Radio host James Daniels returns, older and possibly wiser

17:00, Jul 05 2014
james daniels
MORE MATURE: James Daniels says humans, cash and alcohol are the worst combination.

Radio lives in the here and now with only archivists caring much about history. Commercial radio especially. But people in Canterbury still remember the 1980s pomp and noise of morning hosts James Daniels and Ken Ellis who ruled at 3ZM and then More FM.

That all started in 1984, exactly 30 years ago. Daniels walked away from it on Christmas Day, 1996, and set about sorting out what had become of his life. He was a casualty of fame and money.

But since January, Daniels has been back on Christchurch radio, albeit in a quieter format.

Older and wiser? "Older, wiser and slightly wider," he jokes. "I think I've matured, hopefully in a good way."

These days, you can find him on the Breeze, in the Mediaworks stable of radio stations. The Christchurch base is a bold new building on Lincoln Rd. On Tuesday, after the breakfast show and the debrief that follows, Daniels took a seat in a dimmed Mediaworks meeting room and talked for 90 minutes about the old life and the new life.

He is a good host and a good storyteller: intelligent, curious, self-aware and self-deprecating. Now that he is in his late 50s, radio is about cosy and amiable mornings with Breeze co-host Hilary Muir. Mediaworks publicity shots have them smiling with takeaway coffees at Re:Start mall, representatives of the middle-aged good life.


The latest ratings have the Breeze third in Christchurch's commercial radio breakfast market, with 9.5 per cent audience share, behind Newstalk ZB and More FM.

Daniels speaks the language of demographics and marketing; he has been a radio manager himself. The target market is aged 40 to 59 and skews female.

Daniels and Muir keep an ideal listener in the back of their minds. She would be 46 with a couple of teenage kids at school. She would be married and perhaps working part-time as an administrator.

"I love women like that," he says. "That's my perfect age group."

Loving women is part of the job description.

"It's basically a relationship you're listening to, me and her," he says of Muir. "I'm more sociable and outgoing but she's been in the market for 15 years. She's a great single mother of three. Sometimes I tease her because she's a bit straight."

What does the female-skewed target market want from, say, the Prime Minister? John Key phones in to talk live every Friday.

"We don't talk politics with him. We talk about family, lifestyle and there are some running gags.

"He is brilliant when we talk to him. He remembers things about us. He probably has profiles of us somewhere but he does it very, very well. I know one of his sisters well and he refers to that."

Even an election won't put politics on the table. In the niche world of commercial radio, different stations serve different purposes. Consider the case of rugby league bad boy Todd Carney. Over at the Mediaworks- owned the Rock, the hosts might send him up mercilessly. At the Breeze, Daniels and Muir bring "a more parental" perspective to the story.

"We're not going to mention on air that he urinated in his own mouth but my perspective is that it's a good example of how we pick up kids out of high school who are great athletes and turn them into even better sportsmen but they don't have any life experience. They have been adored and are answerable to almost no-one."

Sometimes radio can get emotional. This very morning, Daniels cried on air, which may not have happened much in the loud old days.

They were talking about Hope and Wire. A friend of Daniels called in and talked about the experience of having Gaylene Preston's crew on his street. What the friend neglected to mention is that he was working at CTV on the day of the quake and left the building just in time, after his wife phoned and asked him to come home.

But Daniels was overcome. He couldn't get that part of the story out.

Go back in time, even earlier than the lively 1980s of "James and Ken, the Moron Men" as they were billed.

The son of two teachers, Daniels grew up in New Brighton. At North New Brighton School, he was the boy dux and one Vicki Buck was the girl dux. Years later, in a typical radio prank, Daniels and Ellis changed their names by deed poll to "James and Ken" and ran for mayor. They came third, behind Buck and Hamish Hay.

At 17, he started working as an accounts clerk in the Department of Maori and Island Affairs on Manchester St. He got his girlfriend Sue Walmsley pregnant and married her. They had Stacey, a future broadcaster, and then Natasha.

He quit the public service and became a watch salesman. That didn't work out either. One day an ad on 3ZB asked, "Would you like to be a radio announcer?" He can still do the plummy BBC voice the ad was delivered in.

He liked to sing so he applied and got the good news by telegram as this was still the 1970s. He and Sue were so broke they were selling milk bottles to buy mince for dinner. The first posting was to Radio Caroline in Timaru in 1978.

"We had no car. Buses in Timaru stopped at 6pm and I finished work at 7pm. They were tough days."

You started in the provinces before advancing to cities. The famous partnership with Ellis on 3ZM was a classic straight man and joker combination. Ellis had the perfect vowel sounds and seriousness while Daniels was clownish.

"They basically gave us free rein to do what we thought would be the best thing. It sounded like a party in a pub on a Friday night. One of our competitions was so popular that Telecom had to close down their phone system nationwide."

A public relations agency once pitched a story on Daniels to the Press' Avenues magazine by talking about "the days of fast cars, big drinks, loose women and big hair". He doesn't disagree with that but would add big shoulder-pads to the list.

It was the essence of 80s, Miami Vice in Christchurch. James and Ken nights at the Oxford on Colombo St had queues round the block and the first karaoke machine in town.

The beauty of a breakfast show was that you would knock off at midday. It was an age of long media lunches that often stretched past midnight but Daniels had a rule.

If he was going home after work, he would not open a bottle before 5pm as he was married for the second time by then. Otherwise it was drinks from lunch on.

"It's just what people did back then. It's a different landscape now, that's for sure."

Debauchery is consigned to history. Media corporations have become more austere.

Christchurch startup radio station C93 broke up the team. Ellis stayed on ZM, joined by Mark Perry, while Daniels defected for only slightly more money. He was partly inspired by a ZM manager telling him that, unlike Ellis, he was easily replaceable.

