Tova O’Brien: The new voice of NZ talk radio

One of the abiding memories of 2020 and 2021 will be the prime ministerial pronouncements from the podium of truth followed by the familiar refrain, “Jessica then Tova”. It was a repetition that made political journalist, Tova O’Brien, a household name. Fast forward to today and Tova has transformed herself into the weekday breakfast host on Today FM, the new iteration of MediaWorks’ new radio talk station.

It is not quite a reinvention as there is still a lot of the old, politically astute Tova in the new job, even though her new gig is very different. “There’s no denying that this is the steepest learning curve of my life by far,” she admits. “It’s all happening live on air for two and a half hours every morning, but I’m hoping to draw on the things that I’ve learnt, not just in my last job, but throughout my life. So not a reinvention, just an extension.”

The change of course does not come without its challenges. We live in an age where social media has amplified the voices of activists and influencers, the squeaky wheels of political debate, if you will, that tend to tarnish reputations with biases and preconceptions, repeated in the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook. 

Tova has been accused of wearing her heart on her sleeve regarding her political persuasion, but she insists she is a centrist.

“We’re trying to strike the balance in the middle,” she says of the show she co-hosts with Mark Dye.  “And I think what you’ve seen on Today FM, over the first two weeks, is that we’ve done just that. We’re including a diversity of voices, a diversity of stories, and a diversity of opinions, which will mean we attract a diversity of audience.”

She wants her audience to start the day feeling good, feeling informed, and feeling challenged, but also feeling happy. “It’s time to debate one another, have conversations, but not necessarily railroad each other’s points of view.”

So far, so good. The show seems to be striking a balance with a cross-section of hosts. “Even if I have a strong view on something, there’s room within my show to have contributing voices to that argument. So even though I hold very different views from David Seymour, for example, I still have them on to hear their opinions, as well as the other side of the argument, so as to test their opinions too. So even though I have what I would call a fact-based opinion and analysis or context-based opinion on say, co governance, I’m still open to hearing both sides of the story, both sides of the argument. There’s room in our show to change your opinion, we’re really trying to send a signal to people that we’re listening, we’re not just telling.”

Tova believes people will give the show a go as there’s a desire in middle New Zealand to get outside of the echo chambers. “We’re subjected to so much of it on social media,” she says. “Thanks to algorithms, you see what you want to see on Twitter and in Facebook, but I think there’s a real desire to get away from that. If people tune into us, they will hear a little bit of themselves, but they’ll also hear the other side of those arguments as well. That will be refreshing for people. They don’t necessarily want to just hear their own opinions reflected. They want to hear the opinions of others as well. And that’s what they’ll get from our station.”

Most of the criticism towards Tova comes from the social media environment that amplifies the voices of activists and influencers, the squeaky wheels of political debate and she admits to having to bear criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. But even that is fairly even handed, with as many people accusing her of being a sycophant to the Labour government as being a right-wing apparatchik.

“I respect that people are really passionate about their politics,” she says. “They watch political stories through their own lens, but if they listen to our show and hear other voices reflected more, if they hear more debate, they may be swayed. I’m a swing voter. I sit in the middle. I vote based on policy. I love the contest of ideas and I love to be swayed as well. That’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about radio so far. It’s alive in a way that a television news bulletin isn’t. Now, I can start the day having views on one thing at 6:30 a.m. and come out of the show at 9 a.m. with a completely different set of views and opinions on something.”

 This is where most New Zealanders are, and probably where elections are won and lost with those centrist voters who are open to debate, open to different ideas and who are willing to have their minds changed, admit when they’re wrong, and feel comfortable to change their minds.

In 2018, ZBs Andrew Dickens, describing “gotcha journalism’ as the interviewing methods that are designed to entrap interviewees into saying something or doing something that could be seen as damaging to their cause, their character, their integrity, or their reputation, remarked, “the problem with gotcha journalism is if you haven’t got it right then it can gotcha you right back. Then the gotcha moment turns into a moment of fake news and propaganda.”

Tova Breakfast promo.

Tova has sometimes been accused of looking for those ‘gotcha’ moments, but she insists she never subscribed to the term gotcha politics in the same way that she doesn’t subscribe to the kind of misapprehension that journalists in the press gallery are after scalps. “What I believe in very firmly as a journalist, is accountability. I do get outraged by certain things, but how do you address a growing problem in New Zealand with children living in transitional housing if you don’t know the scale of the problem? If my questions show up a minister for not doing their homework, not knowing some of the basics of their portfolios, so be it,” she says referring to her recent interview with Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni. “How do you address a problem until you know the scale of the problem? How do you fix something until you learn from your mistakes? And that’s what a lot of the journalism that we do is. It’s ensuring that politicians are held to account just on the basis of the basics of their portfolios and their responsibilities.”

Similarly, Tova took it to National leader Christopher Luxon, insisting on the rationale behind his policies, what he was going to do to address the cost of living and to explain why he thought the tax cuts wouldn’t be inflationary. “What we do with every politician is explore a policy and the implications of that policy for real people.”

In cutting through the political spin, Tova assumes her listeners have a base of knowledge, are politically connected, who know what’s going on in New Zealand. It’s what may help drag listeners away from Susie Ferguson & Corin Dann on RNZ and the king of commercial radio, ZB’s Mike Hosking. The question remains as to whether there is a gap between these two rapidly polarising shows to allow Tova to surge through the middle. Surprisingly, she defends Mike Hosking and takes issue with the Prime Minister’s decision not to be interviewed by him. “I staunchly defended Hosking and his audience. His listeners deserve to hear from the Prime Minister. It’s job. It’s a really disappointing and frankly stupid decision from the Prime Minister and her office. Maybe she was scared to go on or didn’t want to be challenged. I think she’s undermining a massive swathe of the country and his audience by not talking to them and not defending her policies.”

Tova is enjoying working with co-host Mark Dye. “Having another person in the studio with me helps facilitate debate and discussion. Mark comes with an enormous brain and a wealth of experience in the business world and radio. He’s an amazing sounding board and brings an enormous amount to the interviews.”

The perspectives of producer, Carol Hirschfeld, and the rest of the team have helped Tova adapt to her new reality. “At the moment I’m just giving myself a little bit of leeway because this is brand new for me. I’ve never done anything like the show before, so I really am just trying to get the lay of the land, to figure out the pace of this thing, and how radio works. There’s no getting bored in this job. It is a wild, wild, wonderful ride. If you’d asked six months ago if I would be working in radio, or if I would leave my dream job to come and do something like this, I’d have told you that you’re dreaming. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something different, and we’re here for the long haul.”

Read more: Dallas Gurney: The brains behind Today FM

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Graham Medcalf is a freelance writer and owner of Red Advertising.

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