They’re the women who make things happen and often the ones who deal with the brunt of the stress, criticism and other crises that arise during live radio.
And as Newstalk ZB’s pre-eminent hosts, Jack Tame, Leighton Smith and Larry Williams all agree, their dedicated, determined and incredibly intelligent producers – Helen McCarthy, Carolyn Leaney and Laura Smith – are the secrets to their success.
The Weekly sat down to discover some studio secrets – who are the lovers, who are the fighters and who just loves a good Dolly Parton jam!
Helen McCarthy might just be the busiest, but loneliest, producer at Newstalk ZB.
While she works on two shows – Saturday Morning with Jack Tame and Marcus Lush Nights – she hardly ever sees the stars of the shows. Marcus broadcasts out of Invercargill, while until very recently, Jack was based in New York, though she sees him a lot more now he’s moved back to New Zealand to host TVNZ 1’s new Breakfast show alongside Hilary Barry.
But when the Weekly gets Jack and Helen (44) together, it’s only the 12th time they’ve met each other face-to-face, despite talking nearly every day for four years.
“I always forget how tall you are!” Jack (29) exclaims as Helen walks into the room. “What a tall, leggy blonde!”
Despite the lack of face time, the pair say they’ve developed a special relationship and, despite the long distance, have become the best of friends.
“We gossip about work, we gossip about love,” tells Jack. “It’s a bit naughty sometimes because I’m always like, ‘Um, hey, we’re definitely not on air at the moment, right?’ You always want to be careful with the microphone..."“It’s quite an intimate relationship,” Helen nods, laughing. “Whenever Jack was back, it’s weird because we share all of these intimacies over the phone, and to meet him in person, it’s always a little bit, oh, my goodness, you actually know quite a lot about me now!”
When Jack started his radio gig in 2012, he’d never been on the airwaves before and says he relied heavily on Helen to get him through.
“I still do,” he says. “When things go wrong, Helen’s the only person that can save me! She’s the brains behind this whole thing. She does everything – she sets up the show, talks to the regular guests, and she writes me notes on everyone and everything that I should know. I should really be doing that myself, actually.”
Because good communication was key when you’re almost 15,000km away from each other, there’s not much the duo don’t know about each other, and as they both tend to work by themselves a lot, a good chin-wag is always welcome.
“Helen always tells me what movie star she’s dating,” Jack teases, throwing Helen a cheeky look as she just shakes her head.
“Oh, yeah. So many boyfriends, so many movie stars,” she replies, rolling her eyes.
“We’re such good friends, Helen stayed at my apartment,” continues Jack. “We had a slumber party and then saw Bruce Springsteen together.”
Because Jack’s work with TVNZ as their US correspondent took him all around the world, they’ve broadcast from places such as Alaska, Wales, London and Australia. They’ve also managed to snag a fair few famous faces for interviews, including David Duchovny and Ricky Martin.
“Ricky was in love with you,” Jack says to Helen with a grin. “Helen’s an outrageous flirt with our guests...”
“Who wouldn’t flirt with Ricky Martin?” she protests. “Jack wasn’t there, so I went to his hotel on a Saturday and I got to sit right up close to him, looking into his eyes, for the entire interview.”
As well as ribbing each other about their love lives, music is another contentious topic for the pair. Helen’s a massive country fan, while Jack prefers the dulcet tones of hip-hop star Kanye West.
“I had to educate Jack on country music,” Helen laughs. “He’s done more country interviews than rock!”
“That’s true,” says Jack. “I’ve listened to far more Bonnie Raitt than I ever thought I would!”
As far as host/producer relationships go, it really doesn’t get much closer than Carolyn Leaney and Leighton Smith’s – they’re married. From the time the alarm goes off at 4.50am, to when they head to bed, Leighton (68) and Carolyn are together, but she says this familiarity is key to their success as a team.
“Being a good producer is to be able to second-guess your host... but we separate off our life very well, don’t we, Leighton?” she asks, turning to her husband, who glances at her with a confused expression on his face.
“You really want my opinion?” he asks, his eyebrows raised. “No, you’re right. But we only got to know each other so well because we worked together for so long.”
While Carolyn (56) and Leighton have been married for only four years, they have been working together for almost 30.
“Ever since ’68,” proclaims Leighton. “You mean ’88,” corrects Carolyn, shaking her head. “I wasn’t born in 1968!”
“Have you been lying to me then?” he responds.
Confirming it was indeed 1988 when they first started on the then new-look Newstalk ZB together, Carolyn actually moved to New Zealand from her native England to work with her future husband.
“The one thing I can remember people saying was Leighton gets through a lot of producers,” she tells, a wide grin on her face.
