It was the end of an era last month, when Jack Perkins hung up his headphones, or mic, or whatever it is that radio documentary producers hang up when they retire. Now 75, Perkins has spent 56 years in radio, producing Radio New Zealand National’s weekly Spectrum programme since 1972, when it was set up as a human-interest complement to the more current-affairs-focused Insight (also still running).
Portable recording gear (unwieldy though it was by today’s standards) was introduced in the 1960s, allowing radio producers to get out in the field, talking to people in their own environments. It brought a freshness and immediacy to radio, and Perkins made the style his own. ‘Radio had been a bit stuffy, it had been tied to the studio, largely,’ muses Perkins in ‘Spectrum’s life and times’, an endearing two-part Spectrum about, well, itself, in which he chats with the programme’s founder, 88-year-old Alwyn ‘Hop’ Owen. ‘We were able to get out and get ordinary New Zealanders telling their own stories in their own voices, and that was a huge change … They were hearing their own stories fed back to them and the people in their community.’
In its 43 years Spectrum has been everywhere and met everyone, it seems – to a kākāpō-saving project in Fiordland, to the Nelson tip, up in Tiger Moths and helicopters, to rugby matches and protests and tattoo parlours and railway stations and many, many people’s lounges, from one end of the country to the other. And it has amassed a remarkable body of recording, of New Zealanders talking about themselves and their lives, and on subjects of all sorts, from long-line fishing to caravans to tsunamis to skydiving to boarding schools. It has recorded our voices and thoughts and memories and lives, and played them back to us, and preserved them. ‘We didn’t really know just how valuable in terms of social history we were going to be,’ says Perkins. ‘That’s right, you just got on with the job,’ chimes in Owen.
I was lucky myself to work with Jack in 2003 and 2004, when I was commissioned as a freelancer to do a couple of Spectrums, and was trained in the Perkins approach – which I mostly remember as a kind of stepping back, an intent listening, an allowing. In a guide for journalism students, he writes, ‘At the back of the farm, on the city street or on board the fishing boat, we talk to people in their own surroundings, capturing the activity and “feel” of everyday life – their feelings, attitudes, prejudices, stories and experience – first-hand and unfiltered – up close and personal.’ His work is often rich with layers of ambient sound – listen, for instance, to these clips from 1973 abortion protests and from a fruit and vege auction, and to the grizzled, lovely voices of these two interviewees – old mates, clearly – talking about coal mining.
I emailed Jack today, asking for a photo to use for this blog post, wishing him the best, and asking what his plans were. Unassuming as ever, he responded, ‘I feel as though I’m on holiday, it’s a bit unreal after 56 years. I’m just going to see how things go, I’ve nothing specific planned.’
You can catch part 2 of ‘The life and times of Spectrum’ this Sunday – 6 September – at midday on Radio New Zealand National.