Photo: Paul Taylor with additional treatment by The Spinoff.
Photo: Paul Taylor with additional treatment by The Spinoff.

Pop CultureJune 26, 2024

‘Leaving the party before the lights come on’: Rachel Ashby farewells 95bFM Breakfast

Photo: Paul Taylor with additional treatment by The Spinoff.
Photo: Paul Taylor with additional treatment by The Spinoff.

Tomorrow, Rachel Ashby will host her very last 95bFM breakfast show after five years in the role. Gabi Lardies joined her in the studio to ask why she’s leaving what seems to be her perfect job.

The east of the sky is blushing when Rachel Ashby climbs the three sets of stairs to the 95bFM offices. She’s been arriving at 6:30am every weekday morning for five years, before any student, and probably staff member, of Auckland University. For the past year, producer Stella Huggins has joined her, armed with a colour-coded spreadsheet tabling every five minutes of their three-hour show. Both are followed by faint puffs of their breath condensing in the air.

Tomorrow, Ashby will host her very last 95bFM breakfast show. For half a decade she’s brought listeners three hours of music, interviews, opinion, chats and morning greetings Monday to Friday. Ashby is the public facing voice of the show, but she refers to Huggins as “masterminding the shape of the thing”. Their weekly topics include food, fashion, politics, employment rights, books, theatre, natural remedies and new local music. Regular guests have ranged from prime ministers to the latest punk musicians, and Ashby is equally engaged with all. 

In the studio, Ashby sits behind computer screens and a mixing desk, with a record player and stereo to her left. Huggins faces her on the other side of the desk, cantilevered microphones hover near their heads. A chunky grey landline phone and a half-eaten packet of Woolworths Chocky Slams – an early morning habit that they know could be reserved only for “breakfast radio people” – sits between them. An email lands in Huggins’ inbox – their first interviewee, opposition leader Chris Hipkins, is running late. “Classic gag,” says Huggins as Ashby lines up another song. (Other classic gags at bFM are the one tiny toilet always being occupied and the studio stools being wobbly.)

Rachel Ashby in the 95bFM studio, June 2024 (Photo: Gabi Lardies)

As the song nears its end, the seconds counting down on an LED screen in front of Ashby, Huggins shuts the studio’s sticker-encrusted door for what will be the only time this morning. She picks up the phone and taps its buttons with long, red fingernails. Hipkins is on the line. There’s two things on Ashby’s bullet-pointed agenda, and it’s the second which is the most pointed. She wants to know what the Labour Party is doing inside parliament while thousands of people gather to march against the fast-track bill. She frowns when Hipkins responds, wringing her hands. He doesn’t answer the question, instead detailing how bad the proposed policies are. There’s no time to probe further, Max from the volley (volunteer) news team is in the adjoining studio, ready to read the headlines. 

Ashby’s next interviewee is Madison Kelly of the Ōtepoti noise duo HŌHĀ, who performed in Auckland last Friday. Huggins scoots around the back of Ashby to call them on Zoom. The thing about a radio show is that while lovely music is coming through the airwaves, the studio is a little flurry to prepare what’s coming next. Headphones are constantly coming off and on as the red on-air light turns on and off. Off-air Ashby greets Kelly, and gives them a quick rundown of the next few minutes, including what song of theirs she’s going to play. On air she gives Kelly plenty of time to talk about their music and art practice, asking about the band’s inception, the meanings of the kupu hōhā, how the music relates to Kelly’s visual practice, and if they have plans to record. Later, when I comment on her easy and comfortable style of interviewing, Ashby says, “if an artist can get in there and be vulnerable and talk to me about their art, then my job’s easy. I just have to ask them questions.”

The first time Ashby climbed those stairs up from the Auckland University quad in 2016, she was too nervous to walk through the doors. “I was like, ‘oh, bFM’s cool, and everyone is cool.’ I was really scared,” she says. She was new to Auckland, having moved from Christchurch to study fine arts and history, after only visiting once as a kid. Since she’d loved music forever, her dad had encouraged her to seek out the student radio station. When Ashby eventually got the courage the third time climbing up the stairs, “everyone was lovely, and it wasn’t like I thought it was – everyone was cool, but they were really nice and enthusiastic.” Soon, she was on the reception desk two afternoons a week, working on assignments and greeting the musicians and politicians who walked through the door. From there she saw, “it’s a real little hub, so I got hooked on it.”

