To stay in such a hotly contested industry for four decades, and be held in high regard by peers and the public, Peter Williams has weathered a few storms, stayed flexible, worked hard, and had a good laugh at his own expense from time to time.
WORDS JENNY RUDD PHOTOS QUINN O’CONNELL
“You can go on all you like about the journalism aspect of my job, but really it’s about performing.” The twinkly eyed guardian of living rooms over the last forty years is relaxing with Team UNO. over post-golf refreshment at Latitude in The Mount.
The performer in him clearly enjoys the reaction he gets from us as he spills all sorts of industry jokes. His smooth, clever delivery means we are playing catch-up as he moves from insider stories to smartly voiced political views.
“You need to learn pretty quickly from your mistakes, which is easy once you’ve been publicly embarrassed. Good interview questions should be short and to the point, with no opportunity for a yes or no answer.
“At a press conference for the Beach Boys in Christchurch in 1977 I broke the initial silence with ‘Do you think one of the reasons for the Beach Boys’ longevity as a group and staying together for so long-when so many other groups of your generation have broken up – is that you were all friends at high school, or because some of you are related, being brothers and a cousin; are those close relationships the major reason you are still playing more than fifteen years after you first started playing together in California all those years ago?’ Even as the words were coming out I wished I would stop. Anyway, Dennis Wilson replied, ‘Yes’.
“Forty years ago superstars such as The Beach Boys, Kenny Rogers and Elton John all held press conferences where non-entertainment journalists, such as myself, were let loose on them. That would never happen now. There was none of the tight control which exists today.”
“Halfway through my last year at school in Oamaru, I went to the States as an AFS foreign exchange student in upstate New York. The school had a radio club which had half an hour each week on the local radio station on Saturday mornings. I can’t imagine any of the big commercial stations today allowing a bunch of teenagers to chat away about whatever they want on primetime slots, but they did back then. I was asked to be interviewed on the basis I had a funny accent.
“They said I had a good voice and so invited me to join the radio club. That was my first taste of broadcasting, apart from the kids’ radio quiz competitions in Invercargill I often entered, and sometimes won!”
“On my return to New Zealand from the States, I had a few months to kill before going to university, so I walked into Radio Otago in Dunedin at the age of 18 and asked for a job. I had a half-decent school record, wasn’t bad at English, had sat ATCL speech exams (and failed!) and had some performing skills after being the lead in a few school plays. But I had never been to a tertiary institution, and still haven’t. They took a punt on me as a filing clerk in the copy and advertising department. I was in.
“By today’s standards, Radio Otago was a huge operation. It was called 4XO, and had a signal which barely took it out of Dunedin City. Whole radio networks were virtually unheard of then and network TV was only a couple of years old in 1972. There was a staff of over 30, including six or seven journalists producing news bulletins from 6am until midnight. Nowadays I doubt if there are six radio journalists in the whole of Otago and Southland.
“I liked the concept of telling stories on radio. The journalistic side interested me more than being a music DJ. I thought the career looked rosier, although my mate Brian Kelly did very well on that path.
“Because I had an interest in sport, I was given the opportunity to be a sports reporter. The Sports Editor left and I was given his job at the grand old age of 19 with a staff of just me. I was also the DJ on the midnight-to-dawn shift. What a life for a teenager.”
Any thoughts of a university education disappeared with a full-time job paying $38 a week. The rent on Peter’s flat was $6 a week. Good times.
There were big opportunities in what was then called the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) and Peter passed the audition to become an announcer. This involved roving round the country at the NZBC’s whim to Masterton, Blenheim, Invercargill and Christchurch for about seven years. Then came the move to TV in 1979.
“A background in radio was invaluable for my subsequent life in TV. You can do all the tertiary education courses you like, but there’s nothing like on-the-job, real-life training. That’s why I feel sorry for young people trying to get into the industry today. They spend thousands on tertiary courses of varying quality and aren’t guaranteed a job at the end of it; employers now won’t hire until the course has been completed.
“There’s no way an 18-year-old school leaver could get a job today the way I did – or the way Mike Hosking and Paul Henry did too. There aren’t too many university degrees amongst the old grunts of broadcasting.”
MONEY AND SPORTS
In the early years of Peter’s career, there was quite a bit of money to be made from advertisers by news broadcasters. Newspapers understood how to capitalise on the limited supply of advertising channels available and did well, making good money and financing well-documented jollies for journalists over the years. Television broadcasting didn’t fare so well, possibly not capitalising on the potential of their reach, and being state owned, having different drivers for success. As a result, there have always been big budget constraints in broadcasting.
His sports commentary roles required a great deal of verbal dexterity, as New Zealand TV changed in 1975 from a state-owned broadcasting behemoth to the snippy demands of a commercially driven enterprise.
“In the good old days, there was hardly any advertising at all during sports matches and none at all on Sundays. We could commentate without the worry of any commercial breaks. The duration of half time in rugby matches didn’t matter much at all.
“In the 80s, their duration became very important. We used to have some huge fights with the Rugby Union to try and get them to make half time last five minutes so we could squeeze in a four-minute commercial break. Often, by the time we were back on air, a couple of minutes had already been played with game-changing tries already scored. When we complained, the officials said the players didn’t want to get cold.!
Having been exposed to the biggest newsworthy stories of the last half century, Peter has developed an understanding of what the public deems news.
“Above all, it has to be interesting, and it has to be told in an interesting way. Crime has been a staple of news-reporting ever since news-reporting was invented through distributed pamphlets in the 18th century. At times I think there is too much crime-reporting, and there’s definitely a type of crime which is more fascinating than others.
