Radio broadcaster in tune with the times
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.