A host with the most

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:00 10/11/2013
LEIGHTON SMITH
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ

CONSERVATIVE: Newstalk ZB’s Leighton Smith gets listeners going with his Right-wing views, admitting he’s used to being called a bigot, misogynist and racist

leighton smith
MR AND MRS SMITH: With wife No 4 and Newstalk ZB producer, Carolyn Leaney.

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The initial print run for Leighton Smith's memoir is 5000 copies. He reckons that's "very game" of his publisher. But that's their problem - it wasn't his idea to write a book.

"Quite seriously. When they asked, I said, 'Well, who would want to read it?' "

Someone must want to hear what Smith has to say.

He's been hogging Newstalk ZB's 8.40-to-noon talkback slot in Auckland for 28 years more or less, banging on about the climate change industry and the horrors of socialism and the hijacking of the Treaty of Waitangi and other Right-wing hobby-horses.

The latest survey figures show he's still got the biggest audience share for his timeslot. He's well paid, though he won't say how much it is. He was named Best Talkback Host at the 2013 Radio Awards.

He gave a copy of the book, which is called Beyond the Microphone, to a friend a few weeks ago, and the friend said the book would act as a "bridge" between Smith and the listeners who want to know a little more about him.

It's hard to say if Smith really wants too many people crossing that bridge.

Sure, he reveals some fun facts: the average Smithophile probably already knew he was Australian, didn't arrive in New Zealand till his 30s and is now in his mid-60s. They probably read about his successfully treated prostate cancer.

But they may not have known that he doesn't like to wear wristwatches and won't eat pork, or that he was rather good at the cello as a child and drove taxis in Sydney and had ambitions to be a lawyer before radio got the best of him.

They may be envious to learn that in 1994 he owned a major share in a horse that won Sydney's famous Doncaster Handicap, earning him enough in winnings and bets to pay off a large mortgage on his Remuera home.

There are some weightier revelations - notably that Smith's first marriage at 18 happened because his girlfriend was pregnant and he felt he had to do the right thing - but if you're looking for fearless self-examination, this is the wrong book.

The child of that teenage marriage, a girl, was stillborn. Smith writes that he has never talked about this before, then continues, bloodlessly: "Thing are as they are and have to be dealt with. The marriage lasted approximately four years, on and off. It finished, shall we say, unpleasantly . . ." And that's that.

Indeed seven terse pages is all it takes to cover all four of his marriages (the fourth, to his Newstalk ZB producer Carolyn Leaney in April last year, is still going strong) with the same uncomfortable, arms-length tone. (The concept of love, writes the old romantic, "is arguably responsible for much misery in the world".)

Last month, when Smith talked to the Sunday Star-Times in the sitting room of his gorgeous Italian-style mansion in Clevedon, south Auckland, where he has planted a little vineyard and produced some wine that is, apparently, quite good, he was about as enthusiastic about spilling his guts in person as in print. It is just not what one does.

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"I was brought up not to talk about myself . . . You don't use the ‘I' word. I never try and analyse myself."

Let's do it for him then.

He's looking pretty good for his age: smoothish skin, bright eyes, fairly trim around the waist, plenty of hair with just a bit of grey at the temples (he's never dyed, "not once").

He's wearing jeans and a blazer and a white dress shirt with unbuttoned cuffs (he doesn't like tight things around his wrists).

He has a voice that was made for radio: deep, rich and resonant. It's been like that since he was 14, when telephone callers would always mistake him for his architect father, Sidney. As a kid he and his sister took elocution lessons for a bit, which might explain his nowhere-in-particular accent. (He also took some singing lessons as an adult, but claims he cannot hold a tune.)

In person, as on the radio, his speech is mellifluous yet slow, quite unlike the hyperactive chatter of his late Newstalk ZB colleague and rival Paul Holmes, or Holmes' successor Mike Hosking.

Smith is unafraid to leave yawning silences as he pauses to consider whether a word he's just used was the correct one, or if the sentence could be repeated with a small improvement, and he has a stock of little throat-clearing phrases such as "let's put it this way" or "you answer this one for me".

That timbre and timing, plus the certainty of opinion that's the birthright of the radio talkback host, arguably give Smith a certain on-air gravitas. You could equally argue they make him seem humourless, patronising and smug.

Talkback hosts need thick skin though. Smith is unconcerned that listeners hate him as well as love him. He writes that he's used to getting called a bigot, a misogynist, a racist.

"I can take it," he writes, but really, does he understand why listeners might draw such harsh conclusions?

Smith unslouches on his big couch, and folds his arms. "Yeah. Because people are screwed."

I presume this is a joke. But he then explains that people misapprehend what you've said because they're hearing it through the filter of their own personal traumas.

"That's probably the biggest reason, because people get the wrong end, the wrong gist from the comment, and they get it from their own life influences. You get somebody who has suffered badly at the hands of a bad partner, so they're very susceptible to even the wrong intonation."

Smith is letting himself off a little lightly here. It seems reasonable to assume that at least some of the listeners who call him a bigot and a misogynist and a racist do so because they find his basket of views, and the way he expresses them, objectively disagreeable.

He believes the Treaty has been hijacked. He is uneasy about "gay politics", though he has a gay friend, Mike, "who I hug!". Whether it's the DPB or no-fault divorce or the euthanasia debate, he worries that things always go too far.

He was in favour of feminism and the sexual revolution up to a point, but has a problem with the "hardcore feminists", who "want superiority not equality". He doesn't believe global warming has anything to do with humans.

