Bought a Metro this month, and I felt a little bit funny for doing so. I don’t know who buys Metro magazine every month, who subscribes to it with a ever-renewing vigour. This isn’t intended as a slight - perhaps the magazine is partially the victim of all our double standards, because Metro is elitist, superficial and fundamentally detached from ‘our’ Auckland until it covers something we’re interested in - something that’s ‘ours’ and not ‘theirs’. So my Mum gets the Metros with meaty cover stories on schooling, because she’s a teacher. My dad might pick one up with something worthy on local government (even if he wouldn’t later remember whether it was from a Metro or its less cosmopolitan rival, North and South). And somewhere, some gigantic wanker probably selectively thumbs the circa-Fashion Week issues just to scowl at the hagiographies of high-maintenance clotheshorses.

March’s issue features a whole bunch of CBD eateries, some of which I can in fact afford to go to (!!!), a great article on our changing attitudes to swearing by Matt Suddain, a pretty okay if seemingly truncated interview with Witi Ihimaera, a typically bewildering extended opinion piece by Chris Trotter that may either be saying that John Key is doing an amazing job and Phil Goff a terrible one, or both….and, and, just next to that one, a piece by Duncan Grieve (‘The B Team’) on the Auckland college radio station that began as a pirate frequency capping stunt and became a great big ours.

Where this is all going stems from a couple of sneers I read on Facebook about ‘Metro trying to get in touch with the yoofs’ - err, pardon? Metro, both big TV companies in town, the only other worthwhile radio station in the country, and both the papers have been staffed in their past and shaped in their presence by bFM alumni. The station’s cultural cache extends past its actual listenership like very little else; the best talent that emerges comes out eerily precocious and savvy. And these men and women obviously take a healthy interest in what gave them their big break - so yes, it makes bloody sense that Metro is covering bFM’s fortunes and that a brand that came of age in the 1980s now interests middle-aged readers. Go ahead, Metro.

So Duncan’s piece came out with more than a few quiet ripples of hype. He’d contacted enough sources for anecdotes and quotes that gossip was bound to spread. The reaction to The B Team we got can be split into three easy stock responses, really:

A: Duncan should stick to his day job because he set out to take us down and he couldn’t even land any punches. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Nice try, sayonara.

B: Duncan’s piece was meant to take bFM down once and for all along with <Person who works at b who I personally hold a grudge against>, the talentless cocksucker. It’s only got a little bit that’s obviously about <long-established staff member> but hopefully it will fucking ruin him. Burn, bFM, burn. This piece was a bit soft though.

C: Duncan really likes bFM as an institution but also wanted to examine some of its present-day shortcomings. He found a number of changes that pointed towards a long, vibrant future for the station but also gained a strong perception that there were disagreements about the station management and that certain staff members continued to take a belligerent and dominating attitude well past the point they should have been put out to pasture. He fairly balanced the printed article between these troubling and positive aspects.

Raving extremist that I am, I’ve decided to go with C on this occasion.

The radio taught me how to say ‘fuck’ when I was seven (and other assertions of cultural relevance)

Demographically, I think it’s safe to say I would have been one of the very first ‘second-generation’ bFM listeners. Around about the time I was conceived, the station expanded into a well-staffed and stocked round-the-clock operation (the Metro article also covers this). Never ones for decorum over aesthetic enjoyment, my parents quickly discarded kiddie tapes for the FM dial once I was (barely) past the point of shrilling like a banshee for Fireman Sam audiobooks.

My memories of sitting in the backseat and listening to b at this time are crystal-clear. The earliest is of being shit-scared by a desolate, howling piece of music about a shipwreck that sounded like my worst recurring nightmares (15 years later, I found out it was Slint’s ‘Good Morning, Captain’. Not an especially comforting song to hear at any stage, and simply sadistic to play to a six-year-old who was staying up reading maritime disaster books with mounting dread at this point).

More crucially, I remember hearing George Carlin’s ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television’ on The Slightly Silly Show, the stand-up comedy Sunday breakfast programme that b, being b, scheduled immediately after its kids’ hour for over a decade. I gained glorious, taboo access to what Suddain calls ‘language’s sixth gear’ when my motormouth was still mastering third. As late as intermediate school, maybe early high, kids in my class looked forward to coming round to my house or getting billeted to my mum’s car on interminable field trips. For most, it was the only way they might get to listen, mouths agape in wonder, to a ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, or a ‘wank’. Such was our endless tweenage pre-watershed.

