Can Mikey Havoc and bFM make each other great again?

Seven years after he hung up his headphones at bFM, Mikey Havoc – musician, trouble maker, radio talent extraordinaire – is back at the station that made him. Ahead of his first Breakfast show on May 8th, Havoc sat down with his former producer José Barbosa to explain what lured him home.

Mikey Havoc, the old Havo, was being filmed in the Ponsonby Burger Fuel store. He was pretending to DJ for a promo to be shown instore on those screens that usually display drone footage of the Maldives or video from car shows. He’s asked about the recent Push Push gigs, his old band that recently reformed to the surprise of everyone. “It was super thrilling and I didn’t die,” he says, genuinely looking relieved.

It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the handful of diners ate their meals, maybe only just understanding that the guy in front of the camera with cherubic features and mermaid hair had filled most of his preceding 40 plus years with so many changes in fortune and career the resulting line graph of his life would look like a cartoon bomb blast.

There have been drugs, rock ‘n roll, parties, running a bar, TV shows, radio shows, marriage, divorce, births and deaths, health issues, public hatred, public adoration, stage shows, petitions, very public schisms with former friends and eventual reconciliation; and in all that tangle revolving around him is bFM, the electron to his proton.

This will be the third time Mikey will host the Breakfast show for the outfit that started life as Auckland University’s student radio station. His first stint from 1996 to 2002 catapulted him and his sidekick/co-host Jeremy Wells (then operating under the stage name Newsboy (‘cause he read the news, natch) on to TV stardom.

Four years later Mike was hosting the weekday Drive show. I was the Drive news reader at the time and I was asked to produce for Wallace Chapman, the then Breakfast host. For some reason he’d been running the show without a producer, but it became clear fairly soon he needed someone to take the workload off his shoulders. He vetted me in the most Wallace way possible by taking me to an ATC production of Glide Time. I got the job, despite the fact I insisted on wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt.

And then, before I could start with Wallace, all the shit hit the all the fans.

Wallace Chapman, broadcasting bFM Breakfast from the Big Day Out, 2006 (photo: José Barbosa)

Suddenly, or at least as it seemed to me, management decided to replace Wallace with Mikey. Wallace saw the writing on the studio wall and quit. The news leaked out – an inevitability when it comes to bFM – to Damian Christie, who wrote a rip snorting blog condemning the move as “shortsighted, unimaginative and showing nothing but contempt” for the bFM listenership. (Six years later in a classic Steve Braunias profile in Metro, Mikey called Damian a cunt). Listeners complained online and in person to the station, a petition garnered thousands of signatures including quite a few from staffers and DJs, both current and former. In that first week of the new show Mike received abusive calls to the studio. The feeling was that the station should be promoting new talent rather than opening their doors to the old hands. I remember a listener pleading with Mike on the phone to “give it back to the kids, please give it back to the kids”.

Eventually the show found its legs and the nasty texts simmered down. I think the following year on that show contained some of the best, most fun radio I’ve ever been involved in. A particular favourite was the morning we hadn’t been able to book a band for the “Fancy New Band” live slot, so instead we decided to pretend to strap Mike into a device we claimed we’d bought on the internet. I explained to to the listeners said device would shut down Mike’s consciousness and allow me to speak directly to his pancreas. So speaking through a $5 voice changer Mike pretended to be his pancreas while I interviewed him. We called it Fancy New Gland. Lolz.

Mike on bFM Breakfast, 2007 (photo: José Barbosa)

But the period was a dark one for Mike (and for Wallace – ousted by his stylistic opposite and briefly jobless, he actually asked me about my old clippings job at the council and if I had a contact. Turns out he didn’t need it). I remember Mike’s fingernails, gnawed down to the wick. I’m still stunned he agreed to come back. Will he be able to handle the potential backlash?

“I don’t really care about getting shit from people any more for some reason,” he says to me after he’s fulfilled his Burger Fuel commitments. “I was talking to someone who’s got a show on bFM at the moment and she was saying how she’s just reached that point where the texts don’t hurt any more. Once you realise the poor sad bugger that’s sitting at home doing that by himself… don’t tell me you haven’t got another thing you could listen to.”

Havoc manifests his own idea-bulb

It’s all still stunning. We spend a moment marvelling how life doubles back on itself. All within a few months Mike’s reformed with an old band, recorded a new single and music video “that doesn’t suck”, and he’s been offered his old job back, the job that made his name and energised a station.

“I initially said no, it’s a training ground. But Hugh said ‘look, you’re the best person for them to learn from.'” He’s talking about Hugh Sundae, former bFM Breakfast host (he took over after Mikey) and current station manager. This makes the whole thing more stunning because it’s been no secret that Mikey and Hugh have had a chequered history, which Hugh brings up a few days later unprompted over the phone.

“I guess [that’s] just a result of both being breakfast hosts, there’s kind of always a little bit of maybe ego or whatever involved. I guess when I first took [the job offer] to him I think he was more than anything else just quite flattered that not only had he been asked again but it was me who was asking him.” When asked who’s idea it was to get Mikey back he says it came from throwing around a bunch of ideas with some senior people. “I guess I’ve learnt there are no crazy ideas anymore.”

And then, just to add to the weirdness, Mike went to the Honourable Phil Goff for advice. “I saw him at the gas station,” he says, ”so I just said ‘I wanna run something by you, I’ve been offered this job.’ He said he thought it was a good idea.” This is maybe the most Auckland conversation I’ve ever had described to me.

