Larry Williams fending off a drone (Image: Newstalk ZB)

Newstalk ZB’s unsentimental giant signs off with a tear in his eye

Long-serving Newstalk ZB Drive host Larry Williams has hung up the headphones at Newstalk ZB, where has been at since the Palaeolithic era. Alex Braae tunes in for the farewell broadcasts.

Jack Tame and David Farrar were on The Huddle with Larry Williams for the last time on Wednesday. They’d been a relatively regular pairing, picking over the respective issues of the day for the evening commute. That night it was, of course, capital gains.

The news was coming up, and they had to go to a break. Jack Tame briefly broke out of his regular stride. “Hey, I’ll miss you Larry, see you soon.” Larry responded by thanking him, and saying Jack was a brilliant broadcaster. The moment lasted all of ten seconds – Larry always keeps it moving.

He thanked David Farrar too for all his contributions to the show, which have been vast. “Thank you Larry, enjoy a capital gains free retirement,” said David. It got a laugh.

Larry’s off. After 27 years, he’s finally finishing one of Newstalk ZB’s seemingly permanent shows. It always rates solidly. You get people when they’re in a mood to listen. And throughout that time, he’s basically been doing exactly the same thing. That’s not bad – John Grisham has sold a lot of books. It’s not exactly controversial to say that ZB’s strategy is to monetise having large and targeted audiences. And for decades now, that has been Larry.

Well, it has been the Larry Williams Drive show at least. His current producer Laura Beattie, formerly Kneer, is a self described “brutally efficient German”. That rather minimises how she puts together basically a perfect product every day, within the format of a commercial talk drive show.

Laura Beattie isn’t even the only Laura to have mastered the job. Heathcote and Smith before her did the same. Two producers before them did more than a decade each. Jobs on the show have been where some excellent journalists and producers have really excelled. And being consistent is actually rather difficult. Larry’s consistency is largely built on the relentlessness of those around him. He’s always well prepared, and he uses it.

Mayor Phil Goff praised him. Larry thanked him – “yeah, we’ve had some fun times” – and then cut him off to get to a break. Throughout the show, there were various farewells. All were accepted warmly and briskly dispatched. It’s unlikely anyone was too bothered by the lack of sentimentality. Anything else would have been inconsistent.

The show did typically well in the latest survey. Station boss Jason Winstanley came on before six to pay tribute, and summed up what he delivered in the space of a sentence. “You go out number 1 in Auckland, and number 1 in the country.” That matters hugely as a commercial selling point. During his final ad-libs with long term clients over the week, Larry had a bit of a nudge over how good the show had been for sales. They all agreed effusively, and it’s probably true.

Some people in the public love it. Many are benignly indifferent. Some absolutely hate it. Larry Williams and the show might be listened to by easily enough people to be commercially viable, but it’s still pretty polarising. Many think he’s biased, and he obviously is in his opinions, but arguably isn’t in most of his interviews. He shares many of the views people associate with the wider station. He’s flinty. Relatively speaking, he’s quite hard right on some issues, often calling for tough measures to be imposed on whomever or whatever. Sometimes targets are picked for a pointed comment or a sneer. I personally probably agreed with him about once a year, possibly twice.

Larry Williams in a promo shot, some time in the distant past.

Whoever takes over the job is in for a difficult start, simply by the sheer unusualness of having someone new in. There’s a pretty wide range of contenders. It’s wild speculation, but people talk most about Heather du Plessis-Allen, who is currently hosting ZB mornings in Wellington. She got a strong rap across the knuckles by the Broadcasting Standards Authority for her comments about Pacific nations being leeches. She also appeared on The Huddle on the final night and delivered a perfectly timed set of punches. That’s pretty much the job – just doing that all the time – and she’s good at it.

The field is a bit larger than just her, of people at the station who might have a chance. Jack Tame recently stopped doing a daily TV show, to start doing one night a week on Q+A. He also hosts a Saturday morning show on ZB. Andrew Dickens is finishing up Afternoons soon, and did some recent fill-in hosting on Drive along with Heather du Plessis-Allen. Chris Lynch in Christchurch regularly gets asked to fill in. There could be a leftfield choice in the company, or the net could be cast a lot wider and someone entirely new brought in.

But for the station there is a clear changing of the on-air guard happening. Leighton Smith has also finally stepped away, and there have been quite a few new shows over the last two years. Some of has been shuffling, and a lot of it has taken place in less high profile slots – for example, Lorna Subritzky and Francesca Rudkin have been doing Sunday morning, and Veitch on Sport has been replaced by a pair of new shows. But in that time, every weekday slot except Nights and Breakfast has now turned over.

In a wider sense, there has long been a bit of a churn of Newstalk ZB staff. Anyone looking at the Telum Media Alerts, a regular email update for people in the media, can see how frequently new positions and resignations are announced, for journalists, producers, tech producers, news directors. Larry himself has been a relative pillar of stability amid all that, for dozens or quite possibly hundreds of people just trying to make their way at a radio station.

Larry will be back, of course. It’s an iron law of people who have been commercially bankable for a long time – they never really go away. Just look at Leighton Smith’s new NZ Herald column and podcast, or the Rolling Stones continuing to tour. Larry Williams has by all accounts wanted to retire forever, but just kept going instead.

When he finally finished, Adele was playing in the background. ‘Someone Like You’. He loves Adele’s music. He once told The Veronicas he liked Adele to open an interview. Finally, Larry was, just for a moment, sentimental. He sounded like a man who had a moment to say goodbye on his own terms, which so few get the chance to do. He sounded like a man realising how lucky he had been. His emotion for those who had been around him for all the years was deep and direct. He signed off with a tear in his eye, and went silent as the final notes of Adele hung in the air.

Then John and Adrienne from Magness Benrow smashed over the top of it, advertising a TV. It was a fitting way to go out.


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