This starts to feel like a bit of a sophomoric digression, but my point is that bFM used these words sparingly, imaginatively and effectively as but a single part of the one of the only honest urban vernaculars New Zealand has ever been able to witness in its mass media (commercial radio got there with Mai, then Flava; TV only really caught up with Outrageous Fortune). Try listening to, say, The Edge, with a critical ear sometime - if only as an experiment. Run their banter back to yourself and try to imagine how you might phrase it with your own friends. Who the fuck talks like this?

And that’s not even getting into the b’s perennial ‘um’s’, ‘uh’s’, and ‘hrrrrrm’s’. They’re a simple by-product of having untrained amateurs on air; an act of serendipity that’s gradually transformed into a profoundly moving gesture of empathy with the verbal tics of its listening audience.

So yes, bFM had an effect. On my way of speaking, my sense of humour, my nascent tastes, even rudely messing with what my ideas of ‘virtuosity’ constituted (for a long time, I was quite convinced that the power-drill solo in Loves Ugly Children’s ‘Suck’ was the absolute height of technical accomplishment. High school music lab came as a harsh awakening). It was bloody important and formative, and I still can’t believe I got to spend time working on it myself.

Our frequency band could be your life

(How a b babby is formed - me and James Brennan, circa 2005. Dawwwwh.)

My time at bFM? Putting up a couple of banners at gigs, a graveyard slot at 4am on a Monday morning, a 7pm Monday night slot, a brief, hapless, and draining 6am pre-Mikey Havoc warmup slot and then an incredibly happy and challenging two years on the Wire, bFM’s unexampled current affairs and news slot. A couple of 15 minute audio documentaries and a few ads in the mix, and that was me. It was a kaleidoscopic rush I dearly miss, even if I was a bit shit sometimes, and it was a bit shit sometimes. Still, I got to hit up the Deputy Prime Minister about his position on public asset sales, and not many 23-year-olds get to do that on live radio anywhere.

One of the things I quickly became aware of was bFM’s uneasy position within the city’s culture. A criticism bFM faced when I arrived and faces now is that it doesn’t actually have such a position at all; that a ‘terminal gap’ has developed between it and its audience. This often came from people with gigantic chips on their shoulders, the ‘shoulda-beens’ and ‘never-wases’ who got cockblocked hitting up some DJ’s girlfriend in 1997; even at its most inept and misjudged, the station hasn’t come off as another big, dumb radio monolith.

And yet. And yet. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and sometimes these criticisms would be on target. From my day zero at bFM, we were instructed that the audience was everything. A good philosophy, but one that sometimes seemed like it was being abused and misused. It was invoked, for example, to require 19-year olds already giving up their sanity and sleep to helm live radio at 2am on a Wednesday to play someone else’s selection of tunes, often that had been played out the day before. It seemed churlish, considering the station was benefitting from a completely free alternative to an automated jukebox.

The station’s increasing devotion to a playlist has been a paradoxical plea to be taken seriously - because real radio stations have these. But there’s the rub - the station’s core audience didn’t, and doesn’t want to listen to real radio stations, and doesn’t treat them very seriously at all. This is not to say that a dynamic and well-crafted playlist can never hit the mark - when Adele Hunter-Higgins was Traffic Manager, between 2008 and 2010 (Duncan covers the disgraceful exit she was forced to endure), the station frequently sounded magnificent. Other times, it’s sounded lazy, dated and indulgent. Anecdotally, the casual listeners I knew tended to desert the station when this was at its worst - the same tired songs playing thrice a day for weeks on end when even Classic Hits can manage a ‘No Repeat Workday’. (I still remember my friend hearing this dreary motherfucker right here for the eightieth time in 2007 and switching to the MP3 player in his car for good, right in front of me: ‘No excuses, bro. No offence.’)

What I’m talking toward - like the other commentators I’ve read, Duncan’s TARDIS of a piece has apparently dredged up too many ideas for me to talk about - is the veritable pachyderm in the studio - that we don’t need the radio for reliable playlists anymore. We can make them ourselves with a small number of right-click selects. Good radio has to have a spontaneity in its music, its banter, its conversation with its audience. bFM still has this whenever it wants to. Commercial radio has never caught up with its advertising style and panache, a consistently funny and self-effacing inhouse style that still has the power to make you forget you’re being sold stuff and ascends to be worthwhile on its own merits. It has two awkward yet endearing breakfast DJs with a collective age of barely 40. I listened on a Sunday morning: a callow youth plays Dirty Beaches’ ‘Sweet Seventeen’ then unabashedly goes into Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’, its most obvious sonic ancestor. He waxes lyrical: “I only just checked them out, how did it take me so long! This…is…um, wow. It’s crazy. It’s so ahead of its time.”

