointment with The Platform’s stance is what inspired the founding of Reality Check.
The rise and rise of anti-establishment media
The station might not have the field to itself for long. The even more militant anti-vaxxers at Counterspin Media have been talking about the launch of a radio product for some time, and recently posted to its Telegram group about their desire to do “internet-based radio”. Counterspin says “we’d like to do talkback shows and also to highlight freedom/truth music”, and made requests for “royalty-free music you’d like us to play”. (Reality Check is keen on this too – its launch email spoke of “some smooth sounds to balance out the heavy stuff”.)
This follows the launch of The Common Room, a much less fringey media product featuring writing and short video explainers, well-funded by the founder of travel platform Online Republic, Mike Ballantyne. While The Common Room has a far more mainstream lineup, with the likes of Paula Bennett and Mike King prominently featured, it’s also animated by a dissatisfaction with the current mass media, and the range of subjects that are considered fit for discussion. There’s also Bassett, Brash and Hide, a blog run by the former Labour, National and Act MPs, with which it shares some authors and subject areas, with posts attracting thousands of views.
With the cost of starting media platforms approaching zero and a social media environment that encourages the distribution of high-engagement material without regard for its content, there is now clear momentum within a free-speech-centric right-leaning media space. As traditional media struggles for revenue against the same platforms that distribute these new products, there is opportunity to step into areas that mainstream sites now find problematic but where there remains, post-Covid, a passionate and sizeable audience.
An audience, sure – but funding it often requires a rich backer unconcerned with a fast return in their investment. The Reality Check Radio launch clip is monetised through pre-roll advertising, with ads for blue chip clients like Meridian and Neon playing alongside it – brands that are highly desirable for New Zealand publishers, but often only intermittently engaged with local outlets. The audience demand is manifest in its views – 11,000 in 24 hours – and subscriber counts. Reality Check Radio already has around half as many YouTube subscribers as the Otago Daily Times’ channel, which is over 10 years old, and twice the Twitter followers of RNZ’s youth brand Tahi a year after the latter’s launch, despite issuing just three tweets.
While there will be some ad revenue through YouTube, these groups have a patchy record of staying on social platforms, due to the near inevitability of violating terms of service. Yet they can use the platforms to quickly build up followings with more robust connections to their fans. Reality Check’s site encourages signups to its email database – though its conspiratorial thinking extends to suspicion about deliverability. “Be sure to whitelist our emails,” one page reads. “You know how those pesky email providers like to censor emails that challenge the narrative (especially if you’re on xtra.co.nz).”
When reached for comment, xtra.co.nz owner Spark assured The Spinoff that it “does not block or censor content on our xtra.co.nz email platform, or anywhere else”. A Spark spokesperson had acerbic advice for the new media brand, saying “if Reality Check are having issues with disappearing emails, we’d suggest they try turning their computer off and on again, which might fix the issue”.
Despite the trickle of ad revenue associated with its launch clip, Voices for Freedom’s main motive in starting Reality Check was clear in the launch email, which featured a prominent donation button and encouraged readers to “shop the sale” on VFF merch. In that respect it’s much like any other modern media company, seeking reader revenue to sustain itself in a tough ad market. While its hosts are still stuck in the compost, and there’s no clue as to its launch date, Reality Check Radio appears to have a large audience waiting for it. The station is further evidence that, even as the coronavirus recedes from the national conversation, its impacts linger in a conspiratorial movement that is splintering, but shows no signs of abating.