Summer reissue: Alex Casey talks to one of Today FM’s most dedicated listeners about what he’ll miss the most about the axed talkback station.
First published on April 5, 2023.
I don’t know anyone who listened to or talked about Today FM as much as my dear old dad. Scrolling through old messages from him, Mediaworks’ now-axed talkback station pops up in conversation frequently, in equally alarming and charming ways. After I moved into a new apartment in Mount Eden, Dad sent me this: “Happened to hear Wilhemna Shrimpton [sic] on [Today FM podcast] The Core last night – take care out there xxx.”
I asked what he was talking about. “Violence in the streets,” he replied. “She has been confronted herself while out walking from her home in Mount Eden xxx”
On another occasion, I sent my 72-year-old dad a photo from the Dua Lipa concert, to which he simply replied “heard about her on the Lloyd Burr show this afternoon xxx”. Upon the sale of the home I had lived in for 15 years, his response was not one of poignancy, nor congratulations, but somehow, once again, of Today FM: “I heard Duncan Garner today, his house may have been in the same batch auctioned – he said out of 5 only 1 was sold xxx”
The only message about Today FM I have ever actually expected to receive from Dad came last Thursday, after the station was swiftly shut down. “In mourning for Today FM xxx” he wrote. “Tragic for their lives.” He then followed that up with a cheery photo of his cucumber and radish harvest, but I could tell that he was hurting. Much has been made of what the sudden execution of the station means for staff and the wider media landscape, but what about the listeners?
“It all started when I went off Radio New Zealand,” Dad told me over the phone while mixing up a tin of paint. “It was just getting so… vanilla.” Flavour profiles aside, there was also a technical reason for the switch: “I get good reception in the car with Today FM,” the rural dweller explained. “Radio New Zealand is not as good.” He claimed to have never listened to talkback before, admitting he “wouldn’t even know where to find ZB” and that he has a “complete dislike” of Mike Hosking.
I asked Dad to take me through a typical day in the life of an avid Today FM listener. He would begin with Rachel Smalley first thing in the morning (Dad is of the generation that inexplicably craves constant noise playing in his ear at all hours of the day). “Depending on which side [of the bed] I’m sleeping on, I would wake up and she would be there in my ear,” he told me. “She did all that great work questioning and criticising Pharmac. She really got her teeth into it.”
Next up was Tova O’Brien. “She was a bit of a terrier, a real ankle biter,” Dad said. He is going to miss a “brilliant” segment that would happen at the end of Tova’s show every Friday in particular: “Her producer Tom Day would do this amazing song about something significant that happened in the week and put it to existing music. I can’t remember any of them now, but they were really good. You probably can’t even find them because they’ve scrubbed the website.”
After Tova O’Brien came Duncan Garner, who Dad praised for his “really kind-hearted gestures” on the show. “He managed to raise a lot of money for people and join the dots to get people the help they needed,” he said. “During the floods, he actually picked someone up and took him home for the night and fed them. People would ring in and say what was actually going on for them, and it sort of seemed like nobody else was listening to them.”
Following the philanthropy of Garner came the “bouncy” afternoon show with Leah Panapa and Mark Richardson, which Dad also remembered fondly. “They would keep things light and talk about everyday issues – getting doggie bags in restaurants and things like that,” he said. “Mark did this amazing thing about three o’clock every day called ‘In the News Today’ where he’d relay talkback history, and he would do a very funny piece for about five minutes.”
Lloyd Burr would then accompany Dad on his drive home from work, and was the only show for which Dad admits he was tempted to ring in to the studio. “He did this thing called ‘Word of the Day’, where he picks a word that he doesn’t know,” he explained. “One day the word was ‘sepulchre’ but he kept saying it like ‘see-polk-her’! I nearly rang in to tell the twit he was saying it wrong.” I did not tell Dad that I too don’t know what that word is, what it means, or how you are supposed to say it.
Nighttimes got a little hazier. Polly Gillespie would often be competing with terrestrial television for Dad’s attention, but he would always listen through the night to Miles Davis and, more recently, Mikey Beban. “He was this taxi coordinator from Dunedin and somehow stumbled into Today FM,” Dad explained. “He was building quite a good bunch of listeners and they definitely built up very personal relationships with people.”
Of the Today FM regular callers, Dad said the most memorable included a woman who rang in while feeding stray cats at 4am, an “American guy from Motueka” and someone named Horse. “There were definitely people that would ring up often and they would be recognised by the presenters,” he said. “You’d get the sort of pulse of the nation and what’s going on through that, I think it’s really good just hearing regular people and their take on things.”
Alas, as of Thursday last week, Today FM is no more. Dad told me he first saw the bad news on Facebook while sitting down to enjoy a “nice ham and avocado roll” at the bakery. “I was monitoring the situation all day,” he told me. “I like to know what is going on.” He even reset the password of his Twitter account – one follower, eight following – to see if any of the presenters were tweeting about the shutdown. “I looked at Leah, Tova, Lloyd, but there was nothing,” he said.
On his post-bakery drive home, the channel had already been taken off air. “They were just playing music,” he said. “I just felt very sorry for them all to be shafted like that.” Dad also lamented that the station was not able to finish its “100 Greatest New Zealanders” countdown. “They only got down to about 82 by the time they pulled the pin on it all,” he said. “Sam Neill was about 99, I thought he should have been more highly ranked.”
Like many former Today FM listeners around the country, my Dad is adjusting to a new reality this week, one without the people who provided the background chatter to much of his day-to-day life. “It was sudden, it was brutal, and I really felt for everyone involved in the way it was handled,” he said. “And I do miss it – I’ve had RNZ on this morning but it’s not as bubbly, I would say. It’s not as vibrant.”
I asked him if he had any final words. “I will survive,” he said, “but it’s different without it.”