A generation of listeners awoke to the quick but cheerful wit of Merv Smith.
From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, Merv Smith ruled Auckland’s airwaves as king of the cornflakes. Smith, who has died, aged 85, spent 25 years as the breakfast host on 1ZB. He sent generations of the city’s kids to school with a ring of his bell, having helped ease their parents into the working day with his banter, family-friendly humour and a Scottish spider named McHairy. The imaginary arachnid was inspired by the tale of Robert the Bruce and the persistent spider.
Try, try again became a theme of Smith’s career in broadcasting. His life beneath the “on-air” light began while he was still a boy. He sang in a children’s choir, which featured in 1ZB Sunday programming, and he acted in radio plays as a teenager. Leaving school in 1949, he became an advertising copy cadet at 1ZB, a job he never quite mastered, but one that got his foot in the studio door. His first announcing shift proved testing. He had to read a commercial with the line, “Don’t sit and shiver all through the winter.” It came out amusingly jumbled. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and I was only halfway through the ad,” he recalled years later.
After a stint on the local station in Whangarei, Smith returned to Auckland where, in 1961, aged 28, he started hosting 1ZB’s weekday breakfast show – although, in the early years, he was still more radio announcer than radio personality. “Since you got paid at the same rate as a government clerk, it was pretty much up to you if you felt like ‘performing’ through a long shift. Frightening the horses was out and you had to wear a collar and tie,” he told the Listener in 1990.
But from the mid-1960s into the 1970s, Smith became the avuncular, quickwitted voice of suburban Auckland. He was a celebrity, though a fiercely modest one, in a pre-celebrity era. He dominated the ratings by a wide margin until 1986 when, disgruntled with 1ZB management, its treatment of colleagues and the music on his show, he left for the privately owned Radio I, taking much of his listenership with him. “Radio with a human face was something they tried to beat out of me at 1ZB over all those years,” he told the Listener. “I was treated like the office boy who made good, no more than that.”
His former station and its new
“newstalk” format tanked until 1989, when television made his replacement, Paul Holmes, a multimedia phenomenon.
Smith’s stint at Radio I, a well-paid time he considered the happiest in his career, lasted just three years. He moved briefly to talkback station Radio Pacific before his broadcasting swansong with a countrymusic station of which he was a director.
In his retirement, Smith became something of a spokesman for the good old days of local radio. He put his voice to good use, narrating some 200 books for the Blind Foundation, work he gave up only last year. He occasionally acted on screen, his final role was a cameo appearance as a hobbit named Tosser Grubb in The Hobbit trilogy.
A lifelong passion for model railways extended to a half share in an Auckland hobby shop bearing his name.
Smith, who appeared in the Listener many times, has a posthumous sign-off in the Talkback column (opposite) with a letter gently correcting another correspondent’s complaint about a reporter’s use of the phrase “pull the pin”. Smith pointed out the phrase was train-related, so a term he knew well.
He had to read a commercial with the line, “Don’t sit and shiver all through the winter.”
Merv Smith, pictured at Radio I in the late1980s, dominated the ratings in an era before broadcasters became highly paid “celebrities”.