It ruled the airwaves across the late 1990s and early 2000s, launching the careers of many key industry figures. So why isn’t Channel Z still pumping out tunes?
It had been a Monday morning like any other. Jon Bridges and Nathan Rarere arrived at the studio just before 6am for another show full of morning radio hi-jinks. In early 2003, the duo were breakfast presenters at Channel Z, a station known for its alternative playlists and off-the-cuff banter. The pair rarely did any prep. Instead, “Jon and Nato” liked to keep things loose. “The idea was, ‘Can we make each other laugh?’” says Rarere. “If we left thinking, ‘Fuck we had a good time,’ the audience probably had a good time too.”
Fans loved their spontaneity. Chats could go anywhere, made-up stories took on a life of their own, and impromptu skits led to regular features. In Word in a Bucket, Bridges would scream one word as loud as he could inside a metal bucket as listeners called in to guess what it was. On Fridays, Bridges stationed himself on Karangahape Road with a microphone and interviewed blurry pedestrians for a segment called ‘Just Up or Still Out?’ Musicians visiting the studio for interviews would end up reading – and often mocking – the sports news.
When the Big Day Out rolled around every January, tickets would be given away to those who created the biggest posters in public spaces. Inspired by his time studying at Massey University, Bridges would read poetry at the end of every shift dictated by the day’s news. “I’d read this stupid poem and people would probably switch the channel,” says Bridges. “We were hard to control… Our show was more [about] having fun on air rather than any kind of structured breakfast show.”
In a Ponsonby Road building that also contained their conservative cousins More FM, Channel Z were the odd bunch. It wasn’t student radio, but Channel Z wasn’t fully commercialised either. Presenters like James Coleman, Clarke Gayford, Phoebe Spiers, Lauren Whitney, Melanie Wise and Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury sometimes enjoyed themselves a bit too much. “They took our table tennis table away from us because we were having too much fun,” says Spiers. That energy translated onto the airwaves. “We were like naughty little kids,” says David Ridler, the station’s programme director for several years. “Everyone was into the music, everyone mostly got on, we all went to gigs together.”
But radio has always been a cutthroat industry. “You can be flavour of the month one day, out on your bum the next day,” says Bridges. “We always knew that was possible.” They sought solace in their rollercoaster ratings which would sometimes rise to compete with contemporaries The Rock and Hauraki. “The results had just come back from the surveys and we’d done really well,” says Rarere.
But management saw things differently. When 10am rolled around that Monday morning, station boss Andrew Szusterman stuck his head around the door. Their presence was requested at the head office of Canwest, the company that would soon be owned by MediaWorks.
After he left, Rarere turned to Bridges and said: “Fuck – we’ve just been fired.” He was right. Chief executive Brent Impey and Szusterman told the pair, both in their early 30s, that they were too old to front a youth breakfast radio show. James Coleman, Channel Z’s popular afternoon drive show host, and Jaquie Brown, a rising music television host, would replace them.
Rarere was heartbroken. “It really hurt. I was quite crushed. I cried for a little bit,” he says. “It feels like you’ve lost your job in front of the whole country.” Bridges felt the same. “Getting fired is not fun,” he says. “It wasn’t like we had another gig. The radio was our gig.”
They refused an offer to see out the week. That Monday would be their final day on air. But Bridges and Rarere wanted to say goodbye in a way that was fitting to their prank-filled time together. Offered a redundancy package of $12,000 each, they hatched a plan. They didn’t want that money to just appear in their bank accounts. Instead, they sent Szusterman on a mission. The pair told him to drive to a bank in Three Lamps. There, Rarere called him on a cellphone and said: “I want it in cash. I want it in a black briefcase. I want it in non-sequential bills… You’re going to come out of the bank and we’re going to call you.”
