Deaker could be infuriating, but people listened

MURRAY DEAKER: Like all very successful talkback hosts, Murray Deaker always had huge faith in his own opinion.
MURRAY DEAKER: Like all very successful talkback hosts, Murray Deaker always had huge faith in his own opinion.

At first glance, the huge success of Murray Deaker's broadcasting career defies logic.

When he took over the weekend Scoreboard programmes at what was then 1ZB in 1990 he was 45 years old, with no training in journalism or broadcasting.

He was so raw his first producer had to run into the studio and tell him to switch his microphone on.

And, as someone who worked for 23 years in breakfast radio with lazy vowels and demolished diphthongs, I know what I'm about to say is a bit rich, but vocally he was a startling mash-up of a regimental sergeant-major and chalk screeching down a blackboard.

So far, not so flash. But from the start you only had to listen once to know he was likely to shatter the sleepy, complacent tone of sports coverage on what was then a state-owned, establishment radio station.

This guy, it was clear, was trying hard, really trying hard, and it was paying off. A schoolboy rugby star, Slade McFarland, was playing his first game of senior rugby. Deaker had a friend with a cellphone on the sideline. The second the whistle blew McFarland, still on the field, was handed the phone and panted his way through a live interview.

Naturally gregarious, Deaker's contact list expanded with his ratings.

With his contacts came the scoops. Grant Fox told him he was retiring. John Kirwan told him he was switching to league. He could even afford to turn down massive stories.

When Graham Henry decided in 1998 he was leaving to go to Wales he offered the exclusive to Deaker. In what Henry calls "one of the best pieces of advice I've ever had" Deaker demurred. "Do that," he told Henry, "and everybody else will be dirty on you forever." He recommended Henry instead hold an open press conference, which Henry did.

Like all very successful talkback hosts, Deaker always had huge faith in his own opinion. Where he stood on an issue was never a mystery. He could be infuriating, and, as Dallas Gurney, the manager of NewstalkZB, said at Murray's farewell on Thursday, he was extremely polarising. But even some who vehemently disagreed with him still listened.

One All Black of the 1990s used to swear to me he never tuned in to talkback, but, strangely, often had an opinion on what "that bloody Murray Deaker" had said in the weekend.

In such a long, public career there were, inevitably, some errors of judgement.

Several were just funny. In his early days on air Deaker suddenly finds himself interviewing the great British league player, Martin ("Chariots") Offiah, whose parents are Nigerian.

Incorrectly sensing a story of a black kid using sport to escape the ghetto, Deaker asks him, "Martin, has rugby league allowed you to move out of the socio-economic situation you were born into?"

"My mother was a doctor. My father is a lawyer," replies Offiah. "What exactly is the point you're trying to make?"

Murray's a friend, so at times it was hard to defend some of more weird side alleys the constant hunt for talking points took him down. I wished he hadn't got on board the churlish Blackheart campaign against Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth, or given air to patently absurd accusations over a "darkie quota" at the Crusaders. It seems a pity a long, close friendship with Graham Henry disintegrated after the 2007 World Cup. He's a better man than those incidents suggest.

The announcement he was retiring, making his last broadcast on ZB next Sunday, initially surprised me. But then I remembered a lengthy conversation we had on the afternoon after Paul Holmes' funeral in February.

Murray said he'd seen a change over the last 10 years in the way callers approached an argument on air.

People who were angry used to suggest an opinion was rubbish. Now, like aural versions of internet trolls, they increasingly attacked the person voicing the opinion, often in vicious terms.

He gave the strong impression his taste for life in the bear pit of talkback had diminished as a result.

His retirement is remarkable for the fact he, not his paymasters, made the decision. It does seem appropriate though, for a man who's backed his own judgement so strongly, he should leave radio and television on his terms.

Sunday Star Times