Mention the words “Radio With Pictures” to a New Zealander who was a teenager in the 1980s, and their eyes tend to light up. They are synonymous with an era of music that many – most vociferously the punks, popsters, and poseurs of the 1980s – regard as the best, especially for New Zealand music. This was a golden era when New Zealand music rubbed shoulders with the best of international pop, at least on the local charts, and when “alternative” independent Kiwi music, such as from the Flying Nun label, found its way into the collections of rock aficionados around the world. It was also the era of music video, when the influence of MTV dictated that bands start thinking almost as much about their image as their music, a devastatingly superficial prospect to some but an invitation to inventive creativity to others.
The television show Radio With Pictures mingled local videos with international ones, and ran from 1976 until 1989 (with a brief return in 1991). Invented before MTV – and, as we’ll see below, some claim a direct inspiration for MTV – Radio With Pictures was appointment viewing for anyone with an interest in popular music. Sure, there were internecine battles about what should and shouldn’t have got played and promoted, of who should and shouldn’t have been afforded that length of interview or that concert appearance or that cheap-looking studio-shot music video, and who should and shouldn’t have been hosting the show at any given time.
While such battles may have left some scarring and chips on shoulders, the fact was that, love it or hate it, everybody had to watch it; Radio With Pictures was unmissable.
Nowadays, when viewer attention is fragmented across all manner of media, and where people increasingly cloister themselves in their own self-selected news and facts, it may be hard to fathom how a single television show could hope to appeal to a whole nation of music fans. Yet that was precisely the challenge Radio With Pictures took on, and that was the basis of many passionate arguments over musical taste waged in offices, factories, schools, halls of residence, practice rooms, and dole queues the morning after the show aired.
Although they began on competing stations, Radio With Pictures evolved into a sister programme to chart countdown music video show Ready To Roll. While by the 1980s, RTR was preened, polished, and popular, Radio With Pictures was its sullen sibling, walking on the darker, less trodden side of the street. By the time it took up its regular slot, right before the Sunday horror movie of the week, Radio With Pictures had a standing date with those craving cutting edge music, and it quickly achieved cult status.
Radio With Pictures became the primary vehicle for not only international new wave and punk videos, but also the burgeoning New Zealand independent scene. In the 1980s, these local videos were made especially for the show either by staff at TVNZ’s Avalon studios in Wellington or by emerging filmmakers working independently, and they were almost always made for free. A lot of viewers were introduced to the local scene via music video, and for a lot of bands it was through Radio With Pictures that they found their audience, particularly at a time when radio stations refused to play New Zealand music.
In this oral-history series, some of the producers, directors, presenters, musicians, and observers of Radio With Pictures and its videos tell the story of the show. They cover its origins, aims, challenges, and ultimate demise, as well as its significance to New Zealand’s music scene in the 1980s.
What was Radio With Pictures?
Brent Hansen (producer, Radio With Pictures, 1981-1986): An 18 year old looking at the archives now might wonder what the fuss was about, but the generation who watched it were deeply affected by that show. Remember, there was no internet, and only two TV channels, and hardly anyone had VHS recorders. The only other place you might hear half the stuff we played was student radio.
Bruce Russell (The Dead C; Xpressway label impresario): I didn’t watch television, as a rule, in the 1980s; that was a decade which I am almost entirely ignorant of television because I really only watched perhaps the Sunday horrors, from time to time television news, and Radio With Pictures. If there wasn’t a television in the flat, then on Sunday night you would go to somebody’s house who had a television and you would watch Radio With Pictures.
Simon Morris (director, RWP, 1981-1989): The fact is, it was the only place doing it and because it was the only thing, it was great in a lot of ways because it meant that you could play anything so long as it wasn’t too sweary. You didn’t have to worry about whether it was trending or anything. I mean, immediately after us was the Sunday horrors so there weren’t a whole lot of people sitting there getting impatient: “hurry up and finish so that we can watch these wonderful movies from 1958” or something. It was just a whole thing: everyone, the whole country would just get stoned and they’d watch bloody Radio With Pictures followed by the Sunday horrors.