They began issuing more demands. “We were like, ‘Go to Mount Eden’. We sent him on a mission driving around the city with these bags handcuffed to him,” says Rarere. Finally, Szusterman was told to drive to Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium. There, they demanded he hand over their cash silently on the conveyer belt as sharks swam overhead. “It was surreal, standing in an empty Kelly Tarlton’s going, ‘What’s going on here?’” says Szusterman. “It was definitely the best ending of a working relationship I’ve ever had.”
For Rarere and Bridges, it felt fitting. “We had the time of our lives doing this job,” says Rarere. “That’s a better way to end.” Bridges spent his money on a new road bike and a three-month tour of Europe. Rarere joined Oscar Kightley fronting sports segments on 3News. They’ve both gone on to have stellar careers. The same can’t be said for Channel Z, which began its slide into obscurity after they left. No one realised it at the time, but within two years Channel Z would be gone from the airwaves.
Phoebe Spiers had heard about a small Wellington radio station doing big things and wanted in. After finishing her communications degree, she moved to the capital in 1997 and began begging for a job at Channel Z, a station that had sprung to life just a year earlier. It was started by John Diver, a music fan who wanted to play songs targeted at Wellington youth. “I was the driving force,” Diver told online journal Hubris about the station’s early days. He’d considered the names Viper and Wired before settling on Channel Z. “Management at the time were… quite happy to give me a largely free hand to create the station as I saw fit.”
That meant playing music other stations wouldn’t touch. “They played The Smiths,” says Spiers, a big Britpop fan. “I didn’t want to go to More FM or anywhere like that. I was like, ‘I want to go there.’” Slowly, she began picking up part-time roles. “I did pre-records, weekends… did a whole lot of fill-in stuff.” When the night announcer left, she took over. There, she cultivated a community of fans around her big sister vibe and a shared love for the new wave of New Zealand music – think Betchadupa, Fur Patrol and Weta. “We lived it and breathed it,” she says. “We went out every single night.”
Word spread about the new kids on the block and Channel Z grew, adding frequencies in Christchurch, then Auckland, with different shows and separate regional hosts. David Ridler was at broadcasting school in Christchurch and couldn’t believe his ears. “I loved it,” he says. “I was quite a fanboy.” Finally, a radio station seemed to be targeted exclusively at him and his peers. “I heard Joy Division, then Head Like a Hole. Chemical Brothers were next to Soundgarden… and it sounded right,” he says. “The hosts, the music, the vibe – the whole thing was super cool but really accessible.”
He pinned a Channel Z poster up on his wall and dreamed about getting a job there. “I just didn’t even think I’d be able to. I was too fresh. Everyone in radio and music who wanted something slightly left-of-centre wanted in on that brand.” In late 1999, Ridler got his break. Back in Wellington with a broadcasting degree in hand, Diver’s Channel Z needed someone to fill in for a shift over Christmas. “I was in the right place at the right time,” says Ridler. He found himself on the 10am-3pm shift, with the lofty title of operations manager. He couldn’t believe he’d scored his dream job so soon. “I was 26,” he says. “I was really lucky.”
But the station always seemed to struggle with financial issues. Diver was pushed out over claims he was “blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars” – an allegation he calls “laughable”. He told the online outlet Hubris that a poor effort from the sales team was to blame. Auckland took over the station’s playlist, a move Diver said was wrong. “It became obvious they were intent on destroying the vision we, in Wellington, had worked so hard to realise,” he said. Ridler was asked to moved to the big smoke, given the role of programme director and told to cut costs. “It was made clear to me that… consolidating it into one network was going to be one of my tasks.” That meant regional shows being cut, and the same presenters being piped across the country.
At the age of 28, Ridler began firing people. “It wasn’t pleasant,” he says. Music playlists were standardised, which meant less alternative artists and more skate-rock, like Alien Ant Farm and Blink-182. “A lot of the individual local love was lost for the brand,” says Szusterman, who took over from Ridler as programme director around the end of 2002. Spiers wasn’t impressed. “It was all completely different,” she says. “It was all skater punk.”
