The Dominion Post, February 21, 2004
On a Saturday morning Kim Hill is in her element (“They say I have a good face for radio”) doing live interviews on her weekend show. Lindsay Rabbitt drops in to capture the mood on and off air.
It’s 9am on St Valentine’s Day at Radio NZ House and Kim Hill’s producer Chris Bourke and studio operator and “dog handler” Andrew Dalziel are calmly going about their business. Through the studio window Hill is preparing to talk on the blower with Max Cryer, who’s in Auckland. In the newsroom, out of sight, Stuart Keith is reading the news. Hill greets me with a wave: I’m here to observe the star journo and her colleagues at work.
Dalziel tells “Max” he’s got longer than usual to answer listeners’ “Curious Questions”. “That’s good we don’t have to rattle through it,” an upbeat Cryer says. He goes on to rave off-air about the latest episode of the television show Stars in Their Eyes. This little aside amuses me because, for some reason, I’ve associated Cryer with that show’s presenter. Perhaps it’s because both men are tall lookalikes and have a camp style.
There’s nothing camp about Hill, who has almost completed two years hosting National Radio’s Saturday morning slot, after nine years on the more cut-and-thrust Nine till Noon, now hosted by Linda Clark. During that time Hill was described as a “rottweiler of radio” with “a mind like a steel trap”.
This is a too pat description for the broadcaster, who can more than hold her own with the keenest intellects, as well as empathise with a punter with a yarn to tell. But Hill’s more prickly style is not everyone’s cup of Milo. Three letters in The Dominion Post last week vented outrage over her interview with National leader Don Brash on her Face to Face show on TV One. “Was she trying to semaphore the questions or moonlighting as someone directing traffic? Her ravings were inane and rude,” J S Hibbs wrote.
Last year she made headlines after her “train crash” interview with journalist John Pilger, which involved book throwing and angry exchanges on both sides. There’s nothing to rival that on her radio show while I’m there, but there is a subtle undercurrent between Cryer and Hill, midway through Curious Questions.
Hill: “Caroline from Otaki is trying to locate original meaning of an English meaning of an English expression: ‘I am the cocker, mocker, bocker of them all’.”
Cryer: “Caroline has no surname, which almost meant she went into the rubbish bin.”
Cryer: “No surname. Rudeness. Absolutely.”
Cryer: “Because I know yours and you know mine, and the whole broadcasting industry knows both of us. And here’s somebody who wishes to hide behind anonymity.”
Hill: “Oh, I think she just thought it didn’t matter.”
Cryer: Well, I think it does. It will be the rubbish bin the next time for her.”
9.30am: Hill exits her studio to bring her spoodle (a spaniel/poodle cross) into the control room, because the first live interview (with Polish refugee and businessman John Roy-Wojciechowski about his memoir: “A Strange Outcome: the remarkable survival story of a Polish child”) is about to take place.
“Go and see Lindsay,” she tells her dog Mangu, who has an insatiable appetite for affection: if he is not continuously stroked, he hops on his hind legs and scratches the window of Hill’s studio with his front paws.
The studio and the control room has the feel of a busy, cheery middle-class household on a Saturday morning. I’m introduced to Roy (he picked his surname out of the phone book because New Zealanders had trouble pronouncing his Polish name) as a journalist. He asks me why I wasn’t at his book’s launch the night before. “It was launched by Kerry Prendergast,” he says.
“Has Kim read the book?” Roy asks Bourke. “Oh yes, she’s read it.”
The subsequent interview was a gem and Hill’s intro is typically concise. Roy was five in 1940 when the Russians sent him with thousands of other Poles to a labour camp in the Arctic where millions died. He and his five siblings survived, but his parents did not. He eventually landed in New Zealand, aged 11, one of a group of 753 refugees, most of them children. They were the first official refugees to be accepted by New Zealand. Roy ended up in Pahiatua .
