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A Week Of It: Get Hard J.C.!

Not normally up before midday on Saturdays, one of this columnist’s frequent guilt twangs has been not continuing to check out John Campbell’s weekend slot on National Radio.

Eight am on a Saturday seems a little early for anyone who has a reasonable Friday evening–cum morning, especially to someone who wakes up as regularly jaded as I do.

But, as I found this Saturday, J.C. is a special case, well worth getting up (or at least waking) at a religious hour for.

Like his predecessor Brian before him, Campbell’s voice floats soothingly over an early morning alcoholic haze - his low rounded vowels, coupled with numerous cups of tea, are a perfect hangover tonic – a bit of gentle, intellectual stimulation for the red and bleary-eyed. But, as I became more conscious, the quietness of his voice also gave me a bit of a shock.

With his “bubbly” personality, Campbell isn’t the kind of broadcaster I expected to hear on Radio New Zealand - a station which keeps itself endearingly stuffy and seems to have a perverse pleasure in having announcers who sound like they come from the 1960s.

Campbell still seems a little bemused himself about being on Radio NZ. Playing a rare popular music track – rare in the sense that it post-dated 1970 - he exclaimed “now you can shake your funky groove thing!” As if in implicit criticism of his behaviour - the CD player refused to start. Campbell saw this as a metaphor for his naughtiness - clunky state owned RNZ gives it to brash young presenter - "that's what I get for saying say your funky groove thing on Radio New Zealand." Indeed, John.

Of course, in many ways, Campbell and RNZ are a perfect match. What is more anarchic, and “wild and crazy”, these days, than a totally publicly funded news and current affairs channel - an oasis of depth and common sense in the midst of a cut-throat, often sensationalist, private news media?

As well as being a “personality”, Campbell has always been a good journalist, who believes in what he is doing. In this way he suits Radio New Zealand full of other serious journalists who are given ample time to dedicate themselves to their craft.

But what has happened to the wilder side of Campbell’s character? Where is the Active DJ of old? It's in there somewhere, but Campbell seems to have toned it down taking on Edward’s show. While there is a new presenter the format of the show is very much as it is when Edwards left it. Laconic interviews, often far away from subjects on the weekly hectic news schedule. More about personalities than issues.

The kind of format that waits for Edwards’s, “tell us about your childhood?” question. While this style suited Edwards, after listening to Saturday’s show, I’m not really sure whether it suits Campbell.

When I tuned in shortly after 8:30 am, Campbell was interviewing writer Barbara Anderson, an elderly woman who had won an international prize for literature. Her books, enthused Campbell, were “maaaaaarvelous”. But as an interviewee subject she was less stunning.

While she was no doubt a fascinating character, she steadfastly refused to reveal very little about the either her own life, or the processes that went into writing her own fiction. No matter how enthusiastic J.C. was, or how many different avenues of questioning he took, we ended up finding very little out about her - Anderson refused to talk about almost everything. Here’s a paraphrased excerpt from my hazy early-morning memory.

JC – So tell us about how you met your husband because my producer has told me this is a great story.

Anderson – Well we met in Poland, and we married soon after when we came to New Zealand – there wasn’t very much time to get to know each other, so we were very lucky it worked as well as it did.

JC – Okay so tell us a little about your relationship with him.

Anderson - Well there is not much to say, no, I don’t think I want to talk about that.

Further questioning revealed little more about the subject so J.C. switched to the topic of writing.

We learnt that Anderson had done the Bill Manhire course, that the teaching was good (but we didn’t find out why?) and that she had got her break overseas when Manhire had sent one of her books to a publisher in Britain. They accepted it and she “felt like a writer” after that.

John tried harder, got nowhere - and at the end he asked her which was the favourite book she had written. “I always feel it’s the last book I’ve written, she replied calmly.” End of interview. You had to give him points for trying.

Things got better when Campbell interviewed thespian Raymond Hawthorne. He got more traction here.

Theatre people are almost always willing to talk, and in a soft middle class pommy accent Hawthorne told us of his time overseas studying in London at a prestigious theatre school, before coming to New Zealand to work in Christchurch.