Back then, Ashby never had a goal to be on air, it was the community with a shared love of music that had her hanging around 95bFM and putting her hand up to help with “bits and bobs”. But looking back on it, she wonders if there was a gendered imposter syndrome at play because, “there’s no reason I wouldn’t have wanted to – I was massively interested in music, going to loads of gigs, super engaged with what was happening.”

Hugh Sundae, the station manager at the time, asked her when she was going to do a graveyard show, “and I was like, ‘I’m allowed to do a graveyard show?!’” For about five months Ashby graced the airwaves from 3-5am on Monday mornings. “You can do anything, and if you fuck it up, people are listening, but they’re very forgiving,” she says. “At 3am they’re just happy to have a friend on the radio.” At the same time, her friends from Elam, Tom Tuke and Theo Macdonald, were hosting Artbank, the Saturday morning arts and culture show, and they asked if she’d like to join. At first, she was super nervous behind the desk, so worried she might press the wrong button that her hands would shake. Now, her “spaghetti arms” move over the mixer’s different channel controls without hesitation. For some reason or other, both the others left and Ashby became the sole host, alongside graduating in 2018 with an honour in fine arts conjoint with a bachelor of arts. She’d worked about eight months as a gallery assistant at the Auckland art gallery when she got a “massive confidence booster” – a shoulder-tap to host breakfast, one of the only paid on-air jobs at 95bFM. Her very first show ran on Monday, May 6, 2019.

Rachel Ashby and Stella Huggins live from Bestie, 21 June 2024 (Photo: Gabi Lardies)

On Breakfast, there’s not much Ashby hasn’t had the opportunity to touch. A typical morning will have her talking to the prime minister, playing new local music, asking an artist about their process, getting employment advice from a union expert, dialling into a surf report and giving out prizes to those who text in. “I’ve been able to do a bit of all the things I love,” she says. 

There’s also something about the medium which appeals to her “little academic art nerd” sensibilities. There’s the tactility of making the show, which is like “making a sonic art” or an aural collage; the “literal radio” in the hallway, behind glass doors which would look like a dairy fridge if it wasn’t for the two stacks of machines with little flashing LEDs behind them; the fact that it sends the broadcast to a transmitter on the SkyTower, which then sends waves, “real things,” through the air which anyone can tune in to, and listen live. “It can feel a bit retro and old school, but I think radio is still one of the most fundamentally fascinating mediums we have for communication,” says Ashby. One of the special things about bFM is there’s plenty of radio-nerds equally fascinated by the medium, she says. It’s a point proven by the fact most are volleys, and there’s stacks of old equipment, gig posters, records, CDs and other radio flotsam in every corner of the space.

Despite being “old school”, radio is what many turn to in times of disaster. Ashby was a teenager in Christchurch when the earthquakes hit and remembers tuning in to “work out what the hell was going on”. During Covid she found herself on the other side, informing others as news and updates came in. As a news broadcaster, 95bFM was an essential service during lockdowns. The pandemic was “such an intense experience to broadcast through,” she says, “like a fever dream”. Listeners got in touch to say that their bubble consisted only of bFM and their dog. While she was “also just a person feeling anxious,” being able to give people “some stability and some normalcy and some human connection, in a time where there was no stability and no future predictability or anything like that,” felt like a meaningful contribution. 

Rachel Ashby and Stella Huggins in the quad at University of Auckland (Photo: Paul Taylor)

Even outside pandemic time, being the host of Breakfast has been a job that’s become Ashby’s “entire life”. She wakes up early, stays out late at gigs, and is always looking for new music, new artists or keeping up with the news. With the exception of waking up early, these things feature as her “favourite” at different times during our conversation. First it’s going to gigs, then it’s being able to talk to artists about their work and world-view. “I do love to chat,” says Ashby.

