Summer read: Sean Plunket seemed down and out of radio after an acrimonious ending with MediaWorks. Then a mysterious backer funded one of the most audacious new media startups in years. He explains his motives to Duncan Greive.
First published August 20, 2022
Wayne Wright Jr enjoyed the first lockdown. He was at home in Tauranga, spending time with whānau in that long, golden autumn of 2020. After decades tending to his family’s various business interests, amidst the fear and the unknown, he finally felt some peace. “The first holiday I can remember, in 20 years. By holiday, I mean no emails, no phone,” he recalls. “I loved it.”
Despite the strain it put on a sprawling network of companies (and one enormous charity), collectively worth hundreds of millions, he knew why we were in lockdown and had no issue with the political decision to prioritise health over the economy. “I think the government acted responsibly, rapidly and did the right thing,” says Wright. His companies collected tens of millions from the wage subsidy, and he was unconcerned with it impacting his life. Like so many of us, he built his day around the 1pm press conferences. He watched intently, but over time he felt his initial support curdling into something quite different.
“That famous ‘Jessica, then Tova’,” he recalls, “For me, my family, and many of our friends, it kind of set us off. Because it indicated to us an all too cosy relationship between the government and the media.” Wright discussed it with his parents, at first over the phone, then, after the first lockdown ended, in person. The Wrights did not like what they saw brewing.
They were “not very happy with the direction of the country,” says Wright. This was true of tens of thousands of New Zealanders, who recoiled at the curtailed freedoms, the closed borders, the threatened livelihoods and eventually the mandates. That discontented segment of the population which feels baked in now began to coalesce in different forums. Most were just venting. The difference is, the Wright family had the means to do something about it.
It was a suspicion and frustration which would ultimately coalesce into The Platform, one of the most significant new media ventures in years. It’s an online radio station founded by Sean Plunket, who has built a lineup of semi-cancelled hosts like Martin Devlin, Rodney Hide and Michael Laws. They speak to an agitated audience on topics they feel journalists have ignored, like Three Waters and co-governance, and frame the media as essentially poisoned by the government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund.
It streams live and clips key discussions for social media – the place where this all began – where they regularly rack up tens of thousands of views. The Platform also feels like it’s radicalising in realtime, with the past week alone seeing it host the militant Kelvyn Alp, head of Counterspin Media; co-leader of anti-vaccine group Voices for Freedom Alia Bland; and anti-vaccine influencer Chantelle Baker, who was offered a weekly show by Plunket during a recent interview. The Platform has largely been ignored or derided by other media, yet has a chance to bottle the anti-establishment energy of the parliament occupation and become something new and deeply challenging to the established order. And it’s all happening because the Wright family said yes.
Where it all began
Wright is deeply reverent when talking about his father and the toil it took to achieve all he has in life. Wright Sr was raised in Christchurch, “a Southern man,” says his son. He speaks as admiringly of his mother Chloe, who leads the family’s quixotic charitable foundation. “Both my parents are just very conservative, very modest I think and they believe in a strong work ethic.” The pair met and married in the lower North Island, and set about building one of this country’s great family business empires.
“Once I think I counted 14 or 15 completely different industries that [Wright Sr] has been involved in,” says Wright. “Not companies – industries.” The Wrights are in retirement villages, real estate, retaining walls and artificial intelligence. If you got stung for a pricey phone call at a hotel before the internet, that was probably the Wrights. “When everyone grumbled about the big fees, we were front and centre of that,” says Wright with pride.
The crown jewel though, was childcare. A service every parent needs, a rare part of our education system which is largely privatised – but one the state heavily subsidises. They owned a huge chunk of that system through companies like ABC and Best Start. A few years ago they made headlines for the apparent altruism of giving the business away to charity, though the charity was the Wright Family Foundation, and the business was actually bought with a vendor loan, repaid at a cool $20m a year to the Wright Family Trust.
All this added up enormous wealth. So when veteran broadcaster Sean Plunket came calling, with the same perceptions about the closeness of government and media, they welcomed him into the family home. The Wrights listened intently to Plunket’s pitch about a new radio station, one which would talk without fear or favour about what was going on in this country. He sought a considerable sum, and assumed it would be divided up amongst 10 or more backers.
“We huddled together for a couple of minutes, and we came back and said, ‘Sean, we’ll do the lot’,” says Wright. “His jaw just dropped.”
