Tuesday, May 21

Morning Tourettes?

The recent news that Morning Report on Radio RNZ is hemorrhaging listeners should come as no surprise to any knowledgeable and literate regular listener of the show.

In my house I’ve been threatened with a Morning Report ban unless I stop my regular outburst of exasperated, horrified, appalled, swearing, shouting, and twitching, all of which mean I regularly risk spilling my morning coffee and dropping the crumbs from my toast all over the breakfast table as I gesticulate at the radio.

I’ve been a listener of Morning Report since it first came on air in 1975. That is since I was 8 years old. It was on the radio every morning in our house, starting the day by providing news and discussion as we sat and ate our breakfast. Morning Report was on as I read the daily newspapers stretched out on the living room floor, as they were too large to sit and hold at the table.  Morning Report changed presenters but never its quality, talking us through the social and economic decline of the Muldoon years and into the socio-economic and cultural revolution inaugurated by the Fourth Labour Government. Morning Report connected us, in provincial New Zealand, to the wider country and to the world. 

Once I left school and went off to university, I continued to listen to Morning Report; students at Otago still did so in the 1980s.  Flats would put on Morning Report as they proceeded to have various types of breakfast before going off to lectures. It was just what you did and our lecturers – at least in the Arts – still expected that students would be listening to Morning Report and reading newspapers.  

The key to Morning Report was that it was national radio in the truest sense, that is, it was for the nation in its diversity: urban, provincial and rural. It didn’t matter who you were or where you were, Morning Report spoke, discussed, editorialized, and opinioned for and to the nation as a whole. In many ways Morning Report was the closest we had – and still have – to a national newspaper.

The key to Morning Report is – or was – the quality of its presenters and reporters.  For many years Geoff Robinson was the calm, measured, thoughtful centre to the programme, perhaps too easily underappreciated but always capable of suddenly firing an incisive or wry question, critique or aside that demonstrated just what an asset he was.  Both Maggie Barry and Kim Hill made New Zealand take women on radio seriously. In 1987 they were co-presenters, the first time that women (and intelligent, well read and opinionated women at that) were the main presenters. Kim Hill, with her smoker’s rasp and a mind always three steps ahead of whoever she interviewed, cajoled, argued and critiqued us into the morning, suggesting that New Zealand could always be much better than it was and that such radio was a public service and responsibility for the nation.   

Yet Morning Report was also just not a show of what was increasingly called the chattering left. Reflecting the diversity of the nation, it had Lindsay Perigo, Mike Hosking and Sean Plunkett providing differing backgrounds and views. In this it was truly ‘national’ radio speaking to, for and against everyone. It took seriously its mandate of speaking to the nation as a whole, accepting there were differing viewpoints and opinions but also believing listeners were able to make up their own minds out of what was presented.

There have been deeply problematic oversights; the shift to increasing use of Te Reo Māori has not been backed up by expanding to include Māori presenters.  Māni Dunlop was a wonderful opportunity to rebrand and refocus Morning Report as speaking to and with the nation in the third decade of the 21st century. But there was a failure of nerve (and the seeming exposure of sexism, racism, ageism, misogyny and homophobia as my wife has just commented to me – and I agree.) I wonder just what nation National Radio felt it had to reflect?

But the real problem with Morning Report has been a rapidly growing banality and inanity in its discussion and content. Morning Report needs knowledgeable and articulate opinions and strong personalities. We need to be able to trust that its presenters and reporters are intelligent, well read, deeply informed, quick thinking and able to recognize they are talking to the nation, not just to or for a select subset. We need to be able to respect their intelligence and abilities, trusting that they know what they are talking about or asking questions of. We need to know what we might not know or be aware of, not have it made glaringly apparent what a host or reporter does not know. We need sharp minds informed by broad knowledge.

We listen to Morning Report to be properly, intelligently informed and made to think – or at least we used to. Many times recently I can’t even use that horrible term infotainment for what is presented as there is little information and the only entertainment is that Tourette’s inducing schadenfreude responding to the stupidity and banality being presented.  If I wanted that, I’d be listening to commercial radio in the morning…