Barry Jenkin (host, RWP, 1977-1979): Was most of the audience stoned? I couldn’t possibly comment. Actually, I could. Yes, absolutely. But the fact remains, it was a pioneering show that gave alternative music fans something to cluster around, back in the days before the star-maker machinery was a big part of television. Radio With Pictures put out 50 minutes of exciting television every week, for years. God knows how much it would cost to make a show like that these days, but at the time, I got paid $65 per week to host it and all the band T-shirts I could eat. After the first year, it went up to $95! You could have got a job working on the roads for more than that. But we weren’t in it for the cash. Radio With Pictures was an act of love.
Brent Hansen: All those [independent] labels saw Radio With Pictures because it was the font of anything interesting. And that is where the interesting music was going to be. And it would be eclectic and wide ranging and we played local music not in a patronising way but as part of the mix.
Liam Ryan: We [The Narcs] tended to be on Ready To Roll, that was actually how it went, but sometimes you started off on Radio With Pictures and you would have a little kind of ripple there that would then two weeks later you’d find yourself on Ready To Roll. There was a kind of a hierarchy there but Radio With Pictures always felt more experimental, more left field and you know everybody was stoned at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night, that was the deal: you went to somebody’s house, everybody rolled up and watched Radio With Pictures, it was kind of cool. And then when you were straight, at 6 o’clock on Saturday night, you’d see how your work had performed, if it had moved across.
Brent Hansen: It was taken for granted – Radio With Pictures. In fact, we were the weird guys on whatever floor we were at Avalon and people kind of thought we had a cool job but nobody paid any attention to us. To the rest of TVNZ, we weren’t serious. We were sort of like the naughty kids.
Karyn Hay (host, RWP, 1981-1985): We were the weirdos in the corner office, I think that’s how we were looked upon by TVNZ, but we had a lot of leeway to do what we liked. I know that Peter [Blake, producer] probably had to deal with a lot from a management perspective,but from my perspective it was a whole different ball game. There were live outside broadcasts, like the [live at] Mainstreet series that we did; we travelled to do interviews across to Australia and there was a big record company presence as well, because the record companies in the 80s had a lot more budget, so that was going on at the same time. But our ethos I would say in that office was the opposite to what the record companies were touting. We were very alternative obviously and we wanted to keep it that way, and also to really promote and champion anything that was new musically, or in terms of the style of video making.
Peter Blake (producer, RWP, 1981-1987): One of the nice aspects of our era was that we were left to our own devices by management. They labelled us the Rock Unit and hardly ventured into our office area which bore no resemblance to other departments: open plan, grunty stereo, walls papered with posters and obnoxious viewers’ letters from the various audience factions. It’s fair to say we were a little anti-establishment and were left alone, apart from at budget time when I had to interface with somebody upstairs to get some more loot or if we had a legal or censorship issue. My relationship with management was excellent, however, so there was always support when needed. So there was great team spirit in the office and most who worked in it were passionate about our output. That spirit carried over to rostered services like camera people, lighting, graphics, sound, etc. The shows were youthful, hip and influential therefore young crews wanted to be involved. We could have been on Mars, I think in the early days some were [laughs]. That was one of the great things about it: we could almost do whatever we liked.
Karyn Hay: When I think back on it now, it was a very important show, because it epitomised a freedom in television that’s now long gone. There was no one wrist-slapping us, and that kind of freedom leads to programmes that are culturally significant, because you’re not held back by a lot of frightened executives or programmers who have no real idea of the culture they’re trying to capture and portray. What you have is insiders transmitting their love of music to other insiders, and that’s very powerful.
Brent Hansen: But we took it super serious. I wouldn’t say we were the most creative individuals but we were certainly serious editorially and that programme still stands up. You look back at it now and it is better than most things you will see elsewhere in the world. Certainly in Australia. And quite possibly better than those in America considering they had a lot more budget.
