The place of books on Radio NZ National

This article was commissioned by BooksellersNZ and originally appeared in The Read on 23 April 2015.

As part of The Read’s ongoing investigation into the place and value of book reviewing in Aotearoa, I wanted to explore the ways in which Radio New Zealand National contributes to and supports our book culture. As with print review media, discussion of books on radio can take the form of a feature, an author interview, or a review. To this list, radio adds a more performative element – books read aloud. I spoke to producers and presenters at Radio NZ, as well as booksellers around the country.

Kim Hill’s author interviews on Saturday Mornings

Kim Hill (right) is one of the most widely respected figures in our national media, and getting an author – or a book – on to her Saturday Mornings programme carries considerable cachet. I spoke to her producer Mark Cubey about how they choose their content, and why discussion of books is valuable.

“Books are good way to explore ideas and people; that’s what life is all about,” says Cubey. He likes programming author interviews because “authors tend to be articulate and thoughtful and don’t have a marketing schtick; they’re still raw and honest.” In terms of Kiwis vs international, Cubey says: “I want to give weight to New Zealanders who are doing great work”, while also bringing listeners ideas and books from around the world.

He’s very clear on his priorities though, “It’s not my job to help [Kiwi authors], it’s my job to make good radio”. Authors must be able to speak fluently, clearly, and engagingly. Books that don’t come with a radio-friendly author attached don’t make the grade.

Cubey (left) is also very wary of over-exposure: “I want to preserve specialness”. Interviewees must have a new story to tell. “Part of the job is to make people go wow, I didn’t know that, that’s interesting – otherwise it’s all just ‘reckons’.” This means that authors of non-fiction tend to have a higher hit rate on Saturday Mornings than their fiction-writing counterparts: they have new facts to share. Another factor of course is Hill’s personal preferences: “Kim reads omnivorously and voraciously.” Cubey says memoirists often make great interviews because, “it’s so much better to talk about experience than ideas”.

Bad news for debut novelists. “We want to hear from writers who have lived a life, not those straight out of their creative writing courses.” Cubey says it’s difficult to discuss novels on the radio because you need to avoid spoilers, “and we don’t really want to talk about style and so on unless it’s a stand-out brilliant book”.

One of the things Cubey checks before scheduling an author interview is whether the book is available in New Zealand – although he notes that the meaning of ‘available’ has changed drastically in recent years. “People can buy online – if they want it, they’ll find it”. The selection of books featured on Saturday Mornings is no longer limited by what’s for sale in Kiwi bookstores, or by new releases, “The past is the present – these days pretty much everything is available to everyone at any time.”

Nine to Noon and afternoon reviews

Nine to Noon receives review copies of books from a wide variety of sources. One channel is the collection of books administered by Booksellers NZ, for which publishers pay a fee per reviewed title. Nine to Noon also receives books directly from publishers and publicists, and from authors who are self-publishing.

Their selection process is as follows: the Nine to Noon team gets together and makes a shortlist. Firstly, they pick out any books that would make for a good author interview – for example, a memoirist with a compelling story to tell, or a non-fiction author with a topical book that could make for a news-type interview. Then they pick out books to review. Their aim is to showcase a range – New Zealand literature, literary fiction, non-fiction, biography, poetry – anything except ‘airport fiction’. Sometimes they match books up with a particular reviewer (they have a stable of 30-40), other times, reviewers will put their hands up for particular titles.

They see book reviewing as an important part of what they do, especially reviewing New Zealand books, because books are where ideas and inspiration come from; they are how we get turned on to issues and how we are entertained. They also often get booksellers getting in touch after a review has aired, wanting to know more details about the title so they can stock it.

Books that aren’t chosen are offered to the Radio NZ library. If rejected, they are made available to Radio NZ staff in a periodic book sale, the proceeds of which go to charity. If not sold, they’re shipped out to Wellington’s charity book fair.