A talk radio host with no one to talk to
Plunket’s road to The Platform began six months earlier. His role on Magic Talk ended in February of 2021 in circumstances about which neither his bosses at MediaWorks nor Plunket himself will talk on the record, presumably due to NDAs. But it came after a rash of bad publicity for the station, including a $3,000 fine from the BSA for an “offensive and harmful” interview with a spokesperson from Te Whānau ā Apanui iwi. It was swiftly followed by some flagrant racism from John Banks, prompting first advertisers like Vodafone, then new MediaWorks boss Cam Wallace to pull the pin, first on Banks, then on the whole station.
Magic Talk relaunched as Today FM earlier this year, with Tova O’Brien leading a younger line-up with a noticeably more centrist vibe and a far lower risk of straying into areas likely to run afoul of the BSA. It’s a cypher for the evolving nature of acceptable discourse in New Zealand, because talkback was once ground zero for rugged conversations about race, gender or sexuality that have largely become unacceptable within politics and media.
What is now worthy of sanction from our regulators was the core business of mainstream talkback for decades, and while even ZB has largely abandoned the fringes of the genre, there remains a large audience for it, as is made manifest by heated conversations happening all over Facebook.
Plunket had been a broadcasting star for years, including a period co-hosting RNZ’s Morning Report, one of the most important presenting roles in the country. While he’d had a weird decade, including a chaotic stint as press secretary for Gareth Morgan during his run as head of TOP, Plunket’s CV suggested someone who should have had at least a decade more in radio. He hadn’t changed – but the culture had. Quite suddenly, he was out of a job and didn’t know where the next would come from.
Plunket started to scheme a radio station in his image, one that wasn’t beholden to the corporate advertisers who he saw as having cravenly blown up his station and show. One that valued freedom of speech above all, and was comfortable asking questions and exploring topics deemed unacceptable by his former bosses at MediaWorks. He imagined an online radio station, going direct to a digital audience. It would be staffed by the kind of brilliant broadcasters who’d fallen out of the mainstream media in much the same way he had. A place immune to cancel culture and the excesses of the woke, where all social and political issues were fair game.
He imagined The Platform. And after four months of talking to rich people around the country, he finally found one willing to fund it.
The Platform is live, and it’s working
It’s now around three months since The Platform first went live, and as with any start-up, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Plunket suffered a tragic loss within his whānau, and a heart attack from which he has not yet recovered (it’s not keeping him off air, though). The operation is pre-revenue, but Wright is deeply committed, saying he would like it to break even within three years, a good long runway. This would indicate his investment is well into the seven figures, given the capital and operational costs of The Platform. A significant sum – but not to the Wrights. “Significant is a relative term,” says Wright. “For us, they’re not significant.”
While many in media and radio doubted its prospects, The Platform has been a success by a number of different metrics. It has attracted big name guests, from sports icons like Steve Hansen and Grant Dalton to politicians, including Act’s David Seymour and broadcasting minister Willie Jackson, who told me he enjoyed the experience. It also hosted Chris Hipkins, who might not have. Wright was sufficiently troubled by Plunket’s “overly aggressive” interview with Hipkins that he wrote to him to apologise. He didn’t receive a reply.
There are other success measures too. Wright claims “a million views a month across the various platforms… I don’t really understand the vernacular”. Seymour says that when he asked Act’s voters to raise their hands if they listened to The Platform on a recent roadshow, as much as a quarter of the room did. This is a high level of cut-through, even allowing for the advanced political engagement of those attending Act roadshows in the middle of winter.
It has achieved all this largely on its own steam. Facebook lists an ad spend of just a few hundred dollars in recent months, and while there has been some Google spend too, it has largely been an organic social and word-of-mouth phenomenon. It has tapped into the same kind of discontented ferment that gave rise to the occupation of parliament – those who feel like something has gone badly wrong with our society and that the political and media elites aren’t talking about it.
Still, it’s one thing to be mad at some random stuff on Facebook, quite another to pour millions of dollars into a highly uncertain venture. When I had Plunket on my podcast earlier this year, pre-launch, he looked like the cat who’d got the cream. When news came out that his backers were the Wright family, with Wright Jr driving it, I was desperate to speak to him. To answer a one word question: why?
A Wright wing media
I tracked Wright down on LinkedIn, on a page he set up over 10 years ago and never attends to (unlike many of The Platform’s listeners, Wright entirely eschews social media). It listed an email address, and I sent off a request for an interview. He readily agreed, and suggested we meet up for lunch at the Federal Street Deli, his favourite spot.
We met on a blustery day in late July. He ordered the chicken salad sandwich, with gravy on the side. “The trick with the sandwich is a teaspoon. I always look to make sure there’s a teaspoon on the table, because that’s my gravy applicator device.”