Even when he writes fondly about his connections with Greek and Italians in the Sydney of his teens, he hastens to add that this was multiculturalism of the "natural, non-PC kind", just in case readers mistook him for a touchy-feely progressive.

He loved the rebelliousness of rock'n'roll back in his day, but reckons "rap is crap".

He is, let's face it, a grumpy old conservative. Does it, perhaps, have anything to do with his upbringing in the quirkily austere Seventh Day Adventist church?

"Oh I'm sure."

A psychologist might find it interesting too that, at the age of six, Leighton and his younger sister Meredith lived with their grandmother and maiden aunt for two years, while their parents travelled to the UK and US following his father's career, but Smith insists it was all fine, and he was "never left without affection or a feeling of being wanted".

He's still religious, to the extent that "I don't believe we're an accident", but he's not practising; doesn't belong to a church: "It's just personal."

Any sort of relationship with God then? Do you pray?

He does one of those long Leighton Smith pauses.

"Mmmmm. That's private."

In the book's introduction, Smith writes that "excavating memories has not always been pleasant, and some of those are not included". Some exclusions are glaring: he mentions getting married for a third time in 1987 and the subsequent arrival of his sons Charles and Christian, but never names their mother. Why?

He doesn't want to answer that question on the record. Instead, he switches subject to something that he considered putting in the book but eventually left out - a friendship with a man called Peter, whom he met while studying law in Canberra.

In the mid-70s, Peter summoned up the courage to tell Smith that he was gay.

"Well, he wasn't gay," says Smith. "He was . . . there was nothing about him that made you think he might be."

Are you perhaps trying to say he was gay but didn't appear camp?

"Well he certainly wasn't camp. That's what I mean. And he didn't want to tell me because he knew my attitude at the time, which wasn't uncommon."

What was your not-uncommon attitude?

"I don't think we want to put that in. It was the attitude of the times."

You mean you had an attitude of disapproval? Of revulsion perhaps?

"Yes. Yeah. [But] I'd advanced to the point where I thought, right, he's my friend, I like him. We had great times together, particularly verbally."

He goes on to talk about how Peter became a legal hotshot and an academic, but later "just disappeared. I'm quite sure he's dead, because I knew the lifestyle. I tried to find him".

Smith then tells of another gay friend whose story didn't make the book. This was a guy who "got teased a bit - but no one ever saw that he was different". And he had girlfriends! "In the end," says Smith, "he did go . . ." - there's a long, squeamish, pause as he finds the right word - "wild."

In the end that friend was "bashed to death in one of those Sydney gay bashings".

I'm still not quite sure why Smith has steered the conversation in this direction, but feel bound to ask: Did those close personal connections to real-life gay people serve to erode his negativity towards homosexuality in general?

The pauses get even longer.

"How do I answer that properly? . . . I think everything plays a part in the way you progress through life . . . I have gay friends. What I don't like is gay politics."

Remind me, what are gay politics exactly?

"Well, gay politics can be quite aggressive . . . Gay marriage to me is absurd."

Smith says that despite his own record of marital "failures and what have you", he fears his generation has "contributed to the destruction of marriage", and that we should return to fault divorce, and that the DPB has expanded out of control and so on and so forth.

This interview took place a few weeks ago, on a Tuesday afternoon. Halfway through, Smith's iPhone rang with a hunting-horn ringtone. It was NewstalkZB's general manager Dallas Gurney, eager to read out the sensational news breaking on Cameron Slater's blog - that Auckland mayor Len Brown had had an affair. Smith switched it to speakerphone, and listened with a grin.

"Oh, I can't wait for tomorrow," he said once Gurney had gone.

On a typical day Smith is up at 4.50am, and in the studio by 6.40am. He's back home by early afternoon.

"Yesterday I was out on the tractor mowing the vineyard and clearing the chook cage. You come in and it's seven o'clock. Watch a bit of the rerun of the news. Someone knocks on the door and before you know it, it's way past your bedtime."

Before he and Leaney realised their relationship was more than just professional, he had been more or less single for some years. Has the new relationship filled a void?

Not exactly. "If you like, I didn't know the void was there to be filled. If it hadn't happened it wouldn't have mattered. I would have carried on. The kids were terribly important to me."

He's been umming and aahing about retiring for years now. His current contract expires at the end of next year, and "at this point in time, I anticipate that will be it".

"If I were to say there ain't nobody to replace me and that's why I'm still here that would sound very egotistical. But there is an element of truth to that - but I'd rather you didn't write it like that."

The only other radio hosts he really rates in New Zealand are Hosking and NewsTalk's drivetime host Larry Williams, and that's "not just that they're on my station". He and Paul Holmes often didn't see eye to eye, but they bonded a bit after they'd both been through prostate cancer.

Smith spends so much time arguing on-air that he has little enthusiasm for conflict in his private life. When he bumps into people who recognise him in the supermarket he's happy to say hello, but sometimes they want to continue that morning's argument off-air, "and I don't want to".

Each morning he starts his show by saying: "Morning, New Zealand. I'm Leighton Smith." One of Leaney's fears, apparently, is that if Smith does retire he'll wake up in the morning, roll over and say "Morning Carolyn. I'm Leighton Smith".

"She doesn't want that."

Beyond the Microphone, by Leighton Smith. HarperCollins ($39.99 HB)

- Sunday Star Times

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