MediaWorks radio stations dominate the music format but the company has always struggled to develop a viable talkback station. Now, as Mark Jennings writes, a racist incident involving stand-in host John Banks has suddenly added to the company’s problems.

What were they thinking? Mediaworks’ decision to give John Banks some sort of last hurrah on its station, Magic Talk, was never going to end well. Banks has history when it comes to making offensive remarks or agreeing with callers who make them.

The day after Banks was removed from the morning slot on Magic Talk, Professor Paul Spoonley reminded RNZ listeners that the former MP and Mayor of Auckland had previously referred to Māori as “Natives”.

A quick glance at Banks’ Wikipedia page reveals a catalogue of dubious remarks.

When Parliament moved to make it illegal for employers to discriminate against gay people, Banks came up with this:

“So many of these creeps have now boldly crept out of the wardrobe and Parliament is soon going to legislate … to allow sexual deviants or people with sexual alternatives to work … with immunity.”

When a talkback caller, earlier in Bank’s talkback career, said that sticking six inches of barbed wire up the backside of some gay men would be a good idea, Banks suggested it “would be a waste of good barbed wire”.

Societal tolerance (not that it was ever high) for this sort of thing has changed considerably since Banks’ time as a host for Radio Pacific in the early to mid 90s.

Major companies like Vodafone, Kiwibank, Trade Me and Spark ripped out their advertising as soon as it was revealed that Banks had, this week, failed to pull up or challenge a racist rant from a caller. The man, named Richard, had claimed Māori were “victims of their own genetic background. They’re genetically predisposed to crime, alcohol and underperformance educationally”. Richard told Banks that he was not interested in having his children learn about Māori “stone age culture” to which Banks responded, “your children need to get used to their stone age culture because if their stone age culture doesn’t change, these people will come through your bathroom window”.

Leading New Zealand companies now spend millions on diversity programmes and won’t support anything with the slightest whiff of racism. Apart from their genuine motives around equality and diversity, progressive companies don’t want their brands adjacent to this low-level rubbish. MediaWorks will be hoping they can move the advertising to the safety of its music brands rather than lose it altogether.

Banks’ explanation for failing to intervene during the racist rant was that too much was happening in the studio.

“I didn’t pick it up at the time, here when you’re broadcasting, you’re talking to producers, you’re talking to bosses,” Banks said.

In other words the 74-year-old Banks, who probably had his last major radio stint in the mid 2000s, couldn’t cope with the demands of a contemporary talkback radio show. He shouldn’t have been there.

It is unusual that Banks was talking to “bosses” while he was on air. Radio station managers rarely talk to hosts while they are “live” in the studio, unless there are major issues with tone or competency. They nearly always wait until a show is finished before any robust discussions are held.

The drama with Banks is an early wake-up call for MediaWorks’ new CEO, former Air New Zealand executive, Cam Wallace.

Having to axe a fill-in host (Banks had two days to go before regular host Peter Williams returns) is not the start he would have wanted.

The issue for Wallace now is how much damage the incident has done to an already ailing Magic Talk brand. The station recently lost a Broadcasting Standards Authority complaint over comments by another host, Sean Plunket.

The BSA fined MediaWorks $3,000, saying Plunket’s interview on Covid-19 checkpoints with an iwi spokesperson amplified negative stereotypes about Māori and had the potential to cause widespread harm.

Given the BSA’s normal reluctance to hit broadcasters in the hip pocket the fine was significant. If he goes back and reads the Authority’s decision on the Plunket complaint, especially point [37], Wallace will be left with an uncomfortable feeling.

“We consider a punitive response is required to hold the broadcaster to account, deter future non-compliance and confirm our expectation.”

This time, MediaWorks will uphold any complaints against Banks and hope it can avoid the BSA and a serious sanction.

The longer-term issue for Wallace is what to do with the Magic Talk brand. The brand feels damaged and its line-up of Peter Williams, Sean Plunket and Ryan Bridge has made little impact on its commercial competitor, the market leader, Newstalk ZB .

AM, the breakfast show simulcast on Magic and Three is a reasonable product but the need to serve two mediums makes it hard to compete against ZB‘s Mike Hosking – by far the country’s best shock jock.

MediaWorks has been caught in the middle of the radio battle for news and information consumers. Its first attempt at talkback, Radio Live, leaned left in the hope it could provide an alternative to the right wing ZB. It failed – RNZ has this audience locked up. Magic, the new incarnation of Live, has now gone after the right wing audience but hasn’t been able to generate any real growth.

Wallace can’t give up, there is too much advertising money attached to the news/talk format to ignore the genre, especially if MediaWorks goes ahead with its planned IPO.

Taking some market share off Newstalk ZB remains one of MediaWorks’ biggest growth opportunities.

The other issue that MediaWorks, Wallace and chairman Jack Matthews will need to focus on prior to an IPO is recruiting a strong board. The investor community will want to see some experienced media professionals sitting around the boardroom table. Previous board members (apart from Matthews) have been light on the sort of experience that investors want to see in a company involved in a highly competitive and challenging industry. 

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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