Liam Ryan: I mean in a funny way there was more music on television then than there is now, you know what I mean, at least there were two kind of prime shows which everybody watched and it was very present, people were very aware of what was happening and I suppose that was an MTV effect. People enjoyed it but it was also highly informative. I suppose it would be the equivalent of the “like” button. If they’d seen it, everybody was talking about it on a Monday morning. People say “wow did you see that new clip by” whoever it was, Talking Heads or something you know “wow, that was so far out,” you know. And so there was the water cooler thing on the Monday morning after. The Ready To Roll thing, the discourse was really around whether you’d gone up or down in the charts and unless you had something outrageous, maybe a Grace Jones or a Talking Heads, something that was a bit out of left field coming in there and blowing it sideways, it tended to be very mainstream. And of course now it’s not there at all but YouTube’s there and everything’s on tap. But then you’ve got to take your audience to those clips. At that time, though, with only two channels, if an hour and a half of it every week was music that was pretty good you know, it was pretty awesome.
Bruce Russell: I was in a hall of residence in my first year at university and I remember that Sunday nights watching Radio With Pictures was something that was a group activity. People would flock in to the TV lounge and dutifully sit and watch. There were a few videos at that point in 1979 – there were very few if any New Zealand videos – but you would definitely see videos for new releases, like Iggy Pop’s new album would have a video. I remember things like new wave kind of hits, ‘Turning Japanese’ by the Vapors is a song that probably is remembered as much for its video as for any other purpose. I remember that there was definitely a video for The Only Ones’ ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’; I don’t remember exactly what the video was but that’s a song that I still love and I was first exposed to it on Radio With Pictures I would imagine. So videos definitely did perform a really important function.
Barry Jenkin: These days, you hear Patti Smith in the supermarket, but that wasn’t the case back then. If you wanted to buy this stuff, you’d have to get the LP on import for $20, which was a fortune then, so for a while there, Radio With Pictures was the only place people could really see and hear this stuff.
John Crisstoffels (The Terminals; music video director): At that stage there are still only two TV channels, Television One and Television Two [known as South Pacific Television from 1975 to 1980], so that was everyone who was interested was watching Radio With Pictures; it was sort of a religious thing at that time. In fact I’ve got a great story because I lived upstairs at the practice room, where there was a rabbit warren of many practice rooms. One of the other bands that practised alongside from me was Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, and this is a true story: it was like Sunday night and they must have practised at around 7pm, 8pm and they went home. I was just sort of wandering around and I could see smoke, and I thought “jeez something smoky, something’s on fire”. So I rang them up and said “Can I get into your practice room, cos something’s on fire!” And they were going “Does it have to be now? Radio With Pictures is starting!” I got in and it was a cigarette butt and a pillow, and I put it all out, there was a hole in the drum kit but the whole room could have gone up. But I would have been thinking that too, like “Fire or Radio With Pictures – what do I do?” You’re thinking you’re going to miss something that everyone will be talking about for years.
Popular music has long been a prominent feature in New Zealand television. Six years after television was first introduced to New Zealand in 1960, the pop music show C’mon beamed the likes of Ray Columbus and Shane into New Zealand living rooms. Later that decade, the Loxene Golden Disc provided a platform for New Zealand pop. In the 1970s chart show Ready To Roll often featured local performers covering international pop hits. While ever-popular talent contest shows like New Faces and Opportunity Knocks gave exposure to emerging mainstream singers like Shona Laing and Suzanne Prentice, by the 1970s NZBC was also trying to cater to fans of post-hippie rock with shows like Norman and Grunt Machine. Yet each of these was short-lived, failing to achieve the notoriety or longevity of other music shows.
A second television channel, South Pacific Television (SPTV), was launched in 1975 as a competitor to NZBC (despite both being state funded) and wasn’t deterred by NZBC’s lack of success with rock shows. SPTV dipped its toe into the music on television market with the launch of Radio With Pictures in 1976, although wariness at NZBC’s experience might have played a role in its late-night slot and initial low production values. While notable broadcasters like Paul Holmes and Andy Anderson hosted Norman and Grunt Machine in evening timeslots, Radio With Pictures launched without a host at the very end of the broadcasting day, just before closedown on a Wednesday night. Unlike Norman and Grunt Machine, which had each blended concert footage with the still-rare international music video and occasional studio performances from local bands, Radio With Pictures instead relied almost exclusively on a series of pre-recorded video clips.