“More interest is shown if the victim is white and middle class: even more so when both the victim and the perpetrator come from the same demographic, and that interest is shown by the vast majority of us who don’t commit that level of crime. For instance, the death of a female jogger in Remuera in January sent a real shiver around the country.
“Yet the biggest scandals in our community, domestic violence and child abuse, are becoming so common that very little of it is reported. It’s almost as if we’re inured or desensitised to it. That is truly sad.
“There is still considerable reporting of political matters; not so much about parliamentary matters, more about the political personalities who are an integral part of TV news.
“It’s become obvious that the community’s political engagement is reducing, almost year on year. Election turnouts illustrate the apathy perfectly, particularly at local government level. It’s actually a sad reflection on us as a nation. I always make the effort to vote, even for the District Health Board. If I don’t vote, then I have no right to complain about politicians’ decisions.
“The reduction in the community’s political engagement has led to a change in the way politics is reported; there’s little reporting and analysis about policy and the actual laws our parliament passes. But there’s plenty of reporting done about the personalities who make those laws, and of the consequences of those policies and laws.
“The most attention-grabbing news is about conflict and argument. Whether it’s war, politics, sport or community issues, the news industry just loves conflict, and the more the better. If it bleeds, it leads.”
Peter’s broadcasting career is littered with glittery accomplishments: seven times presenter of the Olympic Games and the Winter Olympics in Nagano; six times Commonwealth Games presenter; commentator of all New Zealand’s home international cricket matches in the eighties, including New Zealand’s famous win over the West Indies in 1980 and the nail-biting test win over Pakistan in 1985; newsreader on some of the biggest news stories in New Zealand’s history, including the devastating Pike River disaster in 2010 and the uplifting Rugby World Cup Victory last year. However his upcoming appointment is one he is immeasurably proud of.
“I will be presenting Mastermind, which is back on TV One this year for the first time since 1990.” The show was immensely popular in New Zealand during the 1970s and 1980s but was dropped when TV became a big commercial animal with profit its major motive in the 1990s. High brow quiz shows didn’t meet the philosophy of the time, despite its apparent commercial potential.
“Excitingly, it’s been brought back based on its enduring popularity on the BBC and I’m privileged to get the big job up front. It’ll be broadcast on Sunday nights, starting in May, and we’ll start recording the heats at Easter. I’m really looking forward to it as it’s a considerable departure from my regular job, but still a high-quality show designed to be hugely entertaining and informative at the same time.
“There’s no big cash prize. The series winner gets…the Mastermind Chair! I’m following in the footsteps of one of New Zealand’s greatest broadcasting legends, Peter Sinclair; pretty big boots to fill.” There’s little question he’s up to it.
It is clear, talking to Peter Williams, just how much his vast experience has shaped him. There’s no hiding place in a lifetime in the public eye, and ear; self-critical honesty coupled with a wry humour has served him well. It is equally clear his shrewd eye for spotting what will catch his listeners’ interest has given him an informed and colourful view on the world. Peter is an icon of our country.
“Live sports broadcasting is, in my opinion, the most difficult art in the industry.”
“New Zealand were playing South Korea in a Davis Cup tie and I was tasked with interviewing a member of the South Korean media who was covering the tie to find out a little about tennis over there. I went up to the press box, saw an oriental-looking gentleman, and very politely, and very slowly, introduced myself.
The guy smiled and said, in a strong Kiwi accent, ‘Oh hi Peter. I’m Eddie Kwok from the New Zealand Herald’.”
“At the end of a day’s play in a cricket test, we were filling in a few minutes until it was time to go off-air. I was interviewing an Australian batsman called Graeme Wood who, that day, had made a really good test century but had been dismissed just before stumps, playing a pretty bad shot, leaving his team in a very precarious position. So I asked him a deliberately insulting question,
‘Did you feel irresponsible for getting out?’
“He muttered and stumbled his way through an answer to my appalling question and no doubt went away frustrated. Later that night I was having dinner at an up-market Auckland restaurant with an attractive young lady who was not my wife and I was handed a note.
Dear Mr Williams, it read, I hope you are not going to be irresponsible tonight. Signed Graeme Wood.”
One day I hosted the breakfast show on 3ZB while running from Cathedral Square in Christchurch to New Brighton, the route of the annual City-to-Surf run. It was 14km and my show was on from 6 am until 9 am so it was a pretty slow run! I talked along the whole route, between music and news bulletins. That was the day before the actual run, to drum up some publicity. The next day I ran it for real in 75 minutes.
2ZD Masterton Breakfast OB
I was working as an announcer on the local radio station – call sign 2ZD. There was none of this fancy branding like Coast or The Hits or Newstalk in those days. An ice-show called something like Ice Follies toured the country in 1974, stopping in almost every provincial town. No doubt they came to Tauranga too. It was quite a big deal to have a sophisticated ice-show come to town. They put down a rink on the stage of the Regent Theatre in Masterton and performed for a couple of nights.
We broadcast the entire breakfast show from the theatre. It seems extraordinary now but it looks like we took turntables with us to play records from the venue! We interviewed some of the performers and invited members of the public to come down to watch the glamour of recording a real live radio show and to see rehearsals. I note the date was March 6th 1974. That was the day of my 20th birthday. They let us loose on the airwaves young in those days. It was also the day I would have become legally allowed to drink alcohol.
As you can see, my fashion sense has improved.
The group the Hues Corporation was an American soul group from the 1970s. They had huge hits with Rock the Boat and Freedom for the Stallion.
Invercargill was a long way from home to be promoting your hit record.