Afternoons on Radio NZ National also have book reviews on occasion. David Allen says, “The book reviewer will consider NZ written books first, or eagerly anticipated books from foreign writers. Everything on Afternoons is run on merit, whether it’s the live stories, interviews or reviews of anything.”

Standing Room Only

I asked presenter Lynn Freeman (left) what part she sees Standing Room Only (on Sunday afternoons) playing in sustaining and contributing to our books culture in Aotearoa. She says: “We hope our weekly interviews with New Zealand fiction writers, and writers of arts-related non-fiction, support our wonderful writers and encourage our listeners to read New Zealand literature.”

How do they choose which books and authors to feature? “We cover NZ novelists who don’t secure interviews on other RNZ National programmes. These tend to be debut novelists or ones with just a couple of books to their name. We welcome our senior writers also, but they do tend towards the other ‘bigger’ shows where they can get longer interviews (our average is around 10 minutes) and larger audiences.” So, if debut novelists can’t get onto Saturday Mornings, it’s worth having a talk to the producers of Standing Room Only.

Daily readings

The Daily Book Readings – always NZ works – are commissioned by Radio NZ’s drama department. I spoke with Adam Macaulay (left), Executive Producer Drama and Readings. He says,“Our aim is to celebrate and promote the breadth and depth of New Zealand writing talent.”

When choosing which books to turn into audio productions, a number of things need to be considered: not only the likely audience appeal of a given book, but how it will sound when read aloud – and when edited down to fit the available time slots. He says: “This can mean that, sometimes, good, multi-layered books are not produced. In adapting a book we usually lose between two-thirds and three-quarters of the original.”

So what kind of NZ book is likely to be given serious consideration? “We are looking for something that is well-written – word for word, phrase for phrase – and that has something ‘other’ about it: a sort of richness and a power to engage that sets it apart.” Macaulay notes that many listeners now use the Radio NZ website to catch up on episodes they’ve missed – and, crucially, want to then buy the book after listening to the adaptation.

The Children’s Bookshop review slot

Bookseller John McIntyre (right) has had a fortnightly review slot on Nine to Noon now for 12 years. He says: “Because my slot is a personal arrangement with the team at Nine to Noon, it sits outside of the Booksellers / Radio NZ scheme, so I am in total control of the books I choose. Publishers and established authors are very aware now that I don’t work off submissions so I don’t get a lot of pressure from them to review books.”

Given that freedom, how does he choose which books to review? “I do feel a duty to do mostly good New Zealand books, and have noticed a real change – whereas 12 years ago I would have done 3 or 4 sessions on local titles, these days I do 12 to 15. I also select only books I like, and therefore avoid being a critic. I see myself as a cheerleader for the genre.”

The Unity Books review slot

Since March 2014, Unity Books’ Tilly Lloyd and Kiran Dass have also had a regular book review spot on Nine to Noon. Lloyd speaks about how they choose which books to review: “Kiran and I agreed to choose the most impressive read of the previous month that isn’t on the Booksellers NZ list run by Fiona Stewart in conjunction with Josephine Lynch at Nine to Noon. This doesn’t mean it’s marketing though. We are critiquing what we found to be the best. Arriving at the ‘best’ is simply done by reading all the time.”

Dass adds: “it’s a terrific opportunity to showcase books that we think are fabulous, but which could potentially fall beneath the radar. It breaks my heart to think of some of the best new fiction and non-fiction not getting the audience it deserves.” Both Lloyd and Dass see reviewing books as an important responsibility that they have, as booksellers, to “tell the truth” to their customers.

Value and reward

It’s worth noting that, although a lot is said about the value of book reviewing, this is often not recognised in any remunerative sense. McIntyre says: “When I started on Nine to Noon 12 years ago I made it clear that I didn’t want any remuneration in any form, as I’ve always figured that if you don’t cost anything, then you don’t get ditched in cost-cutting rounds. Radio and newspapers are increasingly content- and talent-poor, and cost conscious. If a reviewer offers to fill some space/time and do it for free, then I think you’d be surprised how keen some may be. Be passionate, be reliable, be on time, and be free.”

