Obit­u­ary

A gen­er­a­tion of lis­ten­ers awoke to the quick but cheer­ful wit of Merv Smith.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By RUS­SELL BAIL­LIE

Rus­sell Bail­lie

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”.

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