Peter Grattan (producer, RWP, 1976-1979): I’m assigned to the Presentation Dept., we run the daily schedule. Combining programmes and commercials. The unsold advertising time is about 12 or 15 minutes a day between 3pm and 6pm. I don’t really want to be in transmission control which means that I have to sit in a control room and be responsible for my team getting the shows and more importantly, the commercials, on air. So my kind boss, Kev Cameron, gives me the job of filling the afternoon holes. They’d already hired a young host, Andy Shaw … 43 years later, I think he is still at TVNZ! Andy, like me, is from Manchester, UK. A newly-wed wild teen, he knows little about music but has charisma. He looks 16, rides a motorbike. TV One has Nice One Stu, Stu Dennison, a 26-year-old who rides a bike looking like a 10-year-old school kid. Our Andy is the ultimate teenager, “we’ll make him really hip and he’ll ride a skateboard”. So at about 11am each morning Kev tells me how much time I have to fill in that afternoon, he’d say “you’ve got about 12 or 15 minutes to fill”. In a little studio (Studio3) with one camera and a little backdrop, we made Here’s Andy, later Hey Hey It’s Andy … We do interviews, tell jokes, get sacks of fan mail. Record companies see our popularity and give me videos to play, often on 16mm film: Bay City Rollers, ABBA, Boney M, etc. But there’s also some more risque, late-night vids, almost pornographic like The Tubes, if we played that in the afternoons, we’d be fired! So I go to Kevan Moore, our director of programmes, he’d produced the C’mon show in 1967, and everyone is scared of Kevan, a Yorkshireman like my dad, so I know how to get through to him. I meekly enter his huge office mumbling “I’ve got this idea: 50 clips that I can’t play on Here’s Andy, they’re free video clips. We could have a show, it will be kind of be like radio, but with pictures. And if you can imagine it’s half an hour a week and it would just be video clips”. Gruffly, he says “that’s alright as long as it doesn’t cost anything.” So Radio With Pictures is born.
The 30 October 1976 edition of The Listener announced the arrival of Radio With Pictures, featuring “continuous film of groups and acts from New Zealand and overseas.” Titled “It has sound, too,” the article by Frances Parkin struggles to describe the innovative format: “Unlike radio, there’ll be no disc jockey – not even a voice-over to link the items. The musical slant is ‘modern’ with groups like Roxy Music, the Rolling Stones and New Zealand’s latest rave, Red Hot Peppers, featuring in its first programme.” As this write-up indicates, in its very early stages the show was yet to develop its characteristic flavour that made it such a cult favourite.
Peter Grattan: We do 13 half-hour shows with no host, just groovy graphics by a TV2 graphic artist called Peter McKliskey. He creates the opening titles, all in frame-by-frame animation, and in those days it took ages to do. You’d have to change the picture on the video tape machine and then record a frame and then change the picture. Theme music? ‘Frankenstein’ by the Edgar Winter Group: “Da da da da da da da daaa …” and just at the part [whistles a descending tune] into the drum bit, this cassette tumbles through space and slots in to the sky and then out come the words “Radio With Pictures” … the opening titles for the first two years. It was really cool for 11pm, Wednesday night. First song ever: ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ by Steve Miller. The last show is called “Keeping it Kiwi”, it is all the NZ acts, people like Lea Maalfrid, the Red Hot Peppers (not the Red Hot Chili Peppers), we have Ray Columbus & The Invaders’ old monochrome ‘She’s A Mod’ clip, Split Enz’ ‘Maybe’ off the 1975 Telethon, some Hello Sailor, Dragon, the first real video clip stars New Zealand has.