It’s a job she still loves “so much”. So why is she leaving?

“I’m a believer in leaving the party before the lights come on,” she says. But it’s not just about leaving before things get grim – “I’m also a big believer that bFM should be creating room for new people to do exciting things. I would love for somebody else to have the experience that I’ve had, get a chance to do the learning, because that’s what bFM should be – training ground for new talent, a breaking ground for new music, new art, new ideas. And it’s definitely time for someone else to have a go at that.”

Leaving is probably a relative term if you think of 95bFM as a community as she does. In a way, she isn’t leaving – you’ll still find her at gigs on K Road. And she’s already started another project with friends, a video podcast titled In the pits, which “very loosely explores music venues in Aotearoa, and not just music venues, but also spaces that facilitate music making and creative making and stuff.” In the first episode they visited the soon-to-be-renovated and renamed Wine Cellar, and talked to longstanding legend Rohan Evans. We can also expect her freelance music writing to continue.

Still, she is leaving radio – at least for now. It’s hard not to imagine the red on-air light turning on for her again at some point, perhaps at a bigger station. She’s only 28 – still at the beginning of her working life – and says she can “totally” see herself working in radio or a similar medium in the future. 

After a “circuit breaker” (a four week holiday in Europe) Ashby will be starting her mornings at 9am. She’ll be at the New Zealand Music Commission from August, leading the industry internships programme. The new role will give her an opportunity to help people into music spaces who might not necessarily have found their way there through traditional pathways, and at the same time grow the capacity of the sector which “consistently punches above its weight”, she says. On the surface it’s a very different role, more work behind the scenes, organising people and linking them together. She won’t be speaking into any microphones, cueing any music or interviewing politicians. Chocolate slams will probably not grace her desk. Yet at its core, there’s the same values that Ashby has been operating by at bFM – supporting music and the people who make it here in Aotearoa. It’s the same thing that led her up the stairs that day in 2016, and eventually through the bFM doors.

Rachel Ashby bid listeners goodbye in person last Friday (Photo: Gabi Lardies)

In the studio, while a song plays and the red light is off, Ashby tells me this has been a fairly quiet morning. There are often more people coming in and out – sometimes interviewees and often volleys, who come to watch and learn. It’s only in the last six months that the station has seen its volley numbers return after a Covid drop-off. New volunteers are sometimes journalism students, but just as often they’re studying other things – Huggins for example has just finished a bachelor of science. Today it’s semester break, so the campus is quiet. 

The following Friday, it will anything but. Ashby and Huggins will host the show live from Bestie Cafe in Karangahape Road’s St Kevin’s Arcade. Every stool and chair will be taken, and standing people will cluster around the makeshift stage and the mixing desk pressed into the side. They’ll bob and sway when Jim Nothing and cc(tv) play live sets. Some of them will swing at pinatas Hobby Goblins have made, pushing them dangerously close to the handblown glass lampshades. Kinder Surprise eggs will splutter out, half crushed. Ten people will line up with party whistles to play a second guessing competition, when just half a second of a song is played and then guessed. Alex will successfully guess a song by The Clean, winning a Breakfast with Rachel T-shirt that features a tiny Ashby in a tank next to a goldfish, which the pair have deduced must be Huggins. 

On the studio’s pin board is a poster for the event, lined up next to local gig posters, all current and in pristine condition. Ashby smiles from the centre of the A3 page. She queues up two songs to fill the five minutes till 10am. The host for the next show, Morning Glory, is waiting in the hallway. After sitting for the better part of three hours, Ashby and Huggins quickly sweep around the room and gather up their stuff. Ashby’s jacket and laptop go under her arm, two coffee mugs and a glass look precarious in her hands. In the kitchen, she adds them to 20 other dirty coffee mugs in and around the sink.

Through the window, it’s daylight. Downstairs, workers in hi-vis are dotted around the quad, working on a new university building much delayed by Covid. Rather than leave the building, Ashby and Huggins head across the kitchen to the office, where the second part of their day begins – preparing for tomorrow.

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