Ra­dio broad­caster in tune with the times

Taranaki Daily News - - Obituaries -

John Al­bert Dou­glas: b Welling­ton, March 6, 1938; m Mar­garet Pinker; 2s; d Welling­ton, Septem­ber 28, 2017, aged 79.

Johnny Dou­glas, the doyen of New Zealand ra­dio pro­gram­ming, helped spear­head rad­i­cal changes to the sound of pub­lic ra­dio from the early heady days of rock’n’roll, pop and Bea­tles ma­nia, through to the 1990s.

For­mer Ra­dio New Zealand chief ex­ec­u­tive Dame Bev­er­ley Wakem de­scribed him as, ‘‘more than a le­gend in his own life­time,’’ by en­sur­ing the na­tional ra­dio ser­vice sur­vived and thrived in an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment.

When Johnny started work­ing as a cadet at NZBS head of­fice in Welling­ton in 1956, aged 17, the peo­ple who hired him thought his ca­reer would be short­lived. ‘‘Although Mr Dou­glas is un­doubt­edly tal­ented and ar­tic­u­late, his weak eye­sight may be an im­ped­i­ment to progress in the ser­vice,’’ his per­sonal file stated.

Wakem says that when Johnny be­gan his ca­reer, ‘‘no­body could have fore­seen what an im­pact he would make in ra­dio broad­cast­ing – com­mer­cial and non­com­mer­cial.’’

Grow­ing up in Pe­tone, with strong Ir­ish, Ro­man Catholic and Labour Party roots, he was a found­ing pupil of St Bernard’s Col­lege and de­spite his poor eye­sight, played the piano by ear and in his 20s formed and played in dance bands.

Long-time friend, for­mer Labour MP Gra­ham Kelly played in bands at the same time. ‘‘Be­cause of his im­paired eye­sight he could not read mu­sic but he could play tunes in dif­fer­ent keys, fit in with other mu­si­cians. He played very en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. It was in­fec­tious. He was very pop­u­lar,’’ Kelly says.

Once through the door of the NZBS, Johnny’s trade­mark op­ti­mism, drive and pas­sion for mu­sic and broad­cast­ing saw him pro­moted to the ‘‘Head Of­fice Dance’’ unit. His en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of light mu­sic found a ready out­let com­pil­ing pro­grammes for what was then the YA net­work.

De­scrib­ing those early days, Dou­glas was quoted as say­ing ra­dio’s ap­proach to pop mu­sic was ‘‘ter­ri­bly con­ser­va­tive. I was very con­scious that over­seas, Elvis had ar­rived, and rock’n’roll and pop. There were very good pop artists around – Con­nie Fran­cis, Ricky Nel­son, Cliff Richard. But in New Zealand we were very much shel­tered from those things.’’

In the late 1950s he found there was ‘‘re­bel­lion in the ranks’’ to some of the staid of­fer­ings. It was not un­known for a tech­ni­cian to qui­etly dam­age a disc of an artist such as Man­to­vani to pre­vent it be­ing played again.

Dou­glas lob­bied to pro­duce a weekly pro­gramme of new qual­ity pop and was re­luc­tantly given two slots for ‘‘Tunes of the Charts’’. Although at first he had to avoid records that had been banned, such as Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife, there was plenty of mu­sic to choose from.

‘‘It wasn’t all rock’n’roll by any means, but it was quite ac­cept­able mu­sic. If it had all been rock’n’roll it would have been taken off for sure,’’ Dou­glas said.

Af­ter stints as a com­mer­cial pro­ducer in New Ply­mouth and Auck­land, he started work­ing along­side young broad­caster Justin du Fresne and they con­vinced their man­ager to sup­port their ‘‘rad­i­cal’’ idea of pi­o­neer­ing pop mu­sic pro­grammes with the hip Sun­set Show.

It proved so pop­u­lar fans would come to the studio to watch it be­ing broad­cast. When du Fresne went over­seas Peter Sin­clair took over.

The Bea­tles toured New Zealand in 1964. At­tend­ing a fren­zied press con­fer­ence in Welling­ton’s Water­loo Ho­tel, with the streets be­low teem­ing with scream­ing girls, Dou­glas and Pete Sin­clair in­ter­viewed the Fab Four and got them to record stings for the Sun­set Show, a high­light of his ca­reer.

When pri­vate ra­dio sta­tions en­tered the mar­ket in the early 70s, Johnny came up with in­no­va­tive ways of com­pet­ing with them.

‘‘Johnny had started as he meant to go on. He was al­ways think­ing about ways to frus­trate pri­vate ra­dio and en­sure RNZ’s sta­tions would al­ways be ahead in the rat­ings. He was an in­spi­ra­tion to a gen­er­a­tion of young broad­cast­ers whom he nur­tured and en­cour­aged,’’ Wakem said.

