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The New Zealand Listener, 1939-2020

Former editor Finlay Macdonald marks the sudden death of a title that was once part of the lifeblood of the country.

Listener editors, like most magazine and newspaper editors these days, get used to living with declining circulation numbers. Ever since the Internet came along, it’s been a long, dismal struggle with gravity, always wondering where the bottom might be.

At Bauer Media this morning they just found out.

It took the Covid-19 pandemic to accelerate the decline of traditional titles from years to mere weeks. Not just the Listener, but the equally iconic Woman’s Weekly (launched in 1932) and a host of other serious and popular titles, wiped out in one Zoom call with the Bauer boss in Australia.

There are so many questions at the moment, but one that recurs to me most is this: how did one foreign company end up owning nearly every magazine title in a small country?

The other question is: can we be sure the current crisis is not also convenient cover for a certain kind of company to swing the axe faster and harder than they might have been able to under normal circumstances.

For now I’ll leave those questions for the business journalists – but maybe someone could raise them at the daily press conference, where our Prime Minister and Minister of Finance will need to justify why magazines were singled out as non-essential goods, even though they sell mostly through supermarkets, which are still open.

But the bigger questions are cultural – and if I inevitably show my Listener bias, I mean the same for the Woman’s Weekly, North & South, Metro and all the titles that have found some place in the lives and homes of generations of New Zealanders.

Over the decades since it was first published in 1939 (replacing an existing listings publication called The Radio Record), the Listener has not just withstood massive social change, but also wars, recessions, technological revolution and even Roger Douglas.

The first edition of The Listener. 

Until the 1980s, the magazine was part of the state broadcasting system – as the TV industry grew, so did the magazine’s reach and influence. As a virtual monopoly it achieved an extraordinary circulation peak in the late 1970s under pioneering editor Ian Cross (who died late last year aged 93), with close to 400,000 copies a week distributed around the country.

Cross had modernised the title, adding soon-to-be household names like Tom Scott, Rosemary McLeod and cartoonist Burton Silver. But he also inherited a title with an enormous literary and journalistic legacy, thanks to previous editor Monte Holcroft.

Holcroft had expanded the Listener’s old remit as a programme guide to include criticism, analytical journalism and, most importantly in hindsight, fiction and poetry. Most of the famous post-war names in New Zealand literature were published within its pages, and some even worked there.

During Holcroft’s tenure the likes of Alan Mulgan, Dan Davin, Frank Sargeson, Denis Glover, Noel Hilliard, Joy Cowley, Janet Frame and many, many more of their peers found a readership through the Listener’s pages.

In hindsight, maybe, the Holcroft-Cross years were a golden age. Robert Muldoon’s vengeful removal of the Listener’s TV listings monopoly – he once referred to the magazine as “a journal of the effete intellectual trendy left” – and its abandonment by the Lange Government to the tender mercies of the market and privatisation in the 1980s and 90s did it few favours.

For a long time the magazine struggled to reinvent itself, fighting a largely futile battle with the clamouring newsstand titles, becoming less and less relevant as a listings service as viewing options and then streaming exploded.

I’ve often thought how much the Listener’s history was like a microcosm of New Zealand’s modern history – from being state-owned and protected to corporatised and then sold into foreign ownership. A “legacy title” in the brave new world of online “content” and social media, it has reflected all of our fates in one way or another.

And yet there was something in the old warhorse’s DNA that, at its best, kept it going and kept it relevant. As a house journalist and eventually as editor, I was always mindful of the real meaning of that legacy and grateful to have an opportunity to even try to live up to it.

And while I sometimes wondered what the endgame might be for these venerable old collections of paper and ink, I never imagined it would involve a pernicious microbe and a similarly pernicious ownership model.

Maybe there is an enlightened, benign investor in the wings who could buy the Listener masthead, mothball it for the duration of this crisis, and relaunch it into a post-Covid world. Too early to say, probably. But a New Zealand without the Listener is a lesser world for sure.

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