After a little of this, both he and Campbell went on to, in time honoured fashion, lament that New Zealand as a nation had not fully discovered its cultural identity. We also found out about how dreadfully difficult it was to keep arts talent in New Zealand.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think there was more room for a slightly more penetrating line of questioning here.

No offence to Hawthorne, but Campbell could have asked him why so many New Zealand theatre-people speak with pronounced English middle class accents? Or why so many like himself continue to be so impressed with the “old world”? Wouldn’t getting away from these fixations help our cultural and artistic development? No doubt Hawthorne may have agreed. It’s these kind of questions that I would have expected from a cheekier JC – or from an everyday Kim Hill for that matter.

Continuing with accents, I had to giggle (and cringe) a little when he interviewed concert radio host for a regular segment on classical music. Her pick for the show was Nigel Kennedy – the scourge of any alt-minded listener, and someone whom John Campbell admitted no great fondness for. In an attempt to make J.C. aware of what he was missing out on, the classical presenter chose to tell John, how really great Mr. Kennedy was. I paraphrase again:

“You know" she said, "Nigel felt bored with what he was doing in the classical world and he wanted to change things to open up the music to a wider class of people.

"I think it’s great how someone who was born with a plummy middle class accent threw that off and put on a working class accent to sell it too the people.

"He’s also doing a concert with Eric Clapton soon, isn’t that great?”

John Campbell’s voice went noticeably quieter for the rest of the interview. He didn’t even seem to be always speaking into the microphone. Luckily Nigel Kennedy wasn’t the only music on the list, and John gained a burst of enthusiasm after some New Zealand chamber music, and got in a few “maaaarvelouses” to end the segment.

The final two guests were the most interesting. The first was Donald Wood, the South African journalist who had stood up for black activist Steve Biko murdered in prison by the police. This, a topical issue with a good dose of politics, was something John Campbell could get his teeth into. We got a good understanding Wood's life, the birth of his political conscience, the personalities in the fight against racism, and Wood’s time serving on the Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal.

The interview was truly worthwhile, but I only wished Campbell, had not refrained from everything but soft questions. Wood, with his first hand experience of racism in progress, could have been questioned about his views on other racial and political situations – Zimbabwe, the current Fijian crisis, or even what he knew about New Zealand. Campbell could have also grilled him a little on the current political situation in South Africa, and the rumours of corruption in the Mandela government. In the “Brian Edwards” format these kinds of questions don’t seem to be asked.

So let’s have the Campbell format then - no more being nice John!

An idea about what this “Campbell format” could become, came at the end of his show. The final guest was definitely the show stopper. Being nice for so long, Campbell finally played a devil’s advocate interviewing academic Dan Cook who had made a study of the evils of commercial broadcasting.

Here were some bold new ideas: Cook's spin on the “average kiwi” – a concept used in programming demographics tthat patronised real complex New Zealanders and dumbed down the programming content.

The conversation continued: we learnt about light stories at the end of news bulletins to soften up viewers for positive ad messages. NZ broadcasting, was the most deregulated and hence the most crappy in the world, Cook told us. While America and much of the Australian media were bad examples to follow, at least- he said - the Australians had the ABC.

Our government’s plan to deal with the commercial elements of TVNZ also came in for a bit of criticism – we found out it was very difficult to change a State Owned Enterprise, hell bent on making money, into a responsible cultural broadcaster.

Better, asserted Campbell’s guest, to create a new channel, which was completely publicly funded.

The rationale was clear, if we are not satisfied only with private hospitals, or state owned ones that are forced to make a profit, then we should be equally concerned about our main medium of culture – television. How else can we expect to grow up as a nation if we are bombarded with programming and formats that are not our own?

Campbell tried to argue the issue and keep playing devil’s advocate, but in the end he admitted he had to agree with Cook – pretty brave considering his other job is for an overseas-owned, private broadcaster. For once I didn't mind his complicity.

On a roll, Campbell then decided to coax an interesting piece of information from his guest. While the Cook was an academic, he was in no ivory tower. Cook was out there making his ideas work in the world. Who did he work for? None other but uber-advertisers - Saatchi & Saatchi!

Keep shaking your funky groove thing John.

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