Local News

Talk-back tragedy: ‘What happened to my dad’

Son Andrew relives broadcaster Bruce’s final fatal shift
Photos: Tony Nyberg

Veteran broadcaster Bruce Russell lived to work. The radio station was his happy place and he looked forward to every shift as a talk-back host and presenter of a nostalgia show on Newstalk ZB.

So it was fitting, says his son Andrew, that Bruce took his final breath at work, shortly before he was due to go on air. The announcement of the much-respected 71-year-old’s death at the Auckland radio station just before his talk-back show in 2022 sparked a huge outpouring of grief. However, the circumstances surrounding his death have never been made public until now.

Bruce “got people through the night”, says Andrew.

Andrew says given how many people were deeply saddened by his father’s passing, he feels it’s only appropriate to explain what occurred.

“I feel bad that thousands of people who listened to him and thought of him as a friend on the radio have never had closure. A mate said to me, ‘It’s not really anybody’s business’, but there was such a massive response after he died that I wanted to let people know.”

Bruce in fact died of a heart attack while sitting at a desk preparing to do the overnight talk-back show the night before Anzac Day. It was a big shock because he didn’t have a history of heart problems and hadn’t been unwell leading up to his death.

Over the years, the Newstalk ZB team was like family to Bruce (back row, third from left).

In hindsight, Andrew says his dad had been slowing down a little. He was letting go of newsreading shifts to focus on talkback and In My Day, his Saturday evening nostalgia show.

“About two weeks before he died, he told me he was a little more tired than usual,” shares Andrew. “But there was no indication that this was going to happen.”

When he arrived at work on that Sunday night, Bruce didn’t complain of feeling unwell.

At around 11.20pm, he sat at a desk to look up a song on YouTube that he wanted to play. A short while later, a producer noticed he appeared to have fallen asleep.

“It wasn’t uncommon for the overnight hosts to have a nap before they went on air. Dad was quite famous for it, and would say, ‘Wake me 20 minutes before I am due to go on.’”

Heartfelt messages received by his family have humbled Andrew.

When the producer went to rouse him at around 12.15am for his 12.30am start, he was unresponsive. A guest on the show on air before Bruce’s performed CPR, but he’d passed away. It was very traumatic for everyone there, says Andrew, 37.

It’s not known exactly when Bruce died. Andrew says his dad would like the fact that the date of his death is ambiguous.

“He liked mysteries and he had a bit of a macabre sense of humour. He would be chuckling at how they don’t know if he died on the 24th of April or the 25th.”

Andrew was living in Rotorua when his father passed. He’s very grateful he happened to be in Auckland for the long weekend. He’d luckily seen his dad in his final days. Police arrived at the Russell home at 2am to break the tragic news. It left Andrew and his mum Lorna completely blindsided. “He hadn’t been sick. He left for work as usual. We just couldn’t believe he was gone.”

After the news was announced the next day, thousands of messages of sympathy flooded in on social media and in person from Bruce’s colleagues, listeners and friends. Singing legend Sir John Rowles, who’d been working on a project with Bruce, phoned Lorna to express his sympathies.

The loving dad with his birthday boy.

Tributes were paid by the likes of fellow Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking. He described Bruce as a complete broadcaster with a huge depth and breadth of experience.

Bruce began his radio career in New Plymouth in the 1970s as an advertising copywriter. He later worked in sales and as a manager, as well as being on air as a host and newsreader at several radio stations throughout New Zealand. He tried his hand as an overnight talk-back host after moving to Newstalk ZB in the early 2000s and loved it.

“Dad had incredible general knowledge – he could talk about anything and everything,” says Andrew, who works in administration. “He got people through the night – he was their confidante, a de facto psychologist. He was the friend they never met.

Bruce’s radio career began in the ’70s.

“One of the biggest moments of his career was when he took a call from a woman who had lost a nephew in the Christchurch earthquake. It was incredibly emotional and you have to have something special to be able to handle things like that.”

Listeners gave Andrew and his mum an 800-page condolence book filled with heartfelt messages. They described Bruce as genuine, great fun and a true gentleman. Newstalk ZB also compiled a special tribute show to Bruce.

“Dad would have been bemused that after so many years spent reading the news, he became the news,” reflects Andrew. “The tribute show described him as a broadcasting legend and I think he would have been really chuffed to hear that. His job meant the world to him and although it was much too early for him to go, I’m glad he went where he did.”

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