The Listener dies and our light goes out

The closing of the Listener is not just the end of continuity, it is the silencing of all the voices to come, writes historian Dr Joanne Drayton

The New Zealand Listener is our central consciousness. The magazine grew up with us as we matured as a nation. Its story is our story. In the quiet way that intelligent things make themselves essential, it embedded itself in our thought processes and our way of being until the two became inseparable.

The closure of the Listener, announced on  April 2, 2020, is so much more than just the loss of a weekly journal, it is a lobotomising of who we are and how we see ourselves. The absence of the Listener from our shelves, our coffee tables, doctors’ surgeries, waiting rooms—from the multitude of places it inhabits in New Zealand—is tantamount to an extinguishing of self. For its multitude of readers, no amount of tears will offer consolation, and nothing will fill the gap. We have lost a taonga.

Shock, numbness, disbelief … it is almost impossible to comprehend that an institution so central to New Zealand’s core could be so abruptly discarded. “I just can’t imagine life without the Listener,” a friend told me, when she rang searching for some consolation. “I read the Listener cover to cover every week: it’s part of who we are” was one of the comments on my Facebook page.

In a world consumed by the myopic urgency of Covid-19, it is hard to see the long picture of the Listener, in either direction—past or future. When bodies and businesses are piling up, and plague is humanity’s bedfellow once more, it is hard to put this ‘one more’ death in perspective. We may even have become desensitised to loss, which has become synonymous with change: our ‘new normal’.

If we face our history, as Māori urge us to do, and look to our ancestors then the Listener stands before us as a Rangatira: noble, esteemed, but also sly and stealthy enough to have survived eight decades of weekly battle.

Ironically, its DNA belongs not in New Zealand, but in Britain. The magazine began as the print arm of radio, a new form of mass communication that was sweeping the world. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), first took to the airwaves in 1922. The British Listener was established by the BBC, with the express intention of being a medium for the publication of broadcast programmes “by way of amplification and explanation”. Implicit in its title was the primacy of sound. The Listener magazine became an important platform previewing significant literary and musical programmes, reviewing new books and reflecting editorially on turbulent times. The first edition of this weekly magazine appeared just nine months before the Wall Street crash in October 1929.

The British Listener’s salient commentary shaped attitudes and expanded minds. Among its early contributors were some of the greatest writers of the century, including Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell. The magazine introduced new poets such as W. H. Auden and Sylvia Plath, and offered columnists a regular opportunity to have their say. It told illustrated stories and satirised key events in cartoons. The British Listener’s influence on culture was profound. The magazine was both voice and listener, shaping and being modelled by its world.

The Listener began in New Zealand a decade later, in 1939—yet another ominous year. New Zealand was on the cusp of its centenary celebrations; the world on the cusp of World War II. This dramatic timing added a desperate poignancy to its war coverage and political commentary. The New Zealand Listener was initially tied firmly to its flagship, Britain. But even then, there was a determination to explore what made Kiwis different from the rest of the world. There is a searching through its pages for the common threads that linked us together in a shared sense of nationhood. Greater even than this was the magazine’s mission to get under the skin of the average New Zealander and make itself essential.

The magazine provided readers with weekly radio programming. This was a precious commodity when radio was all powerful and at its peak. But other jewels added lustre to its columns.

From its inception, one of the Listener’s main focuses was the arts. The magazine published works by leading literary and cultural figures such as Janet Frame, James K. Baxter, Maurice Shadbolt, Michael King, Joy Cowley, Barry Crump, Billy T. James and A. K. Grant.

The Listener also gave voice to some of our finest journalists and commentators, such as Tom Scott, Rosemary McLeod, Arthur Baysting, Bruce Wallace, Jill McCracken, Tony Reid, Karen Jackman, Geoff Chapple, Steve Braunias, Clare de Lore and Diana Wichtel … to mention just a few.

And a string of the country’s most fearless and insightful editors, including Oliver Duff, Monte Holcroft, Alexander MacLeod, Ian Cross, Tony Reid, Terry Snow, Finlay Macdonald and Pamela Stirling.

The Listener changed with the times, constantly shape-shifting. “Whatever the ethos of the age, you’d catch it in the Listener,” writes Listener journalist Denis Welch in The Listener Bedside Book, No.3: “crimped and confined in the 40s; polite and uptight in the 50s; poppy and garish in the late 60s; nationalistic and naively political in the 70s; big-spending and bullish in the 80s.” The Listener was of its world, but also apart from it, “like some medieval monastery, it has virtually been all that kept the flame of enlightenment burning as barbarians massed in the gathering dark”.

For a tribe of New Zealanders, the Listener kept the faith alive in uncertain times.

“Cheeky, chatty, direct”, as Welch describes it … the Listener teased out issues that were close to New Zealanders’ hearts such as the curly problem of the Kiwi cringe, national identity, and in the Ask Aunt Daisy column the tricky problem of how to cook a hedgehog, cure a dog skin (complete with hair) and what to do with your oversupply of passionfruit.

The magazine has seen the introduction of television and the arrival of the internet. The Listener was there with us pictorially, with its consistently brilliant photography, and in words when we were grief-stricken over the Tangiwai, Wahine and Erebus disasters. It was a light of hope and rational thinking through the Pike River mine disaster, the Christchurch earthquakes, the horror of the Mosque mass shooting and deadly eruption of Te Puia o Whakaari. It was there for us and with us when we celebrated our America’s Cup and Rugby World Cup wins and our Olympic and Commonwealth sporting victories.

The Listener’s scope ranged from major investigative pieces to cartoons and crosswords. It was first an official organ of state radio; then, according to former editor Finlay Macdonald, underwent a “metamorphosis into an organ of public-service journalism, [then] to a separation from the state and eventual sale to a global media corporation” (The Listener Bedside Book, No.2).

The Listener has been our health and well-being adviser, our travelling companion, commenting, guiding and programming our leisure time for over 80 years. It contains the dreams and disasters of a young nation struggling to find itself in a period of unprecedented change. The Listener published the tragic and the trivial, and in so doing became a unique and remarkable mirror of the society it was reflecting.

Turning now to face our future: what can we see but absence? The death of the Listener is not just Covid-collateral damage; it is the extinguishing of a light in New Zealand. A light that has guided, cheered and chided this country through its best and worst moments.

The future is not just the end of continuity, it is the silencing of all the voices to come. The announcement of Bauer Media’s shutting down of the Listener, and a raft of other significant magazine titles, including the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, should have come a day earlier—on April Fool’s Day.

Then we would have known for sure it was a joke. Instead, it was the following day and deadly serious, and we New Zealanders are the real fools. Fools for handing our iconic magazine titles over to a global media corporation; fools for believing the market place was the only true measure of their worth.

Dr Joanne Drayton is a Honorary Research Associate at the University of Auckland and was recipient of a 2019 Copyright Licensing New Zealand/New Zealand Society of Authors Stout Residency research grant to spend six weeks working on her history of the New Zealand Listener at the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

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