Both Hugh and Mikey make the case for bFM as a training institution and how important it is to have information passed down from one generation to the next. Of course, the current host Hannah Renwick, only the second woman to ever be in the role, will have to make way for the old timer. She’s in discussions with Hugh about her future role with the station. Producer Alice Gatland will continue with her show on the schedule.

Hugh talks about having a bit more “bFM-ness” through the roster. “It felt like it needed that on Breakfast just because… you know there was that time when networks would say you’ve got to spend money at 6 o’clock news because that’s when people pick their channel for the evening? It kind of feels a little bit like that with breakfast.”

It’s starting to sound a bit like 2006 again. Back then management’s argument, as far as I understood it, was twofold: ‘why not have your strongest broadcaster up front in the flagship show?’ and, Mike can attract the advertisers and sponsors where a fresh young face can’t.

“There were so many meetings with clients over the last couple of years,” says Hugh. “You’d try to tell them a story about the journey bFM is taking at the moment to get back to where it should be and so many times it was just like ‘where’s your next Mikey?’ kind of thing. The name would just keep coming up.” That part has, at least, worked. Burger Fuel is sponsoring the new show.

This must be heartening for a station that’s always skirting financial doom and one that at various times has had to satisfy its parent body, AUSA. But Hugh goes into a long explanation of why that isn’t the only reason he’s asked Mike back. It’s about a culture correction and about having someone strong in every position, he says. “I don’t want people to try and be like Mikey, but just to take experience from him, to know how to take risks and how to please a crowd.”

That’s not going to placate everyone, of course. It’s a move that’s going to be seen by some as a regressive one, a betrayal of everything bFM is supposed to stand for. A friend I let slip the news to laughs and asks “is that the only trick they’ve got?”

Studio 1, 2008 (photo: José Barbosa)

When I bring up the spectre of the inevitable backlash, Hugh laughs. “I don’t give a shit. I feel like it’s the right thing to do and you know the job is just to do it and everyone else will in time realise that it’s the right call.”

There’s also, surely, some strategy to the move. He’ll be in competition with former bFM dudes Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells on the Hauraki breakfast show. It feels like a move that has the added bonus of tapping into and possibly taking their audience.

“I’m measuring my words very carefully here,” says Mike. “I know that bFM wants to have more than just 25-44 year old males listening.”

Both he and Hugh say they haven’t thought about the competition side of things. It’s a strange, almost unbelievable thing to hear, particularly from a station manager.I never really care who’s doing what on any other station,’ says Hugh. “Just because it’s so outside my worldview it’s kind of irrelevant. A lot of listeners who went over there when announcers went there were like ‘yeah it’s great hearing those guys but then the ads come on or that music comes on and you’ve got to go and do something else.’ I don’t really see it as a competition.”  

In some ways it really does feel like Mike’s time. Donald Trump is running the world’s most powerful democracy, neoliberalism is snaking its way around the world. This is prime Mikey rant fuel. He regularly butted heads with John Key on the old show. He says he’s looking forward to telling Bill English exactly what he thought of the guy before him. He’s still astounded Key was considered to be a charismatic leader. “Really, charisma? Charisma’s the word you’re going to lob onto that dopey eyed liar? And I don’t like the way he was able to leave, just ‘oh I’ve blown my load, see ya’.”

So the new show is likely to have a bit of that fervour, although Mike says he’s let go of some of his wilder ideas. These would be his penchant for conspiracy theories, his questioning of the 9/11 narrative, his dips into pseudo-science. Then there’s the punctuality thing. Mike was chronically late to the show the first time around, sometimes arriving an hour into the broadcast. “Punctuality and car parks have been very carefully discussed,” he says, possibly a bit annoyed I brought it up.

Even at the height of the conflict with management about playing ads and getting in on time – and they were mighty battles – he loved bFM. And he says he still does. Sometimes the cynic gets the better of me and I think it’s because he can get away with so much there compared to full commercial stations, but that’s not often. He argues for the station’s importance in the culture and how it’s always been at the forefront of new music. And, you know, he missed it: “I love that shitty building and that shitty university and that shitty not-so-powerful bloody frequency, all that stuff. But then so much about it is great.”

Details on the new show aren’t forthcoming, primarily because by the time you read this he’ll be on holiday in Thailand. He gets back into Auckland on the 7th of May and his first day back at bFM on air is the 8th. I don’t think that’ll be causing him sleepless nights though. I’ve seen him wing his way through a full three hours of interviews, promos, music and banter with a thimbleful of prep. And it feels like the harder it is, the more he’ll love it.

“It’s really important that it is a challenge,” he says, “because otherwise it’ll just be something that everyone’s heard before. Or it’ll be a version of something everyone’s heard before. And that’s not worth doing.”

We wrap up the interview and share some gossip. Mike fills me in about what’s happened with him since I last saw him which must be years ago. As with the interview, he’s 100 miles a minute, the mouth not keeping up with the ideas. He enthuses about radio the way the Ark of the Covenant shoots out Nazi melting lightning: “I think it shits all over TV and the internet.” He shows me photos of his son, Kyuss. “8,380th most popular boys name in the United States,” he informs me with glee.

We walk to his car and I’m kinda spent, to be honest. That’s what it’s like with Mikey, it takes a lot out of you. Former bFM station manager Aaron Carson once described working with Mikey like “trying to herd cats”. He’ll piss you off and not do a single thing you ask him to do and you’ll sit there plotting his demise. Then he’ll do something brilliant like rapping the lyrics to ‘Gold Digger’ in the style of the Mad Butcher or sing an aria about how Baycorp can stick it up your arse. And it’ll all be okay again and you love what you’re doing.

He just has to do all that one more time.

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