Theme music? ‘Frankenstein’ by the Edgar Winter Group: “Da da da da da da da daaa …”
It’s possible that Radio With Pictures cast a wider shadow over the history of pop music than just its effect on the local scene, helping to spark a cultural revolution that irrevocably altered the international music industry in the 1980s. The story goes that when former Monkee Michael Nesmith was touring New Zealand in the 1970s, he saw the hostless incarnation of Radio With Pictures late one night in his hotel room. Apparently, the steady stream of uninterrupted video clips gave him the idea that such a show would suit American television as well. He devised the show PopClips, which he shopped around to various networks before it was picked up by Warner Communications and screened weekly on cable channel Nickelodeon in 1980 and 1981, before Warners decided to stretch the concept to a 24-hour standalone channel that it christened MTV. In a peripatetic way, then, when Peter Grattan devised Radio With Pictures, he was also inventing MTV. At least, that’s how the story goes.
Peter Grattan: Cut to an ex-Monkee sitting in his Auckland motel room watching our show. Michael Nesmith is on a NZ solo tour and he sees Radio With Pictures on. He thinks “wow, I never knew these videos existed. I’ve never seen these videos on TV in America,” as they were made for international distribution/promotion. So he takes the idea back to his buddy Bob Pittman. “Let’s do a clip show here in New York on a cable channel”. And it’s so successful they sell it to Viacom and it becomes MTV. So the idea for MTV started from Radio With Pictures, see Wikipedia. Or, as we called it, Radial with Punctures.
Barry Jenkin: I believe that’s true. There were other pop shows around the world, but not the kind of grassroots rock show we were doing. I think Nesmith recognised the potential the format had, especially given that it was also cheap! The rest is history.
For the record, when asked recently, Nesmith had no recollection of Radio With Pictures. Records indicate he regularly toured New Zealand in the mid-1970s, including a tour in November 1975, the year before the debut of Radio With Pictures. It is possible he returned in November 1977, when he toured Australia, on the back of the success of his ‘Rio’ single. The song was a Top 10 hit in New Zealand between September and November 1977, but by that time Radio With Pictures had acquired Barry Jenkin as host. (Incidentally, Nesmith’s ‘Rio’ is one of the many songs often credited as “inventing” music video.) Bill Roedy’s 2011 book What Makes Business Rock mentions the existence of Radio With Pictures and the conception of Nesmith’s PopClips in consecutive sentences, though not necessarily in such a way as to imply causation, while as of April 2018 MTV’s Wikipedia page contains the uncredited assertion that: “The inspiration for PopClips came from a similar programme on New Zealand’s TVNZ network named Radio With Pictures, which premiered in 1976. The concept itself had been in the works since 1966, when major record companies began supplying the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation with promotional music clips to play on the air at no charge. Few artists made the long trip to New Zealand to appear live.”
Barry Jenkin hosting
Peter Grattan, the show’s originator and first producer, was lured away from the show shortly before it began its second season in 1977. Grattan, still only in his mid-20s, was playing a gig at the Toby Jug in Titirangi when he was approached by “a kind of a David Niven character in a little bow tie” who offered him the adventure of playing on a cruise ship. So he “went off for three months playing on a cruise ship, where there was these Russian two guys, two Vladimirs, and they were obviously KGB, but they were masquerading as ships’ officers. And one of them was Vladimir Putin … Then we got to Australia and one of the Vladimirs had disappeared off the boat. He’d obviously been offloaded in Australia and this is what they used to do was they would uplift their agents and put other agents on land. One would go off and another guy would come on.”
As Grattan was carousing with future world leaders on a cruise ship that took him to Britain and back, trainee producer Alan Thurston took over producing Radio With Pictures. Thurston, who later became better known for his production of sports and events, looked for some help.
Barry Jenkin: There was a chap in the newsroom at ZB/ZM and he’d been given the job when the television split off from the radio, because, literally, radio announcers used to go and do a gig on the telly before then. The official word came through: you either stayed on the radio or you went onto the telly. And he went onto the telly. He was getting these clips from the record companies and he didn’t know anything about them, but he thought that I did. So he put the word out: “Do you want to present this show?” And I said, “Whatever you think is a fair thing, what’s the guts?” “Well, $60 a week and all the t-shirts you can eat”.
Dr Rock’s pay? $60 a week and all the t-shirts he could eat.