Lloyd agrees: “Booksellers are always being hounded by radio stations to buy radio advertising – we recommend booksellers approach producers and work their own ‘free’ content. Booksellers are uniquely placed to review well because we have all that book knowledge and useful amounts of motor-mouth.” McIntyre adds: “Booksellers are literate people. When I started I’d no radio experience. It isn’t hard.”

Dass sees book reviewing on Radio NZ as an extension of her job as a bookseller. “It is a more refined version of what we do every day on the shop floor at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. We are constantly talking about books in a critical and engaged way; this is what our customers expect from us. I think it’s a good use of our time because I love the way reviewing enables and encourages us to engage with a text critically, to think about what we love about a book, or dislike about it. It works pretty harmoniously with the kind of bookselling we do.”

Does it all sell books?

I have written for The Read before about the complex interplay of factors that leads readers to purchase books. If anyone knows any PhD students looking for a project, it would be fascinating to see an analysis of sales figures for reviewed books and whether there’s any predictable effect following a review (or feature, or interview) airing.

In the absence of hard stats, here are some anecdata.

Hamish Wright (above) of Paper Plus Cambridge says that book talk on national radio has minimal value for his business, with the exception of topical non-fiction titles, McIntyre’s children’s books reviews – and anything by Kim Hill. “Her Saturday segment when she either has the author on the programme or someone associated with the book or subject always tends to make things happen.” Wright says that, with some titles, every single sale from his shop can be directly attributed to Kim Hill enthusing about the book.

Marcus Greville of University Bookshop Otago agrees about the power of weekend radio. “I’ll often come into work to discover that a book that has been sitting in on our shelves unmolested for two months has suddenly sold out, and the first thought (and usually most accurate) is that it must have been on the radio over the weekend. I think National Radio reviews have a greater reach, in general, than print reviews; there’s something about the articulation of complex thoughts on the part of the author or reviewer, being able to detect the enthusiasm or excitement in a voice, or the frisson between the interviewer and author that can trump written reviews.”

McIntyre says that book reviews on radio don’t significantly affect sales at The Children’s Bookshop, and those that do sell can be difficult to predict. “There are titles I expect to sell on the back of a review that don’t, and others that seem to strike a chord that surprise me.” He notes, though, that reviews by Kate de Goldi (again, on Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill) do sell books.

Direct effect on sales may be difficult to pin down, but Phillippa Duffy of UBS Otago (right) notes that public discourse around books has a wider, positive effect. “It can often lead discussion around books; help with them being chosen for book groups; and then, alongside other print reviews, work to re-emphasise a book to a potential reader. The interview with the author can help illuminate their own personality and insights into their writing, which also helps backlist titles. These are also important in advance of festivals, particularly exposing the engaged audience to new writing or new writers they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of. [Book talk on radio] exposes people interested in ideas to books beyond what they may otherwise naturally be drawn to.”

Where to now?

As with any media outlet, when investigating the impact its publicity has, we must take into account who is consuming it. There can be no doubt that National Radio no longer has the nation’s attention as once it had, especially among young people. Listeners tend to fall into the 40+ age bracket, and, although Radio NZ is making an effort to tap into the increasing digital/podcast market for audio content, they have yet to make a significant impact there. Most people still listen live or not at all: this is one of the reasons Kim Hill’s programme has such an impact, because listeners tune in at the weekend, when they’re not at work. It will also be very interesting to see what happens after Hill retires (or, heaven forbid, goes the way of Campbell Live) – was it the content listeners wanted? Or Hill herself?

As with so many aspects of the book trade, publicity, reviewing, criticism and public discourse around books is changing. People will always want to read, and talk about reading, but they’re finding different ways and places to do so – not always instead of, but in addition to the tried and tested channels. So keep tuning in – remember to check the Radio NZ listings on Booksellers NZ, and make sure you’ve got plenty of stock of whatever’s on Kim Hill this weekend.