Shit Happens! An Open Letter to John Campbell
Posted by BE on May 25th, 2015
Shit happens, John. I’ve been “let go”, sacked from more broadcasting jobs in New Zealand than I care to remember. And, more than once, with absolutely no warning. To add insult to injury, the sackings generally occurred at a time when the show was enjoying both public acclaim and ratings success.
Top of the Morning (1994-1999)
In December 1999 my producer, Catherine Saunders, and I were summoned to Wellington for a meeting with Radio New Zealand CEO Sharon Crosbie, an old friend of both of us. “Summoned” is perhaps the wrong word. Catherine and I had made a habit of going down to Wellington just before Christmas to persuade Sharon that the success of TOTM merited yet another increase in our pay. Sharon would sigh wearily but to date had come to the party.
We were pretty sure of a warm reception. The latest radio survey had just come out. TOTM, whose previous incarnation had a cumulative audience of around 80,000 when I took over the slot in 1995, now had an audience of 340,000. It was the highest rating Saturday morning radio programme in the country, not to mention outrating almost every other programme on National Radio. We had every reason to expect a warm reception from the boss.
We were called in separately to be told the news. I’d been sacked.
To this day I have absolutely no idea why I was sacked as host of TOTM. Poor ratings? Get real! Poor listener response? Ditto! My role as media advisor to Helen Clark, the newly elected Prime Minister? Hardly, TOTM was a politics-free zone with the exception of one personality-style interview – with Jenny Shipley! Which leaves two defamation writs in 5 years, neither of which, in my reasonably informed opinion, should every have been settled.
Certainly not the second, in which Paul Holmes claimed $5,000 for allegedly having been defamed by yours truly on the show
This is what happened. A close friend of Paul had told me Paul had been highly disappointed by the low-key nature of a TV election debate he’d chaired between Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark. Paul had, according to the close friend, “been hoping for a cat fight”. I mentioned this in passing on the show. Paul issued a writ against RNZ for defamation and RNZ caved. I’m not sure which is more unbelievable – for a broadcaster of Pauls’ reputation to be so thin-skinned, or Radio New Zealand so chicken-livered as to settle this preposterous suit.
You know the rest, John. When the news got out, you interviewed me on TV3 News about the sacking. You were very supportive.
Then there was a public outcry. Thousands of people wrote to Radio New Zealand to protest. A couple of “offers they know you can’t accept” were made to me by RNZ during all of this.
Shit happens, John.
But wait, there’s more!
After two not unremarkable years as an interviewer on the ground-breaking television current affairs programme, Gallery, the NZBC offered me a measly $15 a week increase to renew my contract for a third year.
For the previous two years I’d been a reporter on the Christchurch edition of Town and Around, a job I absolutely loved. I was tempted to come to Wellington to join the Gallery team by a $7,000 a year contract which not only included two Gallery programmes a week but producing and appearing on Checkpoint ‘on my days off’.
Within six months I was more famous than Paul Holmes ever would be, admittedly because there was only one TV channel in New Zealand at the time. So naturally I regarded the $15 as an insult and threw my toys out of the cot. Which, I suspect, was exactly what the Corporation had hoped would happen.
I then found myself unemployed and seemingly unemployable.
Shit happens, John.
Radio Windy (1973-75)
Having been rejected as their MP by the good people of Miramar (Shit really happened there, John!) I got a job as a talkback host on the fledgling Radio Windy in Wellington. Adult talkback 5 mornings a week and a children’s talkback session on Sunday. Whew! But great ratings and feedback. And the kids’ session was fun. (Sam Hunt once swapped poems with the listening children for three hours while knocking back a full flagon of white wine.)
Radio Windy didn’t renew my contract for a third year. My relentless attacks on Rob Muldoon had offended the station’s right-wing management and, I suspect, their advertisers. I was “let go”.
Shit happens, John.
Edwards on Saturday, Fair Go (1975-85)
A decade with no shit worth mentioning, John. A halcyon time never going to end. You know the feeling.
It did end of course.
Radio Pacific (1989-90)
I was wooed to Auckland as a morning talkback host with a huge dollop of cash, a house and a car. Hated every moment of it. I loathe talkback and wanted to interview interesting people. And it was soul-destroying to be in the middle of an interview with Alex Haley about his slave ancestors and have to break for ads or go to the third race at Trentham.
Half way through my one-year contract, I interviewed a guy from the Aids Foundation. I was on my way to the studio the following morning when I was stopped by someone I took to be a member of the Board who asked me who I was having on the show that morning.
“Gay writer from San Francisco. Wrote Tales of the City. Very famous.”
“Can’t have faggots on the programme two days in a row, Brian.”
I recounted this conversation to the charming Maupin on air and we spent most of the remaining three hours discussing this type of homophobia.
Some days or weeks later, I was called into the boss’s office. “This isn’t working, Brian,” he said. “We’re going to have to let you go.”
I assumed he meant in a month or a fortnight, but he meant right away. If I’d had a desk, I’d have had to clear it then and there.
Judy came home to find me half pissed and dancing in the living room.
“I’ve been sacked,” I slurred, “This is the happiest day of my life’.
“Thank god, it was me who wrote the contract,” she replied.
Shit happens, John.
I started writing this because it occurred to me that there were some similarities between your recent experience with TV3 and one or two of my more memorable media exits, including the tyranny of ratings and “the offer they know you can’t accept”.
So here’s my suggestion: After your last programme, go home, get pissed, put on some music and dance around the living room. It’s wonderfully therapeutic.
PS: That’s me with Eric Morecambe on Morecambe beach. We’re singing (and dancing to) Bring Me Sunshine.
Catherine Saunders, Eric Morecambe, Helen Clark, Jenny Shipley, John Campbell, Kevin Milne, Kim Hill, Paul Holmes, Rob Muldoon, Sam Hunt, Sharon Crosbie