Thurston’s deal was a canny one, as at the time Jenkin was a well-known radio DJ with a loyal following. According to Jenkin, “at one stage I got about 51 percent share of the market. It was ridiculous. I prided myself on playing the good stuff, but everybody else’s job was to play the hits.” Jenkin not only recognised the clips and helped immeasurably with the playlisting, but also cultivated a memorable on-screen persona that helped brand the show’s hipness.
Barry Jenkin: They said, “What are we going to call you?” And I said “What about my name?” And they went, “Well, that doesn’t have much pizazz, does it?” I had to agree. So then one of them asked, “What do they call you at Hauraki?” And I said [mumbling], “Well, I think it’s Dr Rock.” “That’s right!” they said. It was Fred Botica who gave me that. And anyway, I said “Look, I’d rather not, if that’s okay.” But of course on the first show there’s a caption underneath, there it was: ‘that’s who you are, mate!”
Peter Grattan: Barry’s “Good evening citizens” to open the show becomes as popular as Fred Dagg’s “Yeah g’day.”
Barry Jenkin: I stole that “Good evening citizens” from the 1920s-30s writer Damon Runyon. He wrote entirely in the present tense and that’s what he called everybody and I thought, “Well, that’s what everybody is”. “Good evening everybody” was getting a bit blasé.
Radio With Pictures returned in late July 1977 and was trialled as a half-hour Saturday evening show, hosted by “Dr Rock”. By September 12, 1977, it was shifted back to late-night, this time on Mondays, as an hour-long show.
Barry Jenkin (on the first show): I was absolutely terrified. What happened, I suppose, was I staggered through. I had to write the presentation myself, you see, and I couldn’t remember it, couldn’t read my own writing, I stumbled and stammered and on out-take 22, somebody went: “Give your script to the prod-sec and we’ll put it on the autocue.” Then the film manager came over and said “Don’t listen to them”. And I went “What? Why?” And he said: “They don’t call them idiot cards for nothing”. So I got myself together and didn’t use the idiot cards; it was very good advice.
Peter Grattan: We recorded Barry’s links to insert between the vids to make it look like the show is “live”. Barry is a true pro, but is always nervous. He agonises over his scripts, then at the end of a long read, he may fluff the last couple of lines. He’d be mortified and he’d say “Ohhhh noooo”, and we’d be like, “don’t worry about it”. It can be easily fixed with editing, but Barry is so used to “live radio”.
Barry Jenkin (on playlisting the show): Behind the scenes, we fought like Kilkenny cats! As time passed, there was more pressure to play the hits, but I thought all the pop crap should go to [competitor at the time] Ready To Roll. I would bully my producer, they would back off and I would play what I liked. I don’t know how I got away with it, but I did.
Peter Grattan: Sometimes I tease him and say “the new Boney M video is in the show” and we fight and I say, “just joking”. We always had little battles; Barry wanting to play more alternative rock stuff; Little Feat are his faves. He dislikes the glam stuff or any of the kind of more poppy stuff but I know we have to keep Radio With Pictures commercial as well, to survive, we need a diverse mix of music for all tastes. And I know Kevan Moore is watching! There were videos like Sweet’s ‘Fox on the Run’ or ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’; he hated that sort of stuff. But there is some good American material, we’d got hold of from WEA … the Fleetwood Mac 20-minute debut video with Lindsey and Stevie, and the Eagles have just peaked and there’s a short special of Chicago.
Bruce Russell: I have a very clear recollection of the video for [Rod Stewart’s] ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy’ so those things were definitely on the programme as well but it was one of those things where you would have to take the rough with the smooth. The programme ran for the best part of an hour and so let’s say for argument’s sake they had 15 or 18 videos and I was probably interested in watching three or four of them, and often the more alternative ones would play towards the tail end of the programme. Then later on when they had New Zealand videos, the New Zealand video of the week would always be the last thing. And I assume that they did that in order to ensure that hipsters didn’t turn off the programme once that video had been played because there was definitely an audience that wanted to see that video and it was perhaps less interested in the Rod Stewarts and whatnot. But the way they organised it, I don’t know how they did audience research or if they did any audience research but it was certainly amongst my peer group the pattern of watching was very clear. There were a few things that you really wanted to see and those things would always be at the end of the programme so you would always have to watch everything else so that you didn’t run the risk of missing anything. I don’t recall ever considering just basically turning on at the end of the programme because there was always a chance there would be something cool that you didn’t know about so you’d watch the whole thing.
