Israel Dagg, Brendon McCullum and Ian Smith are among the hosts on SENZ (Image: Toby Manhire)

Review: The first hours of SENZ, Aotearoa’s new sports radio station

Sport on the radio is back with the launch of the local arm of an Australian media giant. Alex Braae – who dearly misses the old Radio Sport – tuned in for the opening broadcast. 

“Sport is more than a lifestyle, a passion. It is a fabric that completes our identity,” former Black Caps captain Brendon McCullum declared, over a backing track of Six60, from when they used to make drum’n’bass. It was a lot for 6am on a Monday morning. 

“Well well well, if that doesn’t get you excited, nothing will,” broke in Israel Dagg. It sort of sounded like an ad was about to play, the audio swam, McCullum made a false start, another sting played, and then he began again properly. The first ever caller to the new SENZ network – Lance – couldn’t be put to air for whatever reason. Nothing makes radio sound thrillingly live like a bit of messiness. 

“Baz and Izzy” have a pretty easy vibe as broadcasters, even if they kept on insisting they “never went to broadcasting school”. They’ve both been fortunate to come into the industry as former players known for their personality, meaning they can make a rougher, less polished technique work. Before the first adbreak, their ex-Radio Sport producer Louis Watt was brought on air to do the basics, like shouting out to the sponsors and telling listeners the time.

A bit of jeopardy was introduced early. An interview with WTC-winning captain Kane Williamson was teased, provided he actually picked up the phone – apparently he was at the Formula One. 

Being former players, McCullum and Dagg are probably a bit more positive and forgiving towards athletes than the average fan. About 15 minutes in, the conversation turned to the Warriors, with a discussion of how the country is still proud of the team because of the sacrifices this season has involved. That’s a perhaps heroic reading of the sporting public’s thoughts towards this Warriors season, but the comments clearly came from a respect for the lifestyle the team is having to lead. 

The stereotype of what you’d hear on Radio Sport would’ve probably been the opposite – that the Warriors are soft, they’re professional athletes so what do they expect, I bet you’d love to be playing first-grade footy for that kind of money, blah blah blah. It doesn’t really matter that Radio Sport hosts had largely moved on from that sort of mentality – the image is set in stone. 

Kieran Read and Israel Dagg. (Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

But half an hour into the life of SENZ, the breakfast hosts were talking about the value of multiculturalism and diversity in the rugby community, particularly at the club level. Dare I say it – has sports radio gone woke? 

That’s a facetious way of putting it, but there might actually be something there. The saga over producer Sam Casey is indicative of that. For those who didn’t follow it – Casey wrote a dreadful column about women’s rugby that said women were takers rather than givers, and there was a justifiable storm of criticism. But despite the column being written before Casey was employed by SENZ, on a platform with nothing to do with SENZ, and Casey being in a backroom, and it ostensibly being a first strike, he was let go a few weeks before the station launched. 

On a recent episode of the Between Two Beers podcast, broadcaster Jason Pine appeared to suggest the sacking might have been a step too far. His opinion is relevant, because he was briefly in charge of SENZ, before realising that he had taken on too big a job and his family life would suffer too much as a result. Pine indicated SENZ may have decided they could put a line in the sand about what is and isn’t acceptable with the sacking.

At times, the opening broadcast perhaps veered a bit too far into feelgood positivity. Israel Dagg did an editorial in which he discussed the whispers around whether Scott Robertson might replace Ian Foster as All Blacks coach. Dagg’s view was that actually, the public should be backing Foster 100%, at least until the end of the year. The segment is billed as “Izzy’s bomb squad” (a reference to his fullback days) but as he did on the rugby field, here he was defusing a bomb rather than firing one up. 

It took a talkback caller to point that out. “I don’t want us to be cheerleaders,” the caller said, noting that Australia and Argentina weren’t particularly good sides last year, and both beat the All Blacks. The caller was right too – the All Blacks genuinely had a mediocre 2020. Sport is different, but can you imagine a business journalist telling the public they should give an IPO their full support? 

Brendon McCullum leads out the Black Caps in his final test match , against Australia at Hagley Oval in 2016. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

It might reflect the slightly tricky spot “Baz and Izzy” find themselves in now. They’re both very recent players – a few teammates from the representative teams they were stars in are still around. Nobody wants former sportsmen banging on about how much better they were than the current lot – but similarly, people in media have to be willing to criticise without fear or favour. And you’ve got to give plenty of space for callers to express their opinions honestly, or else they won’t call. 

Athletes will probably be very keen to talk to SENZ. Kane Williamson came through in the end, and he gave an interview that seemed slightly more in-depth than he normally goes. Williamson is a bit notorious for playing with far too straight a bat with the media, but on SENZ, he took the heart on sleeve sincerity and returned the favour. 

Injured All Blacks captain Sam Cane also brought his particular style of muttered bluntness, in an interview with mid-mornings host Ian Smith. Good questions, good answers, good producing to get the interview over the line, good radio all round. 

Smith himself – and the more out and out broadcasters coming on later in the day like Kirstie Stanway and Rikki Swannell – are likely to be crucial to SENZ in the coming months. The first four hours featured interviews with Kieran Read, Williamson and the current All Blacks captain – all significant “gets” that set a very high standard. The opening day buzz will wear off very quickly, and after that the grind will begin. And daily radio is a hell of a grind.

There are positive signs that SENZ will look to cast the net wide on their content. Horse racing will probably end up paying a lot of the bills, but Smith’s show found time to talk to the boss of Surfing NZ about the sport’s inclusion in the Olympic games. 

For the generalist sports fan, this station will fill a void that was left by Radio Sport, and perhaps even expand the conversation around what counts as newsworthy sport, which would be very welcome. It’s just one man’s opinion, but they did enough this morning to get at least one new regular listener.




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