She re­called many ses­sions round the piano at sales and man­age­ment

''He was al­ways pos­i­tive, in­no­va­tive, re­spect­ful to ev­ery­one, a good Catholic man."

Re­tired broad­caster Barry Hol­land

con­fer­ences, with Johnny’s left leg pound­ing out the beat and his right firmly press­ing down the loud pedal.

‘‘He was in his el­e­ment egged on by a great deal of beer and the en­thu­si­asm of his au­di­ence,’’ she says.

Re­tired broad­caster Barry Hol­land worked with Johnny in Auck­land the early 70s and de­scribed him as, a man for the times. ‘‘He loved all the com­pe­ti­tion with Ra­dio Hau­raki and Ra­dio I – they were heady, ex­cit­ing days. We were throw­ing off the shack­les of the NZBS when it be­came the NZBC. He was al­ways pos­i­tive, in­no­va­tive, re­spect­ful to ev­ery­one, a good Catholic man.’’

There was a lot of re­struc­tur­ing but Johnny had a real so­cial con­science and took into ac­count em­ploy­ees’ in­di­vid­ual sit­u­a­tions.

When Na­tional Ra­dio was re­struc­tured in 1975, Dou­glas be­came man­ager of Na­tional Ra­dio.

‘‘Work­ing closely with Johnny made me ap­pre­ci­ate even more the ge­nius of the man. He just knew in­stinc­tively what would ‘play’. The na­tional pro­gramme never looked back,’’ Wakem says.

He then re­turned to com­mer­cial ra­dio for the re­main­der of his ca­reer with RNZ as the pro­gram­ming head.

Veteran broad­caster Lind­say Yeo, whom Johnny nick­named ‘‘The Tory from Karori’’, de­scribed JD as a won­der­ful so­cial an­i­mal with a great ra­dio brain.

‘‘We were in awe of his abil­ity. He was very clever, never crit­i­cised any­one, had a lovely man­age­ment style. He was an in­spi­ra­tional col­league, al­ways laugh­ing at jokes, a mas­ter en­ter­tainer,’’ Yeo says.

A staunch Labour man, when Johnny was in Welling­ton Hospi­tal be­fore he died, Yeo says he asked the sur­geon to keep him alive un­til Jacinda Ardern be­came prime min­is­ter.

Bill Cle­mens worked as Johnny’s as­sis­tant man­ager dur­ing the late 70s and 80s and went on to be­come a pro­gram­ming con­sul­tant.

‘‘John Dou­glas had an enor­mous im­pact on the devel­op­ment of the Com­mer­cial Net­work. Un­der his watch RNZ be­came a com­pet­i­tive force fight­ing back and of­ten win­ning the rat­ings war. With his vi­sion (sup­ported by for­mer RNZ di­rec­tor gen­eral Ge­off White­head and Bev­er­ley Wakem) the old pub­lic ser­vice ap­proach was trans­formed.

‘‘Those coming through the in­dus­try in the 70s and 80s will al­ways thank John for his pas­sion for ra­dio and a man­age­ment style that let his peo­ple get on with the job in the knowl­edge he was clear­ing the way for change. Above all else, John will be re­mem­bered for his in­fec­tious love of life. For all those who worked in com­mer­cial ra­dio at that time John was the life and soul of a great big ra­dio party.’’

In 1998 great Ir­ish pal and broad­caster Paddy O’Donnell es­tab­lished Beach FM on the Kapiti Coast and co­erced Johnny to be­come pro­gramme man­ager un­til he re­tired and moved to Welling­ton.

JD was de­voted to his fam­ily and reg­u­larly vis­ited Auck­land to catch up with his two sons.

Johnny and blind pi­anist Shaun John­son, who has played at the James Cook Ho­tel since 1980, were great friends for 39 years. Dubbed ‘‘The Three Blind Mice’’ be­cause they couldn’t see the other one, they shared a pas­sion for cricket, ex­cep­tional abil­ity on the piano and a clever, witty sense of hu­mour.

‘‘He was a great smart man who never said a bad word about any­one,’’ John­son says.

By Kay Blun­dell

Sources: ‘‘Blue Smoke: The Lost Dream of New Zealand Pop­u­lar Mu­sic 1918-1964’’, Chris Bourke.

Johnny Dou­glas with Pete Sin­clair, cen­tre, and Ray Colum­bus.

Dou­glas, cen­tre, played the piano by ear and in his 20s formed and played in dance bands.

Johnny Dou­glas: An in­spi­ra­tion to a gen­er­a­tion of young broad­cast­ers.

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