He proceeded to speak for 20 straight minutes without interruption, an impressive monologue covering his family history, his life in business, his views on our media, his experience of lockdown and his motives in funding The Platform. He lingered over a story about a police officer named Sheryll Pearce, who came upon a troubling situation, pulling over a car with eight unrestrained children in it. This prompted the Wrights to set up a scheme in which should the police find someone without a car seat, they call and get one, free of charge, funded by the Wright Foundation.
“The point is that in our little country, an individual can make a difference,” he says. “That’s what I love about this place.” The function of the anecdote seems to be as an analogy for what the Wrights have done with The Platform. He sees something (our media going to hell) and says something (‘Sean, we’ll pay for your internet radio station’).
For someone who has funded a very esoteric venture, Wright’s media consumption habits are surprisingly normie. While in the US he watched CNN and Fox News avidly. “I think the balanced view is somewhere in the middle.” Locally he loves Mike Hosking (“I think he’s the king. He really is.”). He watches Newshub over 1 News, and enjoys The Project. He loved Paul Henry and Duncan Garner’s AM Show, and used to like Mark Richardson until he “drank the Kool-Aid”. He is extremely enamoured of Heather DuPlessis-Allan. “I would like to see her join our team one of these days, bring that diversity,” he says. “But it’s merit based.”
He mentions diversity a few times in our conversation, but seems to mean something different to him. “As I listen to The Platform – and I’m an avid listener, have been from day one – I hear quite a bit of diversity. Between Sean and Michael [Laws] and even Rodney Hide has been on lately. And then Martin with his very colourful exploits.”
Those are the most prominent hosts on The Platform, and all are white men in their fifties and sixties. Not only that, but the most prominent broadcasters – Plunket, Laws and Devlin – are united in being perceived as having lost their once very prominent positions in our media due to their controversial approaches going out of style. Or, in Devlin’s case, attempting to assault one colleague and sending unwanted messages to another. Wright is not oblivious to this. “It has not escaped me that now all of our talents are sitting at a certain age. And they’ve all been… I think cancelled is quite a popular word.”
The seductive idea of meritocracy
To Wright though, what unifies Plunket, Laws and Devlin is not that they’re ageing white guys with unhireable reputations, but that they’re talented broadcasters. He believes they achieved their career successes and roles on The Platform thanks to talent and hard work. Their demographic similarities are purely coincidental.
I ask him how he squares this foundational belief in meritocracy with data which shows Māori and Pacific communities as on the wrong side of any number of statistics around health, wealth, income and housing. “It comes back to individual responsibility, and individual resilience. In my mind, people are different. Races of people are different, genders are different.”
He goes on to cite Japanese people who live longer than average, or the proportion of NBA players who are Black as evidence that different outcomes are on some level inevitable. “That’s business, that’s trade. It cuts both ways.” He says he’s not an expert on these matters, but that is just the way he understands the world. And he resents the idea that people would say that his views are harmful. “I would say that if a particular group of people feel aggrieved, then make something of it,” he says. “Get out there and do it.”
This is a key part of his motivation in funding The Platform. “The thing that really disappoints me is that when folks do question that, with what I think are legitimate issues and legitimate questions, they get terms like racism thrown against them, for asking the question.”
The idea that his views might be viewed as racist is bewildering to him, and he volunteers a definition of racism that excludes the kind of systemic and structural understanding which society has largely accepted. “I’ve seen what racism looks like in other countries, and it is severe,” he says. “It’s people hanging up on burning crosses. That’s what racism looks like.”
He believes Te Tiriti is an important document, but not relevant to his vision of New Zealand, and that Māori dispossession of their language and whenua has long since ceased to be an adequate explanation for poor outcomes that persist over generations. “I don’t think the answer to it is carving them out, and giving them extraordinary rights and privileges, because they don’t live as long,” he says. “The fact that a group doesn’t live as long… is not inherent racism.”
The country is in motion, and not everyone is on board
We’re not getting anywhere, so I move on. Much of the country has. But for a non-trivial number of New Zealanders, the change in our media has been abrupt and destabilising. They remember a time when Al Nisbet’s cartoons were published in our daily newspapers, and it was routine for talkback hosts to describe Māori children as feral. This group, which viewed that as all being in the rough and tumble of life, feels suddenly estranged from society.
“We use the term silent majority,” says Wright. “I don’t know if it’s a majority or not. But I think there is a sea of silent folks out there who are busy getting on with life. They produce the goods and services we have every day. They get their kids to school. They tend to their property. They go on their holidays. They just get on with living. I suspect that, as we were, they’ve probably become a bit disenfranchised… I’d like to think The Platform is an opportunity for them to have their say.”