Brent Hansen: At that time, when Radio With Pictures started, you had great bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers who were still less well-known but edgy – but you were also starting to get punk stuff. So it was a weird melange between progressive rock and … you know, Little Feat possibly on one hand and Three Chord Wonders on the other hand. So it was quite a thing.
Barry Jenkin (on how much in-put he had into playlisting RWP): Well, it was close to 90%. By the time the clips came in, I’d go down and sit with my producer, and we’d go “That one fairly obviously is Ready to Roll, that’s Ready to Roll”, and we’d fight about the next one, which I thought was Ready To Roll and he didn’t, etc. So it was reasonably democratic but I usually shouted loudest.
By the end of 1977, punk had severely disturbed the ballast of the 1970s rock scene. Easy-listening, AOR (Adult-Oriented Rock), prog, and disco were all in the firing line, and the Clash’s ‘1977’ was even banishing Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Generational barricades were forming and music fans often had to rapidly assume a position on one side or the other.
Barry Jenkin: I was working at Hauraki when all these punk clips started coming in from Britain. Nobody knew much about them except me, because I read [UK music mags] NME and Melody Maker. Before then, you only heard about the usual suspects – Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Dylan – then all of a sudden there were great bands like The Stranglers with heaps of attitude, and I suddenly understood what music was all about. Back then, you were pretty much either a punk or a hippie, and pity help you if you were a hippie!
In John Dix’s book Stranded in Paradise, he recounts the story of Jenkin’s conversion to punk sympathiser, attributing it to Jenkin being kidnapped by Auckland punk band The Scavengers: “One midnight in November 1977, Jenkin was ‘kidnapped’ by Johnny Volume and self-appointed Scavs manager Doug Elephant. They took him home, fed him copious amounts of cannabis, and played him the Clash, Pistols, Ramones … albums, singles, all imports – stuff Jenkin had never heard before, or at least hadn’t listened to properly. He staggered out into the dawn a new man, and the format of both Radio With Pictures and his Radio Hauraki show changed overnight.”
Barry Jenkin: It’s all perfectly true. What really did it, strangely enough, was the Stranglers. I was working for the telly at the time, 1977. Here’s this tape comes in from the record company and it’s the Stranglers. They’re working in a low-ceiling dive. The difference was, they could play. They weren’t proper punks at all. They’d been around a while. But they had the attitude. That did it for me. I sat there and played it, time after time, all afternoon. That was enough for me. I got it, I got the attitude. It was more that than the night I got kidnapped.
Peter Grattan: We embrace punk right from the beginning. In 77, we go on a bus with the Suburban Reptiles and the Scavengers heading overnight down to Wellington. Neil Roberts, who became a head of TVNZ later on, is aboard as a reporter for Eye Witness News. We share a film crew, news are covering this phenomena of punk with Auckland kids on a bus to play at the Wellington Town Hall. We stop at Taupo on the way down, say hi to Hello Sailor playing, their songs seem kind of conservative and “safe” compared to Suburban Reptiles and The Scavs. I’d seen the punk thing starting first hand while in London in early 77. Sid Vicious and The Sex Pistols saying “fuck” on 6pm prime time Thames TV. Wild stuff!