While some say losing its regional identity harmed the station, others believe this is the time Channel Z really took off. With Rarere and Bridges kicking things off on breakfast, Spiers hosting the midday shift, and Bomber running his talk show at night, the station had a well rounded series of presenters. Coleman, armed with a livewire energy and an incredible array of “gotcha” segments, proved to be particularly popular on the drive show. In one long-running segment, he found the phone numbers for city elevators and would call them pretending to be a janitor working in the elevator shaft. Sometimes, he’d tell them he was being squished. “He was one of the biggest things in radio,” remembers producer and newsreader Lauren Whitney. “He did quite controversial interviews.”
Ratings took off. “Random people would yell, ‘Channel Z!’ at you,” remembers Rarere. “I was blown away by how popular it became,” Bomber told Hubris. “I remember my show was 0.2 behind ZM [in the ratings],” says Spiers. “It was crazy.” Ousted from his producing role on The Edge while filming Celebrity Treasure Island, Gayford joined Bomber on nights. “God I was dreadful,” says Gayford. “I still remember the first shift. Bomber said, ‘I’m leaving.’ I said, ‘What? No one has shown me what to do.’”
Other soon-to-be-famous faces passed through. Future weather presenter Toni Marsh hosted a show. Future C4 presenter Jane Yee, now The Spinoff’s head of podcasts, produced Rarare and Bridges’ breakfast show. Leigh Hart trialed an early version of the Alternative Commentary Collective. Jemaine Clement came in once a week to write ads, while Bret McKenzie provided voiceovers. Flight of the Conchords was yet to take off. “It was surreal because you knew what was happening with those guys,” says Ridler.
Publicists sent international artists straight up to the studio for interviews. “Ben Elton came up a few times,” says Rarere, who was stunned to meet a personal hero. Famed BBC presenter John Peel showed up in a boardroom for a chat. Spiers had her photo taken with electronic artist Moby and a basket of vegan snacks he carried with him everywhere he went. “I got to speak to so many of my heroes: Robert Smith, Manic Street Preachers, Blur. It was a pretty extraordinary time.” Shihad were there so often it was no surprise to see Jon Toogood in the kitchen. “They were station heroes,” says Gayford. “Everyone would be like, ‘Shihad’s in.’”
Yes, they played Nickelback, Creed and Limp Bizkit. But the station also championed new Aotearoa music. Salmonella Dub would be blasted alongside Shihad, and new bands like Blindspott and Elemeno P were playlisted early. “It was Big Day Out radio in a lot of ways,” says Ridler. The Coleman Sessions was released on CD, with bands like Tadpole and Pluto playing live versions of hits at York Street Studios. Five Channel Z compilation CDs were released. One night, presenters gathered at The Classic to film a live music video for the Wellington band Spacial Verb, who’d won a covers competition. Bridges, Coleman and Gayford, sashayed drag, which, in 2002, was considered edgy.
Sometimes, the loose presenting style and pranks favoured by Channel Z’s staff went too far. A Broadcasting Standards Authority complaint from 2002 details a breakfast show competition that suggested a sexual assault may have taken place. According to the complaint, the competition asked entrants to wake their flatmates up in inventive ways. One caller used a vibrator to rouse his flatmate, and the segment went to air. The complaint was upheld. Rarere says it shook him for months, and he and Bridges toned down their antics as a result. He says they’d never intended for anyone to get hurt, and thought the caller had staged the incident. “It wasn’t a mean station, it wasn’t a bully station,” he says.
Other issues became apparent. “It needed a really strong content director,” says Ridler. “I was so inexperienced.” Ratings started bouncing around. Advertising was becoming thinner. Copywriters were fired to save money. “Suddenly we had Harvey Norman ads,” says Gayford. Once Rarere and Bridges left, presenters began being shuffled around shifts, playlists expanded to included hip-hop and electronica, and listeners began rebelling. “We had a bad survey,” admits Szusterman, who took over from Ridler. “It was incredibly stressful.”