“Well, hang on, that’s not entirely true!” he rebuffs. “There was a change of format and I couldn’t find a producer that was right. I rang Carolyn in London and asked her if she’d want to come out.”
And since then, Leighton, who hosts the morning show after Mike Hosking, has had a grand total of one producer.
“He’s amazing to produce,” she says. “He’s a natural broadcaster, there’s never a moment he doesn’t know what to do. He’s brilliant.”
“This is why I didn’t want to do this interview together,” a blushing Leighton blusters. “I get all embarrassed!
“We worked together for a long time without anything going on,” he recalls. “And then circumstances changed and it happened. I never wanted to work with anybody that I was married to – it never appealed to me in the slightest. But it ended up being the most natural thing.”
While they were just colleagues for a long time, the duo covered some of the world’s biggest news stories together, the two that still stand out are Princess Diana’s death and 9/11.
“Diana died on a Sunday and it was my daughter’s fifth birthday party,” Carolyn remembers. “We weren’t working, but of course we had to go in, so I left my daughter’s party and went to work. The sadness of that day... We were phoning people up in the middle of the night in England to get them on the programme, but of course they didn’t know yet – we were breaking the news to them.”
“And the other was 9/11,” continues Leighton. “I got a phone call at 1am, asking if I had the TV on. I said, ‘Why on Earth would I have the TV on? Go away.’ But I flicked it on. Three hours later, I realised I couldn’t feel my feet and I was shivering. I was so absorbed. But, I tell you, Carolyn was brilliant that day. We got interviews with people who had been running down the stairs. She got stuff no-one else could.”
Persistence is key to being a good producer, says Leighton – like the time when Carolyn managed to get Donald Trump on the show, purely by ringing his people relentlessly.
“It was years ago, I can’t remember why we interviewed him. But he said, on air, the only reason I’m talking to you is because your producer is so convincingly persistent!”
Despite their long careers, both Carolyn, who is Leighton’s fourth wife, and her husband still have a passionate love for radio. As soon as they’re up in the morning, the radio is on and they continue to pore over news until the lights go out.
“I will totally be that old lady in the rest home phoning up talkback!” Carolyn nods. “And I’ll be telling the producer, ‘I did your job once!’”
“You know, I can actually hear that now,” laughs Leighton. “And you’ll be telling them they don’t have a clue how to do it!”
Needless to say, Carolyn’s thankful she took Leighton up on the offer to travel to the other side of the world to work with him.
“The best decision I ever made,” she says.
“No,” Leighton disagrees. “The best decision you ever made was when you said yes to marry me.”
Laura Smith has only been producing Larry Williams’ drive show for five months – and she’s finding the new job requires a lot of patience.
“I think Laura is now at that point where she understands that I often get a little outraged or opinionated about something,” Larry (61) insists, while Laura nods vigorously behind him.
“The nature of the beast means we have to have some interesting discussions.”
“Healthy arguments,” Laura adds, grinning.
While there’s a fairly large age gap between the two – Laura’s only 23 – the pair have found themselves to be excellent sparring partners, and Larry says he is incredibly proud and fond of his young producer already.
“She’s come along remarkably, to be honest. In fact, I’ve said to her I’d recommend her for any job she wanted.”
As for who wins their debates over stories? Well, Larry’s come up with a pretty elegant (and convenient) solution.
“She’s the producer, so she carries the can,” he shrugs. “If we do something and it turns to custard or I don’t like it, I’ll blame her, and if I didn’t like an idea and we do it but it comes out quite good, I’ll say, ‘See, I told you it was a good idea, Laura!’”
“That’s exactly how it happens too,” Laura laughs, rolling her eyes.
For Laura’s part, she says she loves their day-to-day banter and she does get her own back.
“It would be boring if we all had the same opinion,” she says.
And there are plenty of times when she turns out to be right. She predicted the correct result on the Brexit referendum earlier in the year. Larry had been around to his markets guy, who assured him that every sign out of the UK was pointing to a “remain” vote.
“Laura kept telling me, if they do vote exit, it’s going to be a huge story,” Larry begins to explain. “I said to her, ‘No, no, listen to me, Laura. Trust me, Laura, it’ll be remain. I’m telling you!’ Of course, after the result, she comes in and asks, ‘So how do you feel now?’ So I said, ‘I told you they’d bloody leave!’”
“Yeah, that’s one of my favourite yarns,” Laura admits with a smile.
Thankfully, though, Larry doesn’t have too many annoying habits to put up with, Laura reveals, apart from his insistence on always saying “10-4” after she gives him an instruction.
“And he does like to mouth things through the glass at me. He thinks I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I actually picked it up pretty quickly!”
“Yeah, we do have a lot of fun together, actually, don’t we!” Larry laughs.
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