Punk’s entry to New Zealand faced a few obstacles, not least of which was the country’s strict import regulations. At the time, a vast majority of records for sale in New Zealand were manufactured locally rather than imported. As Michael Flint puts it, “releases were all through the one major distributor, and were invariably pressed at the one factory,” each controlled by British major label EMI. Its distribution arm, HMV, determined which records were fit to be pressed for the local market, and given the low likelihood of getting promotion through radio play, generally avoided punk, or at least delayed the release of punk records until public demand gave them no choice. For punk fans eager to import records into New Zealand, individuals were restricted to expenditure of just $100 per annum (including postage), and import licenses were rare for retailers, meaning university bookshops were among the few to stock imported records. Even news of punk was slow to arrive in New Zealand, as magazines documenting the scene like the New Music Express and Melody Maker travelled surface mail from the UK, arriving three months after their publication. This made disc jockeys like Barry Jenkin a rare breed: he was not only sympathetic to punk but willing to play it on his Radio Hauraki show, a crucial source of information about punk.
Barry Jenkin: In a way I was [responsible for punk being introduced to New Zealand]. I had the best pipeline; I had the clips coming in and I had a reasonable pipeline, courtesy of the Director-General, to the UK scene to import material and of course the record companies here wouldn’t release it, so I was playing an awful lot of music you just couldn’t buy here. It was pretty exciting stuff at the time. I think I was pretty much the only game in town. Once or twice a week I’d go into the record companies and say “Where are your samples?” And I’d go, “Are you going to release them?” They’d say “No”, so I’d say, “Okay, give them to me”. I must admit, before punk, I played a lot of what I regarded as quality stuff and it did sell records I suppose, yeah.
Bruce Russell: Particularly once there were independent labels that were releasing stuff, and when AK79 came out in either late 79 or early 1980; after that from my perspective was when things really began to kick off. Toy Love probably led the way because they had several videos for their singles. I can certainly remember seeing the video for ‘Rebel’ possibly more than once, that will be in 1979. I was going to see bands and was starting to become aware that New Zealand music was worth following. And certainly in my teenage years living in Nelson I was being exposed to commercial radio and television, and that was all. While there was New Zealand music, I didn’t know about it. I can recall having the perception that it will be shit if it was New Zealand music and so once particularly Toy Love came along and The Swingers in that 1979, maybe early 1980 period it certainly altered my perception of New Zealand music and that certainly changed my television viewing habits. I would say further than that for me it was Barry Jenkin because at that point he was fronting Radio With Pictures but he also had his radio show in Auckland. When I was at home in Nelson in the summer I can recall tuning in late at night with a transistor radio and managing to hear because the transmission was audible barely from Auckland; because of the intervening sea at night you could pick it up. So I can remember hearing things; the one I always remember is ‘Armalite Rifle’ by the Gang of Four, it’s never sounded so good. There was a lot more static and weirdness with all that feedback than the actual record, which pales in comparison with the experience of listening to it on such a poor AM reception. It was much more Jesus and Mary Chain; yeah it really did sound like something from another planet. I mean great song but that was the best way to hear it. And that was Barry Jenkin again because there was nobody else; commercial radio just wasn’t happening if you wanted to hear that music.
Simon Morris: I think that Barry had got this reputation that he was Mr Edgy, he was New Zealand’s New Musical Express slapped on TV which of course he wasn’t: he was just another DJ. But you know he turned up around about the time that punk turned up so suddenly he got the credit for a lot of that as well.
This is the first of a series of oral-history articles about Radio With Pictures. Dr Lee Borrie teaches art and music history and research at Ara Institute of Canterbury. He completed his PhD in 2007 on the rise of rock and roll and youth culture in the 1950s in the context of Cold War America's containment culture. The bulk of the material used is from interviews conducted as part of a research project examining music video production in New Zealand prior to the establishment of NZ On Air funding.
Grant Smithies, “Radio With Pictures: forming the musical tastes of a generation”, Sunday Star-Times, 27 March 2016. Stuff.co.nz
Bill Roedy, What Makes Business Rock: building the world’s largest global networks, Wiley, Hoboken NJ: 2011
Michael Flint, “What the air was like up there: overseas music and local reception in the 1960s”, North Meets South: popular music in Aotearoa/New Zealand, edited by Philip Hayward, Tony Mitchell and Roy Shuker, Perfect Beat, Sydney: 1994
John Dix, Stranded in Paradise: New Zealand rock and roll 1955 to the modern era, Penguin, Auckland: 2005
Wikipedia entry on MTV