This story is from Stuff
Times are tough for student radio in New Zealand. A highly competitive media market and a steep drop in advertising revenue post-Covid are making it difficult for student radio stations to thrive and survive.
Also known as bNets, New Zealand’s student radio stations have been a bastion of culture, music and media for over 50 years. 95bFM, Radio Control, Radio Active, RDU and Radio One have been an assembly line of future media stars and showcased some of Aotearoa’s finest musicians before they became household names.
Despite its reputation for churning out talent, student radio has been in a financially perilous position for years. Wellington’s Radio Active nearly folded in 2017, and now, in 2023, Auckland’s 95bFM has had to resort to desperate measures in the form of having to sell off some of its precious vinyl collection and host the precariously titled “Save The b!” fundraising concert just to stay open.
This situation is not lost on some of New Zealand media’s biggest names who got their start in student radio, all who believe it would be a travesty if student radio and stations like 95bFM were to die.
Journalist John Campbell’s career in media began at Radio Active in the 1980s, an opportunity he saw to connect with like-minded music fans who couldn’t stand what was being played on mainstream radio at the time. “There were two or three commercial stations, and they played Billy Joel, Air Supply and the Eagles on high rotation, and it was dreadful, truly dreadful,” Campbell says.
“We just loved the music that wasn't on mainstream radio, and we wanted to play it and talk about it and talk to each other about it. It was just this excitement of being part of that tribe, of having thought that radio was this miserable wasteland of blandness and then finding these people and just thinking it was so much fun.”
Campbell would go on to host alternative rugby commentaries at Radio Active well into the 90s, something he says he owes his career in media to after an RNZ editor heard him on the radio.
“This guy, Glynn Jones had been listening to Radio Active in the car and RNZ needed a business reporter. So it's that weird twist of fate, and I think student radio has done that for so many young people. It's kind of propelled people who wouldn't otherwise be in the business into the business.”
RNZ Music 101 host Charlotte Ryan began her broadcasting career at RDU in Christchurch before joining 95bFM where she would stay on and off for around 15 years.
“I started in RDU initially on the children's radio show. It was the only show I could get in on. I even remember at RDU painting a room for them just to be involved. It took me a while before I was on air, so I used to just volunteer anything,” Ryan says.
“I was eventually offered a job there, and I took it. It was a marketing manager job. And then, within about four months, I was offered another job at 95bFM so I got to move up to Auckland to work at bFM as the brand manager.”
Ryan would eventually transition into the broadcasting space at 95bFM hosting the morning magazine-style show Morning Glory.
Renowned New Zealand DJ, producer and broadcaster Aroha Harawira is another who got their start in student radio, firstly at Radio Active as a DJ and show host, before coming up through the ranks at 95bFM to eventually become programme director at the station in around 2006.
“It was kind of controversial at the time because of my age and lack of experience. It never really crossed my mind that I would be considered for that type of role, but I ended up doing it for about two years.”
On the importance of student radio as a media career pathway, Harawira says it gives young people opportunities they would never really get unless they went to broadcasting school, something she adds is not a reality for a lot of people.
“When you are finding your way and trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, having a place like that where it is really about community and finding people who are into the same types of things, whether it's alternative music or journalism, is really important. It’s been integral to so many people’s career journeys. I mean some of the best journalists on New Zealand television and radio have come through the b-nets,” Harawira says.
At TVNZ, John Campbell regularly works with people who came through 95bFM, and he says they arrive with a skillset forged from the ability to be yourself within a positive and supportive student radio environment.
“The lovely thing about student radio is that no one's playing dress up there. They all stumble in and their first few shows are dreadful, and they talk endlessly about their flatmates, and then they get better and better, and they find themselves, and they find a voice. There's less weight in student radio, you know, you do get to be yourself.”
Stuff’s Tova O’Brien started her media career at Radio Active, and she agrees that student radio is the perfect environment for budding journalists.
“It was a really good place to start as a journalist because over the course of your career you can get beaten down with different things. But to start somewhere which just feels really exciting and fresh and where people really love what they do and love the people and the purpose, I think that that sets you up to love your career.”
Then there is the music and the fact that many of New Zealand’s best known artists, such as Bic Runga, Marlon Williams and The Beths, were first played and championed by student radio stations, something Ryan says is an essential component of the music ecosystem.
“Student radio has always been very good at breaking new artists. There are bands and songs that will only get played on student radio because they're just too alternative to get played anywhere else, but they need exposure. So many bands will get their first experience doing an interview on student radio, and they will hear their song first played. Without student radio, the music ecosystem wouldn't be as exciting as it is.”
As for student radio’s survival? There are no buts about it for O’Brien, who says it plays a critical function in New Zealand radio.
“Some of the greatest stories have been broken on b-net stations and so it's critically important that they are sustainable and hold that really important place in New Zealand media.”
Ryan agrees. “I think if student radio died, a lot of other stuff would die around it. If it dies, we will lose a huge part of that media and music ecosystem. It will be a huge loss to bands and music lovers.”
“I owe my entire career to student radio,” Harawira says. “I can’t overstate how important volunteering is in this space and for young people, especially, to have that opportunity to be seen and given a chance is so, so needed.”