Talkback host sensed it was 'time to pull the pin'

Last updated 05:00 01/12/2012

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The fire started to fade in the chill of winter.

Mike Yardley would wake up in his Huntsbury home at 4.30am, ready to prepare for more than three hours of vigorous talkback radio, with an inescapable feeling something was missing.

"I didn't have the fire in my belly that I used to have for the job, and that I needed to have.

"I knew I was getting a message that it was time to pull the pin."

This week, Yardley ended his time as the city's Newstalk ZB morning host after more than eight years in the role.

On his last show, his audience was quick to praise the award-winning presenter.

A female caller described him as a "wee spark in the dark" after the devastation of the September 2010 earthquake, while another said what many must have been thinking:

"I sometimes laugh at you, sometimes get very cross with you . . . but I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy you."

Yardley once described himself as an "older person's mind in a younger person's body".

However, silver hairs peppering his temple show age is starting to catch up with the 41-year-old.

The dream of being on air began early, when the 6-year-old fell in love with the idea of sports broadcasting.

He then developed a fascination with news and current affairs as a teenager, writing letters to The Press to voice his opinions.

His "lucky ticket" came when he gained a spot at the Radio Broadcasting School at Christchurch Polytechnic in 1991, before getting his first job at Radio Waitaki in Oamaru.

Yardley transformed the music-based station "with a few community notices about lost pets and the occasional stolen car" into a local talkback outlet. "I had an incredibly open-minded boss . . . all the locals didn't know what the hell had happened to their radio station."

He was headhunted by Newstalk ZB in 1993 to host New Zealand's first overnight nationwide talk show, where the array of graveyard callers helped compensate for the 21-year-old's "lack of life experience".

A stint as the station's Wellington morning host followed, before he returned to his hometown in 2000 to take the same slot.

Yardley says his time in talkback has taught him "to appreciate localism and the power of community, and how that's something to have huge respect for".

Engaging that community takes a lot of work: Yardley estimates a normal 3 -hour show takes eight hours of preparation.

Another challenge lies in the small pool of potential Christchurch callers.

Yardley says he has often had to create enough provocation for people to ring in without attracting only the "extremists and crazies".

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When all else fails, he has relied on a cast of "recidivist callers" such as Drainage Board Trev, who turns every topic into a dissertation on why Christchurch should shift 40 kilometres west.

The bond between Yardley and his listeners is strong. He frequently chips in during debates on his Facebook page.

After 6 years in the job, he took a hiatus in 2006 to explore his passion for travel. A highlight from a previous jaunt involved piranha fishing in the Amazon River, when a young native thrust a pet alligator into his lap.

Yardley returned to Christchurch and ZB in mid-2010.

"A lot of my friends said to me: ‘Why go back to something you've already done, where's the challenge in it?' But for some weird reason, I felt I needed to go back - I felt duty-bound to do it."

A few months after his return, the dynamic of his show - and the city - changed when the September 2010 earthquake struck.

Robbed of power for days, many Cantabrians turned on their battery-powered radios and tuned in for the latest information on the quake-hit city.

Since then, Yardley has taken a cudgel to insurance bosses and city officials on behalf of listeners, demanding answers and letting his callers quiz those with the power to make things happen.

The work of ZB, and Yardley's morning team, has been well recognised: the station won a New York Festivals gold medal for its earthquake coverage, while Yardley was named Best Talkback Host at this year's New Zealand Radio Awards.

He also received a special earthquake award from the Christchurch City Council at the February 2011 memorial service.

However, the power he wields has, at times, been a double-edged sword.

While he appreciates the privilege of being able to help so many people, the burden of taking on thousands of causes has been all-consuming.

"The emails never stop: in an average week I would get something in the vicinity of 1500 emails, and I felt duty-bound to do my best for every single person."

The workload has made it hard for Yardley to reflect on the personal toll of the quakes: his Huntsbury home had $70,000 of damage, while a dozen of his former Canterbury Television colleagues died when their building collapsed on February 22.

"I'm still struggling to wrap my head around the enormity of that tragedy . . . there were too many funerals, it's still really raw with me," he says.

What his future holds is unclear.

He will fill in at the station from time to time and continue his freelance media work but has not made any plans beyond that.

A tilt at next year's Christchurch City Council elections is not on the table, despite entreaties from listeners. "In the future, there may be a calling to serve but it's not coursing through my veins."

For now, he is looking forward to improving his golf game and making the most of the Kiwi summer.

Yardley's familiar voice will not disappear entirely.

"I care too much about Canterbury, and I care too much about current affairs, to ever divorce myself from it too much."

The fire may have died down but the spark will never go away.

A morning host replacement is yet to be announced.

Column C9

- The Press

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