From a land down under: New Zealand pop, 1980s-1990s

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(Above: Some of the 89FM airstaff at a promotion, September, 1994. Of the three station DJs in this photo (L-R Brian Reid, Tim Homer, me), I’m the last one left, which is pretty darned sobering.)

I got news Sunday of the sudden, unexpected death of Auckland, NZ radio programmer Tim Homer at the age of 43. Tim was just getting started in radio when I got to my first appointed programming job at 89FM in Gisborne, NZ. (For all the angst I had about walking away from radio to teach, that was only the second scariest thing I ever did. Taking a job in a town I’d never been to and putting all my stuff on a boat was the scariest.)

When I got to 89FM Tim was only 20; in fact, at 25 I was the oldest member of the regular air staff, save a retiree who did a Sunday afternoon oldies program. I was charged with trying to corral the raw enthusiasm that the airstaff had and channel it into making darned good radio. It’s not that the station wasn’t successful; it had been previously recognized at that country’s Mobil Radio Awards as the best provincial station in the nation. What I needed to do was focus the sound a little bit – you know, explain the concept of “target audience” and such – and get the needle moving.

We moved it well. The station claimed the Mobil prize in both 1995 and 1996, the two award years covering my time there. Tim, along with the rest of the staff, helped to create memorable promos and commercials that helped make the stuff between the records entertaining as well. While we weren’t a rated market per se, we did callout research that showed us a pretty darned solid #1. (Gisborne had something like 12 stations serving a town of 30,000, and our shares approached the 40-50 range.) I was the most liked and least liked air personality in town, per the same survey. I’m still proud of that distinction. (The actual anniversary of me starting there is later this month; by that time I’ll see if I can scare up some airchecks. In the meantime, I do have the station composite that won the Mobil award in 1995 available.)

The challenge I gave myself as a programmer was to learn New Zealand pop music. When I got there, I knew of Crowded House, and… that’s about it. I set up a Selector category for “Kiwi music” and made sure we featured the country’s own every hour. (This wasn’t purely for my education; when I got to Gisborne, unemployment was running around 30% or so, and I was a foreigner coming and taking a high-profile job. I needed to assimilate and embrace the culture in every way that I could.) I was happy to learn a lot of new music. Before I left NZ to come back to Chicago radio, I grabbed a collection of Kiwi music for my collection, and some still get played in my car some 20-plus years later.

Among the songs of note, as I think of them:

The Dance Exponents, “Victoria.” I wrote in an earlier post about how seeing the Exponents at a bar in Gisborne was one of the greatest concerts I ever attended. This song is the one that the crowd sung along with at that show, drowning out the band. It remains the only song I know that name-checks Alvin Toffler.

Dave Dobbyn, “Love You Like I Should.” Dave was a member of a band called The Dudes, which is an outstanding band name in its own right. In 1994 he had put out a record called “Language,” which I thought was pretty solid. This one, though, is just damned catchy.

The Swingers, “Counting the Beat.” A lot of the songs that I learned were older songs popular enough to use in commercials. You know, like we do up here. This was the song used in ads for a soft drink called L&P. I liked the song better than the beverage.

The Mutton Birds, “Ngaire.” (pronounced “NY-ree.”) When I first heard this song, I thought “Hey! R.E.M. We should play this.” I didn’t always pick the hits correctly; I famously passed on Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” because I figured it would stiff. On the other side of the coin, I had to explain to the airstaff another time: “I know Blowfish is a silly name for a band. Just play it.” This one is still a cool record.

The Mockers, “Forever Tuesday Morning.” A very fun sound. In all of the tributes offered to Tim on Facebook, I saw that some years ago he had helped organize a reunion show for this band. I’m guessing that it was a fun show to be a part of.

I’ll hunt down more NZ songs and bands as I think of them. One of the things that music has done for me time and time again has codified time and place and made it tangible. Once I started reading the stories and tributes posted about Tim, and seeing familiar NZ radio names, and sorting out what the slang expressions meant in American English, I remembered being in a strange land nine thousand miles from home. I remembered being scared and alone, but knowing that it was an adventure that ended up paying off for me in so many ways later. (Fast-forward to interviews in Chicago. “You went and did what?” Hired.) And, of course, I remembered the music – the songs that I can’t stumble across now and not remember a time when I was the most liked morning host/most detested foreigner in town.

Tim Homer left behind a wife, Corinna, and three kids, ages 12, 10, and 3. A Givealittle (it’s NZ’s equivalent of GoFundMe) has been set up to help them meet expenses and to try to cope with Tim’s loss as best they can. I hadn’t seen Tim since leaving NZ in 1995, but had last “chatted” with him earlier this year when he was in the US for the Indy 500. He was then as he was twenty-some years ago the type of personality whose absence will certainly be noticed. NZ Radio lost a big man in many ways.


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