The split was acrimonious but one morning he bumped into Ellis returning a video. They talked, they even hugged. Three months later they were back on ZM together, bigger than ever.

Could you track the decline to 1992? Daniels and Ellis jumped to More FM as foundation shareholders and hosts. Bitter management at ZM told the media they were being paid $1 million a year at More, which was not entirely untrue.

Bad publicity was just one problem. Easy listening was another.

"We had gone from hit music at ZM to playing soft bloody music," he says. "I fought hugely. I just couldn't stand it."

For example, Daniels wanted to launch the first show with Joe Cocker's Unchain My Heart. The station preferred More than a Feeling by Boston, because it has "more" in the title.

"Are you serious? It was the first sign that this was not going to go that well."

So he "retired" in 1996. Simon Barnett and Gary McCormick now do More FM breakfast from the same Lincoln Rd building that houses the Breeze. Ellis went on to a long partnership on Newstalk ZB with John Dunne, "but with the greatest of respect, he still gets labelled with the James and Ken thing, as do I."

It sounds like the decision to leave More was fairly mutual: "My life had spiralled out of control. My second wife had left me a number of years before. Too much money, too much time. Ill- disciplined and all that stuff."

He describes a typical Friday as a single dad in 1996. His son Jesse from his second marriage was about 9. A corporate cab would collect Jesse after school in Sumner and deliver him to wherever Daniels was still at lunch. After lunch, back to work for more drinks.

"One of the girls from work would take Jesse down to McDonald's to get something to eat."

They would head back to his high-rise apartment in Gloucester Towers at about 7pm before heading out to dinner. Jesse might be dragged out with him or "one of the girls in the building" would babysit.

"I needed to slow down," he says. "The love life, the liver."

One night he told a girlfriend he would try not drinking for a month. She said, simply and directly, "That would be a good thing".

One month became another month and then another until it become 18 months. He has taken long dry breaks three more times since. The good news is that he learned he was never an alcoholic.

Now the word "mature" enters the picture.

In the 1970s, Daniels started and abandoned a commerce degree at the University of Canterbury. In 1997, he enrolled at Lincoln University and majored in property studies.

"University is so different as a mature student. You can put things into perspective quickly. I feel for the 18-year- olds."

Another positive and important thing happened in the late 1990s. Ngai Tahu settled its Treaty of Waitangi claim and was paid out. Daniels' father Monty was on the trust board in the early days with Tipene O'Regan and the recently deceased Henare (Rik) Tau.

Monty would ask his son to come along but he thought all they did was "moan and argue".

"There was no value in being Maori in the 60s or 70s, especially being brown in Brighton," Daniels says. "There weren't many of us.

"I started to get more serious about things. Grow up, maybe. Be more responsible."

These days Daniels is on the tribal council, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu. He has had public battles with its chairman, Sir Mark Solomon, but "I respect Mark. He's very good at what he does."

For a decade, Daniels divided his time between Auckland and Christchurch. He went north in 2004 when the Radio Network launched Flava to compete with Mai FM. Hip-hop and R&B were largely new to him but those were "wonderful days". His daughter Stacey was the breakfast host and he was officially her boss.

He had left their mother when Stacey was 8 and Natasha was 6. Auckland gave him a chance to get to know them better.

He says that he has always had an adult-adult relationship with Stacey whereas his relationship with Natasha, just 18 months younger, has been parent- child. This is partly because of their ages when he left and partly about personality type.

"Stacey's driven. Like me, I imagine. She takes no prisoners, is demanding on herself and therefore on others around her. She's high-performance and high- maintenance. Probably I am as well."

You get the sense that Daniels has been doing some self-analytical thinking. "It's been an interesting time to be alive," he says, and he isn't just talking about technology and race relations, but feminism. "Some of us struggled with those changes. After being dumped a few times, I thought maybe I'm the common denominator here."

He has married a third time. Dianne Thorpe was some years behind him at North New Brighton.

He made peace with his first wife before she died of breast cancer. He made peace with his second wife, Nikki, and would platonically occupy the spare room at her place in Sumner when he was in town on Ngai Tahu business. Back in Auckland, Dianne was comfortable with the arrangement.

"She's a cool chick, man."

He learnt just how cool 10 years ago. He had recently shifted to Auckland to work at Flava, taking Dianne and her two daughters with him, when a Press reporter rang to say he had been declared bankrupt. He says he was genuinely shocked at the news.

"It was my failed experiment at being a bar owner. I went in reasonably cashed up and lost a lot of money."

He suspects that many New Zealand men have had the same dream, to be owner of their own bar, to see their name above the door. His failed dream happened in Sumner.

Lesson learned: "My mantra is that humans, cash and alcohol are the worst combination you will ever find."

Some personal shame came with bankruptcy. He informed the Radio Network and then he had to tell Diane. He offered to fly her and her two daughters back to Christchurch. She told him she wasn't going anywhere.

"I'd only lived with her for two weeks," he marvels. "That was a beautiful moment. She's got everything I've loved in women, from sexy to sensible."

But middle age is not all seriousness and moderation. His radio show may sound more like a pot luck dinner party these days than a party in a pub but he still sings in bands. In Sumner last year, at a fundraiser for a friend's daughter, he gamely performed Sweet Transvestite from The Rocky Horror Show.

That was in full drag. Suspenders, wig, make-up. There may be some video floating around.

He has a band called the Pack Rats that do Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin- era songs. Another band, the Boomer Babies, are contemporary, with a repertoire that goes all the way up to Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines.

"That always goes down really well. We play up to it."

Apologies for the image but does that mean he twerks?

"I don't twerk but I do flirt on stage," he says brightly.

"That's why most people go into bands, isn't it?

"To meet girls? I've been doing it since the 70s."

The Press