Getting personal: how radio’s forming connections over the airwaves

Radio is a highly engaging medium and is one of the few traditional media channels that like social media, offers a two-way communication channel. This aspect becomes hugely relevant when disaster strikes.

“The seriousness of the Christchurch earthquake was very apparent to us from the opening seconds, when we ran from our old building in Victoria Street, Christchurch,” remembers Gary McCormick who moments earlier was sitting in the More FM studio. 

Gary McCormick

“The road was heaving up and down and the buildings were falling down. A number of people were killed and it was a serious matter. It soon became apparent that radio was going to be extremely important.

“We moved into temporary premises, and in fact we broadcast from a caravan for a short time, but the amount of information coming in from the authorities, police emergency services, and the council, which had to be relayed, was considerable – and likewise, people’s stories.

“I think this was best summed up on a particular day.
We were talking to a young child, 14 years of age, who had a younger brother and sister at home. They were waiting to go to school and the parents had already gone to work.”

The radio hosts did their best to calm the children down and reassure them: “Can I just say to you, you are a very strong, brave girl….”

“There is no question, the value of community radio is beyond reproach,” says McCormick. “You just cannot do without it in a crisis, and it certainly made us aware of the role we had to play.” Sometimes the crisis is of a more personal nature.

Leighton Smith

Longtime Newstalk ZB host, Leighton Smith recalls one not so normal morning a decade ago when the voice of his producer Caroline demanded through his headphones: “Take this call now!”

The name on the screen read ‘Claire’. And in that moment, everything changed. 

“For the next 20 minutes, it was all about Claire,” recites Smith. “And why she was killing herself!

“It wasn’t about doing good radio – it was about keeping her on the line, trying to discover where she was, what she had taken, and saving her life. It seemed we had half of Auckland out looking for her, including the crew from Shortland Street.”

As Smith continued to talk, Claire gradually gave up more details, and a lady parked up at Whenuipai airbase, listening in on her car radio, realised Claire was only a few metres away, lying on the backseat of her car. The listener grabbed her fire extinguisher and with the help of someone else, smashed the car window, and then the police arrived. A life was saved. 

“It was the most rewarding programme I have done,” recounts Smith.

Suzy Cato

Usually, the circumstances of a personal connection with a radio host are not of a dramatic nature but more a personal circumstance where a lonely individual is in need of company at a time when a sense of loneliness may be a little overwhelming.

One such time happened on a New Year’s Eve when popular Suzy & Friends star Suzy Cato was broadcasting alone in a quiet studio. 

“A young man tuned in while I was on air,” is how she starts her story. “I was the only person in the studio and chatting to the listener on the other end of the phone, it was as if we were together. After all we were both alone on New Year’s Eve, and potentially there were many other people who were just the same. At the end of the evening, I wished all those lonely people a great night and a happy New Year.”

A few years later Cato bumped into a young man, who came up to her and said, “I recognise that voice. I was home alone, my first New Year’s Eve on my own, no party to go to, so I tuned into the radio – it made such a difference.”

Neha Bhatia

For Cato, that one experience made her realise that radio connected in a way it should – reaching out, making friends.

The need for a sense of belonging is no more acute than for an immigrant, torn from their roots. Neha Bhatia, now a radio host at Radio Tarana, New Zealand’s number one Hindi Radio Station, was born in Libya, grew up in India and moved to New Zealand as a teenager. Being partially blind, radio has provided her with the means to be connected to the community she serves and to her culture. 

“Radio has been a key factor in making me the confident person I have become. Through interaction with my audience I found my true Indian culture. I feel lucky to have the power to express so many opinions and ideas. I cannot imagine myself in any other job.”

For Ex-Edge breakfast host Jay-Jay Feeney, who is now hosting More FM’s Drive show, marrying four sets of strangers is an absolute standout – four couples who are all still happily married and all have children together.

Jay-Jay Feeney

When strangers Zane Nicholl and Paula Stockwell exchanged vows as part of a controversial win-a-wife competition run by The Edge, it was so controversial; they had to fight a lot of negativity and pessimism.

“But they have proven all the haters wrong,” says Feeney. “To know I had a major role in bringing together these two strangers, who were clearly meant for each other, is one of my proudest achievements. 

“We became really good friends, to the point where Zane even offered to be a sperm donor for me and my husband Dom when we were looking for one. I know I personally affected their lives in a positive way, and obviously we will never forget each other!” 

As an audience, the familiarity of voices connects us in a way which social media does not.

Martin Devlin

“Radio’s number one advantage is that it has always been engaging as a one-to-one, more personal medium,” says Leon Wratt, group content director at MediaWorks. 

“Social media, instead of competing with radio, in fact extends the opportunity to communicate with the listeners’ favourite radio hosts. It is a real engagement, one which is very natural. It allows a good debate, held in a respectful manner. It’s a real advantage to be able to continue the conversation on social media.”

Every day, listening to the radio becomes a habit. Listening to a favourite show has a familiarity. The voices are instantly recognisable even if the faces are not. 

Radio award-winning broadcaster Martin Devlin, who recently shifted from his popular DRS morning show on Newstalk ZB, to front a new sports show as part of a big overhaul of the station’s weekend afternoon line-up, tells a story, of a chance meeting. 

Starting with the throwaway line of having the proverbial ‘face for radio’, Devlin tells of a time he was shopping at Dress Smart when a man makes eye contact and says, “Ah, you’re that guy!” Before Devlin can respond the man continues, “That’s right! Didn’t you fix our air-conditioning a few years ago?” 

  • Contact: Peter Richardson, general manager, [email protected]
  • This story is part of a content partnership with The Radio Bureau.

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