Talkback's Chris Lynch

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 15:23 15/03/2014
Chris Lynch
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
PASSIONATE: Broadcaster Chris Lynch of Newstalk ZB and CTV

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A typical Monday morning at Newstalk ZB. National MP Nicky Wagner is on one line and Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove is on another while host Chris Lynch is behind the big desk in the black bunker-like studio, listening closely.

Every week Wagner and Cosgrove phone in, speaking from their respective corners. This is political comment at its most parochial: the Right-wing view from Christchurch Central against the Left-wing view from Waimakariri.

It is also a reminder that in Christchurch now, there is no such thing as typical. All morning, Lynch has been taking calls from locals stung by rising power prices. He made a Facebook appeal for case studies and was "inundated with people just saying they had a gutsful".

He adds, "I had the most feedback ever".

The politics spot will get to that soon but first, the floods. The great deluge is still fresh in everyone's mind. This is the first Monday since large tracts of suburban Christchurch went underwater.

Waterlogged St Albans and Richmond are in Wagner's electorate. So one naturally assumes that she was out there in raincoat and galoshes with mop and bucket.

No, Wagner was in Wellington, she admits. The Government needed her for numbers in Parliament. But Prime Minister John Key and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee popped down the next day, remember?

Three hours later, with the show over, Lynch is still trying to process this.

"I was surprised that she wasn't in Christchurch at least showing her face, actually," he says. "I thought it was absolutely peculiar."

She may realise that she "is in for a massive defeat" on September 20, but still, "I would have thought her constituents need her".

Not good enough, Lynch says. He repeats that several times, in disbelief. Not good enough.

"I felt it was just words and I was genuinely disappointed."

Yes, Lynch does sound like he genuinely was disappointed. A lot of people scoff at talkback radio as the province of the uninformed, the irrational, the prejudiced and the insomniac. Well, the last one of those may be true, but there is a real community here, listening and phoning in. They may seem to have small and local concerns but at the moment, Christchurch has many small and local problems.

"I try to treat all talkback callers with respect," Lynch says. "Occasionally you get a couple of nutters."

How large is the community? Commercial radio audiences are surveyed twice a year by Research International. The survey from the second half of 2013 shows that More FM has more listeners in Christchurch than any other commercial station, with Newstalk ZB coming second. The "cumulative audience" over a week of Lynch's 8.30am to midday show has him attracting 25,500 listeners compared to More FM's 30,800.

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But Newstalk ZB's owner, the Radio Network, is less interested in total numbers than specific demographics. Lynch narrowly beats More FM in the share of listeners aged 10 and older, getting 13.9 per cent against More FM's 13.8 per cent.

Lynch is further ahead in the Newstalk ZB target of listeners aged 25 and older, getting 14.9 per cent against More FM's 14 per cent.

This is why Lynch can say he inherited a number one rating show from previous host Mike Yardley at the end of 2012 and has kept it there.

One piece of the jigsaw is missing though. While Radio New Zealand is not part of the same survey, its own figures have Nine to Noon getting a weekly nationwide cumulative audience of 265,000 people aged 15 and older.

A Christchurch audience could be a little less than 10 per cent of that figure, roughly comparable to Lynch's audience.

Critics of talkback sometimes assume it has a Right-wing bias.

It is true that Newstalk ZB breakfast host Mike Hosking, whose show is syndicated from Auckland, seems in his public commentary to lean in National's direction. But it would be harder to pin a clear political position on Lynch.

This is partly because of the unusual situation Christchurch finds itself in.

"I say this sincerely, I am apolitical. The issues in Christchurch are too huge to align yourself to anything."

Take this not-so-typical Monday morning. The power prices issue has been pushed by Labour MP David Shearer. The Government's Energy Minister, Simon Bridges, has not made himself available - he didn't front on Anadarko either - so Shearer is invited on.

"If someone is concerned about the issues in Christchurch, and they are sincere, they will be on the show, regardless of their political leanings," Lynch says.

Media from inside Christchurch and media from outside Christchurch can sometimes seem like parallel realities. With the exception of TV3's Campbell Live, to which Lynch is grateful, local issues seldom get a national airing.

For a day or two, the floods threw national attention our way. Auckland journalist Duncan Garner, host of an afternoon show on competing talkback station Radio Live, wrote passionately about the floods and the rental crisis, concluding, "We're Kiwis and we must not stand by and allow our fellow countrymen and women and their kids to live in such misery".

But Garner gets to move on again. Lynch and others, including reporters on this newspaper, confront such realities daily. Which is why Lynch describes himself as an advocate for Christchurch.

Like many, he is becoming less convinced as time goes on that Christchurch will be better in the future than it was in the past. His personal view is that the stadium and convention centre outlined in the central city blueprint are white elephants, "burdens to the ratepayers of Christchurch".

What do his listeners think?

"Every time I talk about the CBD, the talkback callers just don't care. They want to know what's happening residentially. Insurance issues, EQC issues, now we've got flooding.

"I do wonder whether the Government has got this right. Sometimes the Government will, I feel, get it right. Other times I'll think, what?"

What does he think the Government has got right in the three years since the February earthquake?

He pauses. "That is a really good point, isn't it?"