The occupation of parliament happened before The Platform launched, but felt like it functioned as a visual and emotional expression of its animating spirit. “I watched [the occupation] with a great degree of curiosity, and excitement, and reassurance,” says Wright. “I appreciated that people were frustrated, and they were prepared to put it on the line, and stand up for what they believe in.”
While he didn’t like what it turned into or the way it ended, he enjoyed its bloody-minded unwillingness to accept the status quo, which seems to be a Wright family trait. His mother Chloe was recently the subject of a superb profile by Stuff’s Michelle Duff, detailing her battle to introduce three free paid days of postnatal care for mothers. It seems an uncontroversial idea, though one which doesn’t have a huge amount of support. She made it controversial though, in part by invoicing the Counties-Manukau DHB for over $170,000 for work it never agreed to fund.
Chloe Wright’s lobby group Mothers Matter is part of the Wright empire, a major network of companies which are hard to dislodge. Says her son: “The trick to survival is having those multiple interests and keeping those balls all juggling, or the plates spinning if you will, so if one suffers some cataclysm, government policy change, market change, currency fluctuation, death – you know, any one of these things, the other things keep the whole show going.”
I ask whether he fears becoming associated with The Platform might blow back on him, that a host’s words might put him in a similar bind to that which caught DGL’s Simon Henry a few months ago. “That’s a very legitimate question… it was the one area that I dwelt on the most.” He ultimately decided his family’s fortress was essentially impregnable. “They can’t cancel me,” says Wright. “When people come and rattle their sabres at us, we can say, ‘well, tomorrow is another day. Good luck with that. And by the way, you could buy one of our things over here. Stay in a hotel we own’.”
Anyone like Wright can afford a media empire now
It’s a very new phenomenon that even a family as wealthy as the Wrights are able to start a media company with this many big names to satisfy a perceived absence in the market. Historically, broadcast media was highly regulated, with a relatively small number of channels and frequencies, and licences required to access large audiences. It had immense barriers to entry, with the major groups worth hundreds of millions or more, and was characterised by a relatively limited number of players and ownership which specialised in it and little else. It was essentially considered a hazardous activity, in the era before everyone carried a mass communication platform in their pockets.
The idea that a private citizen – albeit from one of our richest families (the NBR pegs them at $360m; based on conversations with Wright, it feels light) – could start a major new channel, rapidly broadcasting to tens of thousands is a very recent development. Not just post-internet, but post-social media and post-4G. Allied to this is that media has gone from a very profitable business to a marginal one, seen as a sunset industry by most local market analysts.
When you demonetise media, and create a whole unregulated information system with wide distribution and no guardrails, as we did with social media, you make The Platform somewhat inevitable. The Platform could be seen as the ultimate rich man’s toy – and like a supercar, it’s a bunch of fun. Wright is learning a whole new language under Plunket’s tutelage. “’Pearl clutching’. I’ve learned all sorts of vernacular since I’ve been in this space. I had no idea what virtue signalling was, or even gaslighting.”
The Platform is not alone in taking advantage of Meta and Alphabet products to flourish amidst the free speech absolutism of social media. Alternative media approaches have thrived on new platforms, from the militant conspiracy theorising of Counterspin to Chantelle Baker’s artful creation of an approachable anti-vaccine movement. Both are happily hosted on The Platform for unchallenging interviews.
The hard commercial realities involved in Plunket’s downfall, and that of Magic Talk, just aren’t in play here. Wright has vague ideas to pitch for advertising from what he calls “cancelled companies” – those that violate current norms around emissions, for example – but the business plan isn’t there yet, or really the point. If the Wrights wanted to, they could run this forever without ever noticing the cost.
His new venture The Platform means different things according to wherever you might sit. It might be a talismanic symbol of people’s appetite for free speech and robust debate. Or it might be a cloud of vapour belched out from the gut where outmoded ideas go to decompose.
What already seems self-evident, though, is that it is not a vanity project with no real impact. That Wright and Plunket have in fact created a consequential and viral new media vehicle at a moment when mainstream outlets are seeing their social reach plummet. One which has tapped a fuming and hyper-engaged audience – and one now has an outlet willing to amplify their voices.
It’s well into the afternoon, and time to leave. Later in the afternoon I get multiple missed calls. He’s keen to clarify a few things. Understandably so. Wayne Wright Jr’s still learning about the media. And the media is about to learn about Wayne Wright Jr.