Surrounded by the endless one-upmanship of people with 200GB iTunes libraries, the necessary familiarity with fucking everything, all of the time, forever, this came like a summer breeze. You don’t hear the naked, childish thrill of discovery very often, get it unmasked. You still hear it on here.

The Pains of Being Alt At <3

In leaving bFM for a 9-5, I went from spending all day hanging around a small office of 15-17 people at any one time to spending all day hanging around a small office of 15-17 people at any one time. The difference is that that no one in my current workplace has their position and their actions hissed about in Auckland’s chattering classes - because bFM is a big, beloved brand that’s always matriculating in public. This rubs up against a seat-of-the-pants philosophy - ‘rock n’ roll don’t need no stinking HR!’ Well, no. No-one should need HR in the same way that no-one should need a criminal law against murder. But shit happens. Faced with reasonable pieces like ‘The B Team’, the station’s powers that be should at least take measures to acknowledge and address it. Instead, at this stage they’ve donned their shields, denying anything may be going on remotely wrong in their house.

To say there’s never been personality disputes at bFM before recent years is, I think, viewing it through rose-tinted glasses. And really, I also feel like making an issue of the fact neither station manager Manu Taylor nor Troy Ferguson drink is also a weak sideissue - a couple of senior people in the station’s ranks who don’t get maggoted all the time is probably a good thing, and everyone being on drugs was a problem at bFM a decade ago.

But the status quo appears to be of a dynfunctional place that can be isolating and divisive to its staff. Adele is the most prominent victim of this, obviously, though others have described similar experiences. Like the best (or worst) autocracies, it’s become a place where a select few people get to criticise and will not abide criticism themselves.

I can’t speculate on the allegations of sexual harassment contained in ‘The B Team’. I never personally witnessed anything of the sort while I was there - though if we want to get into the workplace harassment and discrimination minefield, you should stop and ask yourself if you’d want to be working somewhere in 2011 where a staff member can openly and often express his distaste for Asian immigrants and tourists without getting hauled up. Worst for me was seeing the way young vollies, the station’s absolute lifeblood, would get mocked or jeered at certain people on the payroll - their musical tastes or political views or anything else they might naively want to discuss and believe in at age 18, 19 as something to sneer at. If there’s a baseline rule of thumb in the college radio environment, it should be this: you never shit on a kid.

If bFM’s community isn’t following this baseline, it basically doesn’t deserve to exist anymore. In the context of Auckland University, this sort of attitude needs to be questioned as well, and I wouldn’t mind a clear picture again from Joe McCrory and the Students’ Association of exactly what they can and can’t intervene in under their watch.

If I sound like I’m getting serious, I need to put it in context - in no way is this station rotten to the core. At all. The overwhelming majority of its staff do heroic work in sales, management, production, copywriting and editorial for below market rates not because they couldn’t get work anywhere else, but because they believe in the brand, and if that hasn’t been mentioned before it needs hitting home now. But 95bFM needs to be responsive, not patch-protective, if it’s going to survive. The attitude that Duncan’s article is irrelevant because he was never a major force at the station, because of his own background, because we’ve all known Troy for x number of decades, is just abysmal.

So let’s let this article be ‘C’ (as above). Let’s not insist the station is perfect and retreat to an ivory tower, guys, because then we come off like Mediaworks, or TRN, and that really means the bastards have won. And let’s get over ourselves and accept that the station was never perfect, but never irredeemable, and let’s accept that when we cut off our ties with something it doesn’t necessarily go down the tubes, and that no cultural product is there to please us and us alone, in every way, all the time.

I’m finally installing a new car stereo next week, hoping to drive around catching the beatific last of the summer in a slightly munted 1994 Ford Laser with three black doors and one white one. I haven’t enjoyed doing it in silence, and if b were to disappear tomorrow I might be doing so for a long time. Long may it ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, ‘wank’ and play songs I already love alongside things it turns out I’ve been waiting to hear all my life, and long may those in charge adapt, evolve, and reflect to let that happen.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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