The pause lasts for 35 seconds until he says, "I guess people might suggest that at least [Brownlee] has made decisions. Whether you like them or not, he has made decisions that allow some form of progress.

"What kind of progress that is, I actually don't know."

This is one of only two questions that stump Lynch. The other is about Radio Live hosts Willie Jackson and John Tamihere and their handling of the infamous Roastbusters story.

The station dropped Tamihere but the scandal reverberated across commercial radio. What lessons did hosts like Lynch take? Did it show that there are lines that cannot be crossed?

Lynch mulls this one for a while.

"I would think there is a line you cannot cross and it's a line of decency. And knowing all the facts first. I try hard personally to not comment if I'm not well briefed. The person who does the briefing is me, up till midnight."

Chris Lynch is 32 and arguably looks younger. But he is also fond of using slightly fogey-ish phrases in conversation and on air that would age him. "My goodness me", he says. "Shivers". Or, "to be fair".

Sometimes he mangles his phrases. "There's more to what meets the eye", he says. On radio he talks of a candidate throwing his hand into the ring, not his hat.

But he means well and he works hard. He is friendly, open, curious to know how his interviews have come across and curious to know what others think about local issues. Some broadcasters are mirrors to their audience and some are more like loudhailers. Lynch is more the former than the latter.

When he was hired, the Radio Network described him as "an emerging talent in talk radio". He would be the first to admit he is still learning. But he is also emerging into television.

How did he get to be here? He grew up in the Christchurch suburb of Avondale. He went to Burwood Primary School, Heaton Intermediate and Burnside High School. He claims he often bunked from Burnside and could be found down the back of Jellie Park with his police scanner.

In other words, he was a radio addict and a talkback fan even as a kid. He listened to George Balani and Pam Corkery.

He studied at the Broadcasting School under the late Paul Norris - "Lovely guy, absolute legend" - and at Aoraki Polytechnic before doing an internship at Newstalk ZB in Greymouth. He was "a sole man band on the West Coast", he says.

"To be honest, when I went to Greymouth, I thought, oh my goodness me. I've spent $20,000 and my internship's in Greymouth? But to be fair, I absolutely loved the West Coast. If you're a true journalist, it doesn't matter where you go, there's always a story."

Coal mining, corrupt police, endangered snails - the coast had it all.

"For a city boy, I was content. I was forced to get out and discover nature."

He went on to Auckland, still with Newstalk ZB. After a couple of years, he was poached to work as a producer on TVNZ's Close Up. Executive producer Mike Valentine hired him because he liked Lynch's ability to "sometimes add humour to quite heavy cases".

But then TVNZ dumped Close Up and invented Seven Sharp. There was "a mutual agreement" between Lynch and management that he didn't really fit the new format and he was put on another show. He began asking around about radio jobs, just as Mike Yardley was getting ready to hang up his headphones in Christchurch.

He had also noticed less emphasis on Christchurch quake stories on Close Up and this frustrated him.

"I remember thinking, Gee, I wish I was on Campbell Live. They were working on behalf of people, more so than Close Up. Close Up enjoyed amazing ratings and sometimes I would think it was not deserved.

"TVNZ's mission now, I feel, is going more towards entertainment. There is a place for that. Seven Sharp still enjoys successful ratings, to be fair. But I still think there are gripping stories that need to be told, particularly in Christchurch.

"I wish them all the success and I think they've got a solid presenting team now, but I'm more inclined to watch Campbell Live."

If he sounds careful it might be because at the heart of that presenting team we find Newstalk ZB's big gorilla, Mike Hosking.

In the past month, Lynch has made his own foray into television. CTV has played three episodes of Lynched, a long-form interview show in which Lynch questions one guest for around 20 minutes.

"I'm learning as I go," he says. "I'm not perfect."

So far he has faced off against Gerry Brownlee, Labour leader David Cunliffe and Jim Anderton. The latter was in his role as ChristChurch Cathedral restoration activist.

All three interviews were informative and sometimes revealing. Viewers will feel they learned something. But there can be a lack of drama. Perhaps the title Lynched, with its opening graphics that depict someone being abducted and taken to a studio for questioning, promise more than the show delivers.

"Sometimes if you interrogate an interviewee, you will get less out of them," Lynch says.

It is not his place to sell the person or to make them look a fool. Instead, it is about seeing another side of the guest.

That was the case in this week's Anderton episode. Has any journalist ever really asked Anderton why he is so determined to save the cathedral? Why would a Catholic from Auckland want to save Christchurch's Anglican centre?

It was because Anderton saw Auckland's historic theatres and old suburbs ruined by property developers and motorway builders. He was part of a group that fought to retain the Civic Theatre and the Auckland Town Hall.

Anderton is a famously long-winded talker. Twenty minutes of television gave Lynch the luxury of not interrupting. There was also the question of respect - Anderton seems like a grandfather figure to Lynch and breaking in mid-sentence would have been impolite.

Perhaps there is a lesson to take from the greatest. But who was the greatest?

The answer Lynch gives is the same answer everyone in commercial radio in New Zealand gives. Paul Holmes was the greatest.

"He had the ability to relate to anybody," Lynch says. "He would have scraps with politicians but end the interview nicely so they would come on next time. "There is a skill to that. It's called being kind. I don't think you can fake sincerity. People always remember the kind broadcaster not the mean one."

- The Press

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