Meanwhile, other networks were growing in popularity. It became clear that The Edge, a huge Hamilton station hosted by popular presenters Jay-Jay Feeney and Dom Harvey, would soon move to Auckland. It needed a frequency. “There’s a limited amount of full power frequencies in the market,” says Ridler, who says it came down to Channel Z or The Rock. Channel Z lost, and The Edge took over 94.2.
But it still wasn’t over. Channel Z was given a lesser frequency bouncing off Waiheke Island, meaning few in Auckland could tune in. Hosts gave away Japanese band expanders for imported cars as an ironic promotion. Even then, no one thought the station’s days were numbered. But Spiers spotted management meeting regularly in early 2005 and wondered if something was up. Soon, the news came through: Channel Z was no more. It was being replaced by new presenters and a different brand. Called Kiwi FM, the station would play exclusively Aotearoa music. Skate-rock was done.
It had been the only job Spiers had ever had, and it was over. “I was absolutely shocked beyond belief,” she says. “I worked six or seven days a week. It was my social life, it was everything.” She was demoted and offered a part-time role on Kiwi FM but refused, instead using her redundancy money to move to London. “It was devastating.” All was not lost. Afterwards, Ridler began dating another presenter, Melanie “Hot Mel” Wise, and the pair married. Rarere and Bridges MC’d their wedding. “It was the funniest wedding I’ve been to,” says Ridler.
Despite the channels demise, almost everyone involved in Channel Z has gone on to bigger and better things. Rarere is the first voice anyone hears on RNZ each morning. Bridges is now showrunner for The Project. Until recently, Ridler was head of music at NZ On Air. Whitney runs the International Comedy Festival. Szusterman went on to launch music channel C4, became chief content officer for MediaWorks and is now head of South Pacific Pictures. Bomber is, well, Bomber. Gayford may have made it further than anyone. When The Spinoff speaks to him, he’s sitting in Premier House. “This desk I’m sitting at is Robert Muldoon’s old desk,” says the First Man. “Bit of history here.”
But nothing has filled the gap left by Channel Z. Everyone spoken to for this story believes that, with the right management, the correct mentoring, a proper sales manager, and a decent frequency in Auckland, Channel Z could have weathered its issues and survived. “Channel Z could have hung in there,” says Ridler, who introduced a weekly Channel Z appreciation hour at Radio Hauraki when he was appointed station manager there in 2015. Szusterman believes changing the station’s playlists to include hip-hop and electronica was a big mistake. “I may have misunderstood the audience at that stage and what that audience required,” he says. “I learnt a lot from that.”
These days, little evidence can be found online that Channel Z ever existed. It belongs to a time before Facebook recorded every thought and Instagram saved every picture. YouTube contains just a handful of audio clips, a grainy version of the Shoop Shoop music video, and that’s about it. Channel Z really has been scrubbed from the airwaves. “What the hell happened to Channel Z?” asks this Reddit thread full of admirers. One fan suggests digging through Real Groovy’s bargain bins to find the old compilation CDs.
That, then, should be the end of the story. Or is it? Until recently, The Spinoff was in touch with Mike Power, a Channel Z fan who purchased the brand and began broadcasting an online playlist guided by the old Channel Z ethos – think Shihad and Tool next to Portishead and Cold War Kids. “I think the station represented those who were misunderstood and different to mainstream,” Power told me via email. “A lot of bands that wouldn’t be given the time of day at the main established stations found recognition and acceptance with Channel Z and their audience.”
Power called his rebooted station a “hobby” and had no plans to formalise a full comeback with presenters and an FM frequency. “We thought it would be good to start an internet station as it has worldwide reach at a low cost,” he said. But when The Spinoff checked in just before publishing this story, it was offline and Power had stopped answering his emails. Which, when you think about it, is about as true to the original Channel Z story as you can get.