RNZ’s Morning Report has a new co-host – and one you might not have expected. As Ingrid Hipkiss tells Stewart Sowman-Lund, it was an offer she just couldn’t refuse.
Ingrid Hipkiss has already ordered a green smoothie and is sitting at an outdoor table of a Morningside cafe when I arrive for our interview. She’s early, probably a good quality for an incoming breakfast radio host, and opts for the cold drink over anything caffeinated (“I’ve been mainlining coffee all morning”).
On Tuesday, Hipkiss became the 16th host of RNZ’s flagship news show Morning Report. When we speak, she’s still a few days out from her official debut and seems oddly calm for someone readying for their biggest career move. “It’s really exciting,” she tells me. “There were enough familiar faces and enough similarities so I didn’t feel like the new girl.” Hipkiss had spent the day ghosting fill-in host Guyon Espiner, himself a former permanent presenter of the show, in RNZ’s Auckland studio.
It’s only the second time in Hipkiss’ broadcasting career that she could actually claim to be the “new girl”. With more than two decades in the media, Hipkiss has never made a move outside of Newshub or its predecessor, 3News – until now. Understandably, there are some nerves. “It’s like low level panic,” Hipkiss says with a laugh. “I do have nerves [but] I think nerves are a good thing. I’m certainly not going into this blasé. I think a lot of things over my career have been preparing me for this role, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking ‘I’ll just take this in my stride, no worries’.”
Morning Report is a fixture in the New Zealand media landscape. It first launched in 1975, and while the broader journalism industry has changed dramatically in the years since, the show itself never really has. The introduction of Hipkiss, who has a softer touch than, say, former hosts Kim Hill or Susie Ferguson, alongside a new permanent sports host in First Up’s Nathan Rarere, perhaps suggests a changing approach to morning radio from the state broadcaster; one that puts it closer to its television competitors and continues to distinguish it further from the one-man Mike Hosking show on Newstalk ZB.
To many, Hipkiss was a surprising choice for the role of Morning Report presenter. It’s understood she was one of a handful of names in the mix, alongside recently departed Midday Report host Mani Dunlop and broadcasters from both within and outside RNZ. “No one in their right mind would not want a good go at Morning Report,” Hipkiss says of getting the offer. “The prestige of that job, the mana of that job – the opportunities to interview people are incredible. There’s just nothing like it. I don’t think I consciously was ever thinking of this, it just seemed so far out of the realm of possibilities that it wasn’t something I set out to do. But that’s kind of how I’ve had my career, I’ve never really had a game plan – but I’ve never said no to anything.”
After a short print career, Hipkiss started out as a political reporter for TV3 based in the parliamentary press gallery in 2002. “That was my bread and butter,” Hipkiss says. “I still consider myself a political reporter even though I’ve dabbled in other things – you’re so embedded in the gallery, it becomes a key part of who you are.” From parliament, Hipkiss moved into other roles that included presenting TV3’s first breakfast programme Sunrise, news reading on Newshub’s Paul Henry breakfast show and, most recently, hosting the revitalised late news bulletin on TV3.
She’s probably best known for her stint as Newshub’s 6pm weather presenter, though that position was unexpected as well. “[Longtime TV3 weather presenter] Mike Hall broke his arm and I was in Countdown and [former head of news] Mark Jennings rang me and said ‘can you come in and do weather for us tonight?’ Then Mike left and it grew from there,” says Hipkiss. “It was something I never saw coming but, again, I didn’t say no to it. I still look at it as a different form of storytelling – you’re taking complex information, repackaging it and adding a bit of your personality.”
She loved her time on Newshub Late, a position she took up early last year when TV3’s owners Discovery injected more budget into the network’s news department. That role involved a mixture of hosting and interviewing – similar to Morning Report, though just a sixth of the length and, of course, at the opposite end of the day. “I prefer the mornings. Late news was a bit of a struggle for me,” says Hipkiss. “My energy would naturally peak earlier in the day.” She’s proud of her stint on the show, in part because she was involved in overhauling the format, which saw the traditional late night rehash of headlines ditched in favour of a combination of new stories, live interviews and bulletins. “When this Morning Report job came into my orbit, it was at a time when I thought I’d found my place. I thought ‘I’m not going anywhere’ – but you can’t pick when these opportunities come along.”
The media landscape has shifted even since Hipkiss was first announced as the Morning Report host early this year. For starters, the long-touted merger of TVNZ and RNZ was scrapped (though Hipkiss says she never expected she’d be fronting some sort of cross-platform Morning Report anyway). Today FM was also abruptly pulled off air, reducing the competition in the news and talk space. And the government recently confirmed RNZ would be chucked an extra $25 million per year for the next four years, too.
More broadly, the media industry has been under threat for several years now, but Hipkiss says that, as a broadcaster, it’s something you just have to put to the back of your mind. “I’ve been living under that threat for at least 10 years. At Newshub it was ‘you’re going to be closed by Christmas’ [or] will we be sold, won’t we be sold? The industry is under threat. But you can’t be consumed by that… At the end of the day you go in, you do your very best.” Social media has continued to have a growing impact on traditional media, too. Just this week, after our interview, a low level Twitter storm erupted over a series of “gender critical” tweets that Hipkiss had liked and that some saw as an endorsement of those views. Through a spokesperson, Hipkiss refuted that. “I respect and support anyone to live their lives in the way they see fit,” she said.
In the months between Ferguson leaving Morning Report and Hipkiss joining, a varied roster of hosts has been keeping the presenter seat warm. RNZ probably has the nation’s most exciting broadcasting “B-team”, with Kim Hill and Guyon Espiner routinely providing electric radio over the summer. Hipkiss is aware that she’s following in some big footsteps. “I had to follow Hilary Barry into Paul Henry’s show,” she laughs. “You just can’t get hung up on people liking you. When I first moved into presenting, that is something I had to train myself on. I just tapped out of all feedback, really, whether it was good or bad.”
In person, Hipkiss is warm and friendly – and she says she wants to maintain her personality on-air as well. She names former colleagues Paul Henry and Ryan Bridge as two people she loved working with, but says she won’t be trying to replicate anyone else’s style. “Paul is an amazing broadcaster – in terms of his eye for detail and how easy he makes it look. The throwaway comments aren’t throwaway comments, they’re woven in and there’s a purpose for everything,” says Hipkiss. “He came to my farewell at Newshub and Paul never goes anywhere for anyone. There were lots of tears but that really set me off when I saw him there – ‘wow Paul hates people and here he is!’”
During a conversation I had with Henry at his home last year, the reclusive broadcaster was dismissive of many of his former media associates – his few compliments were mostly reserved for Hipkiss. Somewhat presciently, he also said Morning Report was in desperate need of a new presenter. And now it has one.