During the interview Wellington writer Geoff Cochrane arrives to play “Favourites”. He’s says he has been worried about it all week. Bourke assures him everything will be okay and they make some last-minute changes to Cochrane’s choices. “Yes, Neil Young’s Heart of Gold will be great.”
Roy exits the studio. “That was tremendous,” Bourke says. “A half-hour interview is hard.”
“She’s good!” Roy exclaims.
Poet Greg O’Brien arrives to talk about love poems after Cochrane.
Straight up Hill asks Cochrane to read a love poem from his book Aztec Noon. “That’s grunge romance,” she says after his reading. She then prompts him to talk about his former drinking days, which are documented in fragments in his dozen books. “It wasn’t a thirst,” he recants, “more a hunger for offal”.
O’Brien recoils in horror at the description. Newsreader Keith Stuart comes into the control room: “What a legend,” he says of Cochrane. “Sublime programming.”
When Cochrane’s interview is over I ask him how he thought it went and he says Hill had put him at ease, but “you can’t manipulate her: she’s not immune to flattery – she’s allergic to it.”
Off air, O’Brien is coy about reading one of his wife Jenny Bornholdt’s poems, but Hill opens their on-air chat with Bornholdt’s poem “In Love”.
With some prompting, O’Brien does admit, “yes, it’s a beautiful poem.”
But he’s come to highlight, among others, Sappho (of Lesbos fame). She wasn’t necessarily a lesbian he informs Hill. Her nine books were lost in the 9th century. All that remains is fragments of her work and one complete poem. Hill does not share O’Brien’s enthusiasm for the poetry’s spare beauty: “Honey-voiced”
“I could have written that,” she says . . . “Hello.”
It’s 11am. During the poetry, foodie Adam Newell has turned up with lashings of dark chocolate mousse with black cherries. (Yes, it tasted yum.) Also, snuggled up on the couch, is author Kate De Goldi, whose regular children’s book reviews’ gig will close the show. Inbetween Newell and De Goldi, we chat while Hill’s pre-recorded interview with food writer Nigel Slater buzzs away. “Who’s that woman with the awful voice?” Hill says self mockingly.
While I’ve enjoyed being in the green room, I wanted more than an on-location radio review. Can I have an interview? “Not now,” Hill says. She has a date with a plumber. We arrange a chat at her Brooklyn home at 10.30am on Monday. As it happens, as we all know, the heavens open and I’m stranded on the Kapiti Coast. The trains are not running. But we did get to talk on the phone.
Good show on Saturday?
“Yeah, it was, the more live interviews the better .”
How does she get on with Max Cryer?
“He’s very popular with the listeners,” she says, but she has only met him once.
Did she read the negative letters about her interview with Don Brash?
“Yeah, hate mail . . . As they say, I have a good face for radio. It’s not TV friendly.”
She agrees that she polarises people. “It’s a chemical thing.”
Don Brash was on her TV One show Face to Face to talk about his Maori policy, which, she suggested, was Right wing, and asked him if he was a racist.
Did her liberal leanings affect the way she conducted the interview?
“If I was interviewing Helen Clark I would come from the other direction. Don’t you have to probe in a debate?
“I have a collection of opinions that shift. I try to be intense, curious and passionate and that doesn’t mean I have the answers.”
What medium does she prefer, radio or television?
“I prefer radio, but I try and treat TV as radio and forget about the cameras.”
How does she get on with her producer, Chris Bourke?
“Great. He’s so clever, very funny, with a very original view of things. He also knows truckloads more about music than I do.”
Hill is equally complimentary about her Nine to Noon successor Linda Clark, who, she says, sometimes leaves her feeling inedequate: “I have to stop listening to Linda Clark, because I think she is so good, so clever. When I hear one of her interviews I think: ‘I would have never asked that question’.”
Does not having a partner help your work?
“I had two intense relationships recently and it was just fine.”
How would it be if she wasn’t on the radio?
“I would be bereft. I adore radio. I’m a terribly lazy person and my work forces me to do something. Left to my own devices I would lie on the sofa listening to old music.”
To use her phrase: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right.