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(Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design Tina Tiller)

MediaOctober 26, 2022

‘I still get my political hit’: Why Tova O’Brien isn’t missing parliament

(Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design Tina Tiller)

Stewart Sowman-Lund spends a morning in the studio with the Today FM breakfast host – a role she’s come to realise is her ‘dream job’.

It’s 6.20am on a crisp Tuesday morning and Tova O’Brien is looking through her notes. It’s exactly five months since her first day as host of Today FM’s breakfast show, which followed a delayed start triggered by legal drama with her former employer, Newshub. She’s got half a bottle of V left which she offers to me since she’s rushing about and too busy to show me where the coffee machine is. I decline – I don’t have a radio show to host. 

The road to Today FM wasn’t a smooth one for O’Brien. The station, with her self-titled breakfast show as the flagship, was meant to launch at the start of 2022. Born out of the ashes of Magic Talk, which had suffered well documented host departures, BSA rulings and race rows, Today FM was intended to represent a stark contrast to its predecessor. Except, it couldn’t launch until March after Discovery, the owners of Newshub, enforced a restraint of trade clause against O’Brien. 

That meant the network missed the start of the political year, and what eventually became one of the biggest news events in recent memory: the parliamentary occupation. If that had happened a year earlier, O’Brien would have been shepherding Newshub’s coverage of the monumental news event. Instead, she was in what she describes as “purgatory”. She’s moved on from that now – almost. “As Dallas Gurney [Mediaworks’ director of news and talk] said to me, it’ll be a fleck of dust in my rearview mirror,” O’Brien explains. “But when I’m confronted by it I’m like ‘Yeah, it was really shitty’. But it’s not something that actively pops into my mind anymore.”

Shortly before 6.30am, O’Brien joins Rachel Smalley for the end of her early morning programme First Light. I’ve probably picked one of the busiest news weeks to shadow the Today FM host – not only is there an angry mob of Brian Tamaki supporters heading to the forecourt of parliament, but Nelson is recovering from devastating floods and (now-former) Labour MP Gaurav Sharma is about to face his fate at a closed doors caucus meeting. Chatting to commentators and reporters from a swishy Auckland newsroom is a significant change of scene from just six months prior, when O’Brien, donning her signature beret, departed Newshub’s press gallery with a report on Christopher Luxon’s car ride across the road to parliament – her final report for the network. 

Despite being a radio novice (a stint at Wellington’s Radio Active aside), O’Brien appears to have quickly found her footing – on the air, she’s in control. Off air, however, she’s still learning. She admits nerves ahead of an interview with Brian Tamaki  – though at home listeners would be pressed to pick up on any trepidation in her questions. Later, a minor stumble over the name of singer Margaret Urlich (O’Brien mistakenly calls her “Ulrich”, like the drummer from Metallica), prompts an off-mic outburst. “Shit,” she says. “I was trying to rewrite the next line in my head.” Two months later, that minor slip-up still plays on O’Brien’s mind. “It really pisses me off,” she says. “I remember the name I got wrong and I was devastated because it’s someone I grew up with, someone I know.”

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Now seven months since Today FM first went to air, O’Brien is still getting used to the differences between her old job and her new one. Part of that includes grappling with being a “perfectionist” operating within the imperfect realm of live radio. “I’m still trying to chill the fuck out a little bit,” she says. “Because there’s immediately another interview after that and you want to do justice to that as well.” 

While she misses the “people and comradery” of the press gallery, O’Brien is relishing the opportunity to develop stories in-depth, rather than racing against the clock to break them. “I feel like I still get my political hit, I haven’t needed to go on some sort of political methadone programme,” she says. “It’s a new skill that I’m learning here which is listening more and trying to dive into things. It’s a different skill set that I really love and it’s still as hotly political.”

In the months since launching, Today FM’s breakfast show has felt at times like a work in progress. Segments have been changed or scrapped entirely, co-host Mark Dye has left and not been replaced, and the breakneck pace of the show has eased somewhat. It’s now far more fluid than the rigid, and exclusively studio-based Morning Report and Mike Hosking Breakfast. Along with a recent fortnight spent in the UK covering the aftermath of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, O’Brien managed to secure a New Zealand exclusive interview with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky just a few months after going on air for the first time. It’s an interview that felt only possible for a show like O’Brien’s; it’s hard to picture Hosking, distressed jeans and Armani t-shirt, sitting in the presidential palace in Kyiv. 

Tova O’Brien and Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo: Supplied)

That desire to be on the ground, says O’Brien, comes from the fact she still thinks of herself as a journalist. While Hosking – who rarely broadcasts anywhere bar the Newstalk ZB studio or his home office – may be breakfast radio king, he famously sees himself as a broadcaster, not a journalist. In contrast, O’Brien appears unsure, almost uncomfortable, about that word. “First and foremost [I’m] a journalist, 100%,” she says. “I haven’t even adjusted to the name ‘broadcaster’.”

Regardless, it’s remarkable how naturally O’Brien has slotted into her new broadcasting role. She spent some of her court-enforced spare time after leaving Newshub attempting to study radio, but questions whether it was of any use. “I didn’t know what to prep for. I was reading all these books about radio,” O’Brien explains. “I’d write out these pretend shows and do them on my own. But I had no idea what I was doing.” More valuable, she says, are the daily aftershow debriefs with her entire team offering a chance to reflect on both the good and the bad from every broadcast. 

It’s hard to know yet whether big name interviews like Zelensky are paying off for Today FM. The network’s yet to make any impact on the semi-regular radio survey results due to an overlap with Magic Talk’s closure. O’Brien says she avoids reading too much into the ratings, at least for now. She’s well aware there’s a massive uphill battle to compete with RNZ and ZB. I ask whether working in newsrooms like Newshub and Today FM – both smaller players competing against larger operations – informs her work.  

“Definitely at Newshub, particularly when I started there, because you don’t have as much money, you’re not as big, you’re not as well resourced… it made the team dynamic so phenomenal,” she says. “Everyone is fighting for the same thing to make the bulletin the best it can be. I feel that at Today FM as well, it’s a small team and they work so hard. I’ve been floored watching how that newsroom operates – that’s the thing you get when you work in a newsroom that is an underdog.”

It’s obvious both on and off air that O’Brien is loving her new job. She gushes over her producers, her bosses and the quality and variety of her interviewees. It is, she says, a dream job – though one she didn’t know she ever wanted. “I probably didn’t back myself, especially when I was younger. After political editor I didn’t have anything beyond that, I didn’t know this was my dream job. 

“Now I do.”

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