Leighton Smith: Merv Smith was a superstar before radio had any

Author
Leighton Smith,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 25 September 2018, 3:22PM
Merv Smith would be paid the most in the industry if he worked today. (Photo / Newstalk ZB)

Yesterday evening, we were at home and the phone rang and it was the station. The news was that Merv Smith had died.

Now there are a heck of a lot of people around who don’t know who Merv Smith was so I will explain.

Merv Smith was a radio superstar in the days before superstars.

There were nowhere near as many radio stations as there are now before FM came in.

If Merv was working now, with the talent he had, he would be a superstar and he would be the highest paid in the business. No question of that in my mind.

I worked alongside him for around 15 months, from the last quarter of 1985 through 1986.

I was on my first visit ever to London over the Christmas period of 1986, when I got a message that Merv had quit and it was true, and it was some considerable concern.

Because Merv pulled 28 to 29 per cent of the market for the breakfast programme.

He quit and he left. There were reasons. He wasn’t happy with the way things were being directed and he wanted out.

He went off to another station where he succeeded in becoming number one for a period of time.

Here’s the important bit from my perspective

Alice Worsley was doing this programme and she had been doing it for five years. They took her off air to put me on.

Now, there was hell to pay for it. I was in Sydney when all of this happened, and when I came on I realised what was going on. There was even a march of women down Queen Street in black armbands to object to Alice losing her job.

When I took over, I thought jeez what's the attitude going to be like here? Let me tell you that Merv, who was very close friends with Alice, couldn’t have been nicer, couldn’t have been more helpful. Not that we had a lot to do with each other – he finished, I started.

But he was Mr Nice Guy. He had an attitude that was overwhelming on the basis that he could have been a nasty prick if he wanted to be. I don’t think he had it in him, but you know what I’m saying.

Alice was helpful as anything. She was reading news for a little while and then she left. She was as nice as you can imagine.

I last saw Merv at Barry Holland’s farewell function down at the viaduct, and I hadn’t seen him for years.

I said to him, ‘I’m planning to outdo you in your time on air at ZB’.

And he said, ‘Well, I did 25 years’. Well, I was at that stage at 27, and I thought he had done 30, so we had a bit of a laugh.

Now, bottom line is, it’s a very, very sad passing. He was 85. He had a good life, but it was sudden, it happened within about three days as I understand.

We were never close, we were never friends as such. We were acquaintances who worked under the circumstances I described.

I can only say he was a man of considerable generosity and highly talented.

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