She’s one of New Zealand’s most iconic broadcasters and now Carol Hirschfeld is the definition of a high-flying journalist – literally. Meeting with the Weekly for a glamorous, but relaxed photoshoot at an Auckland café, she’s in a thoroughly different setting to where she was just 24 hours earlier, in her office in Wellington’s concrete jungle.
Taking on a new role as head of content at Radio New Zealand (RNZ) has meant both a change in direction for the former 3News presenter’s career and a change to her geographic location. Based at RNZ’s head office, her first time working in the capital since a brief stint at Fair Go in 1988, Carol now spends four days a week in the “windy city”. However, with her home in Auckland, every week she flies back on Thursday nights and operates out of the network’s central Auckland office on Fridays, before spending the weekend with her journalist husband Finlay Macdonald (53) and their children, Will (20) and Rosa (13).
“We’re adjusting to that,” Carol (52) tells of her cross-country commute away from her family. “The situation is a reality more and more now – you go where the work is. We’re lucky enough in the sense that our children are a bit older. There was a time when we wouldn’t have contemplated this, but it’s an amazing opportunity for me to be involved in radio when there’s real change afoot.”
Being separated from Finlay and the children wasn’t part of the plan when Carol ended her 11-year working partnership with John Campbell and took up a behind-the-scenes role as head of programming at Maori TV in 2009.
At the time, she said the conventional nine-to-five working week allowed her more family time and a reprieve from the daily stress of TV journalism. But six years later, she and her family are more frequently apart than ever. When asked if it is hard to be away from her husband of 25 years and their two children, Carol pauses, then concludes it’s not exactly difficult, but can be “dull” at times.
“One is used to being very much at the centre of things with running a family, so it does feel strange to think that I’m removed from it for a number of nights a week. Having said that, it’s also a rare gift to have the opportunity to focus really closely on a new role and I thank my family often for the generosity they have shown in allowing me the time to do that.”
Carol’s new position at RNZ comes after a high-profile end to her work with Maori TV last September. A shake-up within the executive team meant both Carol and general manager of current affairs Julian Wilcox had their positions restructured.
Carol was given the option of accepting a newly created position or applying for a leadership role as head of programming and production. Instead, she moved on. “When there is a major change at the top of any organisation, I think that’s the time for everyone to review what’s best for them, to ask themselves, ‘Is this the pathway that I thought it was?’” she reflects. “I didn’t think it was, and it seemed like a good chance to think about my options.”
She saw the position at RNZ advertised and after working in television for 26 years, returned to the organisation in which she cut her teeth as a cadet reporter in 1984. “It’s an interesting circle,” she says with a smile. “I find it exciting – it’s fantastic to be able to come back and be in a position where I can help shape this institution.”
First-day nerves were still an absolute, Carol tells, despite having “been around the traps” and with an understated “bit of experience under my belt”. But her return to Lambton Quay as a seasoned reporter pales in comparison to the shaking 21-year-old intern she once was. “I’ll never forget how I felt on that first day,” she recalls. “I went into Wellington head office for two weeks on an internship and I can still feel the sheer nerves that assailed me as I got off the bus and headed to Broadcasting House.”
After graduating from the University of Auckland with a degree in English, Carol studied for her diploma in journalism at Auckland University of Technology (then called Auckland Technical Institute). It was here she decided to pursue radio.
“There wasn’t a huge emphasis back then on broadcasting, but I sensed early on this was a field I wanted to work in,” the former Campbell Live producer explains. Radio New Zealand was looking for two or three young journalists to join their company and Carol was lucky to make the cut. She started working at Lakeland FM in Taupo, one of the regional stations owned by RNZ. However, her luck was short-lived as a series of mistakes made her first week more a baptism of fire than a blessing.
An inexperienced driver, Carol was given the station car to take home after a late-night local council meeting. It was winter and the next morning there was ice all over the windscreen. So young Carol threw hot water all over it, which cracked the glass.
“I was panicking, but I thought, ‘Okay, don’t be fazed by that.’” Driving to work, nervous wreck Carol pulled over to the side of the road to gather her thoughts, stepping out of the vehicle for a breath of fresh air – and locked her keys in the car.
“I had seen what Dad did when these things happened, and thought, ‘Okay, I have to go to a house, get a wire hanger, break into the car – easy! Of course this didn’t work, so I gave in and rang the radio station to bring me a spare set of keys.” Then, metres away from her destination, a hill-climb bunny-hop right outside the radio station for all to see, sent her into a flood of tears. “I got out of the car and began crying.
The senior journalist looking after me came up and asked, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’” While she’s stronger for it, the mum-of-two still doesn’t drive. “It’s one of my true failures in life,”she admits. “But luckily in Wellington I have an apartment that’s within stumbling distance of work.”
Some things have changed, though. Now older and wiser, Carol oversees the recruitment process of young, eager journalists for RNZ. “I’m thrilled to see the wealth of talent coming through and the commitment in them. There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘dumbing down’ of the media [due to social media], but I don’t see any evidence.” The rise of a digital culture is something she will be tackling head-on at the station, with the goal to expand and develop a new media platform and increase RNZ’s listeners from the more than half a million Kiwis it currently engages with.
Even TV icon Carol has seen her media consumption change dramatically over the last few years – something she attributes in part to the younger generation. “I remember one night when I was at home with the kids. Rather than turning on the TV, we ended up sharing videos on YouTube all night and I thought, ‘It’s happening more and more.’ What’s difficult to say is how this path will go in years to come, but isn’t that what we’re here for? A bit of a challenge?”
Having started her new position at the end of November, Carol reveals she is still very much in a learning phase and is adjusting to the rhythm of radio. “The biggest challenge has been coming up to speed with what is a complex organisation.” She’s also adapting to splitting her work and home life between two cities. While the goal is to eventually move some of the RNZ management team to Auckland in the next 18 months, until then Carol will continue to commute – and there’s always video calling her family on her cellphone. “It’s like we’re never apart! But sometimes it’s nice to just be able to ‘click’,” she says with a smile, mimicking hanging up her mobile. “It’s a huge transition period for me, and I think it’s all a matter of breathing deeply and remaining calm.”
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