She’s been in the media for more than three decades, but only recently scored her dream gig. Now Leah Panapa tells Sam Brooks how she is making Magic Mornings her own.
“It was the hardest day of my 35 years,” Leah Panapa says over the phone.
Just over a month ago, Panapa was announced as the replacement for controversial Magic Mornings host Peter Williams by way of a press release. Unfortunately, it was sent out after she had already been on air for half an hour. For the rest of the show she was bombarded by confused, angry listeners, and plagued by technical issues that made many phone calls inaudible. “What a nice baptism of fire today, let me tell you” she exclaimed halfway through. “Peter’s gone, phones don’t go… I shall keep talking just to annoy you even more!”
After her first day (which she calls a cluster “you-know-what”), she made the decision to not keep explaining the change in host to her listeners. “We have to act like it’s my show from now on,” she says. She refused to repeat explanations about Williams’ sudden exit off the back of multiple on air controversies. She’d already done enough of that in one three hour slot, enough to last a lifetime.
“Come along for the ride, but I’m not going to keep dipping out and saying why I’m here,” she says of the decision. “Because I’ve been here long enough for you to know who I am.”
She’s right – Panapa’s CV from over three decades in the media is extensive, having worked for commercial radio stations including Radio Hauraki, Radio Pacific, MoreFM, The Rock and The Sound before coming to Radio Live before its Magic Talk rebrand. She’s also co-hosted wellness advice programme Better Living, been an especially memorable face of Glad Wrap, and maintains a robust career as a voice-over artist and MC.
A month after her debut on Magic, Panapa doesn’t need to explain why she’s there. Tune in on any given morning and you’ll hear Panapa deftly negotiate a plethora of topics, from observations about Auckland’s first weekend at level three stage one (“not a lot of masks”), dodgy speed cameras in Taranaki (“a bureaucratic blunder”), and New Zealand’s very own taxidermy museum, Manutahi Museum (“Dead. Not alive. Dead. Pets”). Nobody even rings in to ask about Peter Williams any more.
“To be honest, I’ve always wanted that show,” Panapa confesses. She initially applied for the morning show when the station rebranded from RadioLive to Magic Talk, but was offered nights. After what she says were two enjoyable years there, she was asked to co-host the 12-4pm slot, Magic Afternoons with Danny Watson, after Sean Plunket’s abrupt resignation. She ended up spending only six months there, before moving to the morning show. “No disrespect to Danny, but talkback can be quite difficult with two hosts.”
The new slot also gives Panapa a schedule that she much prefers. Rather than working what ends up being a 9-5 job, she’s in the office by 5am and out of there by midday. It’s a change which has given the host “her day back” – at the cost of a few shifts for her dog walker, now that she can walk her own two beloved border collie crosses, and run her errands. “I kind of feel like I’ve slotted back into my normal rhythm, but it’s not music, it’s talkback, which is really, really intense, way more than music.”
Panapa is more than used to bouncing between different shows, stations and rhythms. She got her start in music radio at the age of 17. Taking over the graveyard shift for the Christmas period, she remembers a stark warning from her first boss. He told her that it would be tough – not just because she was a woman, but because she was brown.
It is an interesting insight to hear, particularly during an moment where the culture of commercial radio has been under a microscope. From Instagram account #beneaththeglassceiling sharing anonymous accounts of harassment and abuse in radio, to an independent review into the culture at Mediaworks that found “a culture of acceptance of misconduct,” the results of the scrutiny haven’t been pretty.
Panapa says the industry is tough, but she doesn’t believe she has missed out on any opportunities because of who she is. However, she does acknowledge that her career longevity, and her resilience, might come from belonging to a certain era. “Yes, I’ve been treated unfairly. But I’ve done this three decades, it’s going to bloody happen.”
She knows there are boys’ clubs within the industry, because she has had to learn how to navigate over them over the years. “I haven’t had to change who I am, but I’ve had to come in at a different angle. You work out how to approach different people. You work out what makes them tick, what they’re like, and work around them to achieve your goal.”
That ability to read people is a skill she brings to her current gig. Compared to many of the titans of the industry (think McIvor, Lush, Hawkesby/Hosking), Panapa’s respectable five years in talkback radio makes her a relatively fresh voice, and that shows in her hosting. She is warm, she is funny, but most importantly, she’s also open to learning and admitting where she’s wrong and where she’s not the expert.
While Panapa has strong opinions on many things, both serious (Covid, gangs) to silly (taxidermy, gut premonitions), she believes it’s important that she doesn’t come across like she knows it all on air. “I want my show to be a place where listeners can call in and tell me I’ve got it a bit wrong, and then I can say, ‘Well, look, I’m more than happy for you to point me in the right direction’.”
She’s grown a thick skin, because she has had to, but Panapa can still surprise herself after 35 years in the business. “That first day [on Magic Morning], I literally did come off air thinking, ‘Gosh, why would I come back to this?’ But within like 20 minutes of getting home, it was I survived, nobody died. I didn’t burst into tears. It fuels you to go back and try again.”
And she is. Every weekday from nine.