Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

23 October 2009

Broadcasting’s Ego Trippers

Fifty years ago the only medium in New Zealand that would have qualified for the description ‘electronic’ was radio with its system of AM signals radiating from various regional transmitters.

Principally, they were coded: ‘YA’ which designated bland, easy-on-the-family programmes supported by voices redolent of floral cups and saucers from English tea rooms; ‘YC’ announced by a man with a lisp and delivering the very best of classical music whose inherent quality valiantly over-rode the cracked shellac disks upon which it was recorded; and ‘ZB’, slightly pushy, avant garde, larded with recorded and live commercials greatly hedged in by a pathetic little blue book of rules issued by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service.

The powers-that-were frowned severely upon any attempts at personal aggrandisement, ensuring that broadcast voices, male or female, were not distinctive and could easily be replaced by others without offending listeners’ sensibilities. (With a few exceptions like ‘Aunt Daisy’ who somehow got away with not only using her good old gossip-over-the-back-fence patter but also the use of her name, her wireless name, that is, for Aunt Daisy was, as half of my readers will remember, Mrs Frederick Basham. ‘Good morning, good morning, good morning!’ What days they were when women were known by their husbands’ Christian names!)

In essence, then, the announcer’s rôle was that of a herald, to pass on messages without getting in the way. Television changed all that. No doubt the high-headed ones would have liked to have continued radio’s anonymities but once the face was put to the voice the cult of personality was away laughing, released like Hope from Pandora’s Box to give Talent a chance not only to be known but to be paid for its unique characteristics.

Thus over the adolescent TV years we delighted in Philip Sherry’s eyebrows whose caterpillar-leg filaments would have wriggled unsuspected on the wireless; Dougal Stevenson with his serious and reassuring air of authority; vivacious Relda Familton; Bill Toft; Murray Forgie… need I go on?

They gave us comfort. They were Our People nightly coming into our homes like family, standing tall against the stars who strode the elaborate sets of imported soaps, dramas and comedies. Good kiwis, one-of-us jokers humbly speaking our language. Above all they were modest.

But thereafter the thing turned a little uncomfortable. Modesty and humility ebbed. Some of our personalities, aware of their apparent ability to affect the ratings and thereby the telecasters’ balance sheets and encouraged, perhaps, by those very telecasters’ avarice, flexed their money making muscles and put themselves up for the highest bidders.

They failed to recognize what your modest newsreader instinctively knows: that he or she is to television what paper is to newspapers - a means of conveying the news. The best of newsreaders will not stamp their personality upon that duty and in their unobtrusiveness will gain the trust and welcome of their audience.

The muted masses who tune in at six o’clock every week-night vote with their remotes. It’s a simple, sublime power, the same unseen swell of the ballot box that brings down or elevates governments; it determines, in one word, ratings.

I have a paradoxical relationship with newsreaders and presenters. They come into my sitting room every night and convey to me those happenings of the world that, to a greater or lesser degree, might interest me. I think the best ones are aware that they create nothing and have no right to be named or to be ‘personalities’; they gain public identity and acceptance only because we need to put names to those faces whose unassuming modesty endears them to us. The moment they turn into tall poppies we, the viewers, must cut them down.

As for breakfast shows, well, they're now all boiled egos, one good crack on the head with a remote will finish them!


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By Don Donovan