23 Apr 2017

The (other) best seat in the house

From The House, 11:45 am on 23 April 2017

The best seat in parliament is an imposing wooden ‘head of the table’ chair, deeply covered with lamb’s wool. It’s from here the Speaker presides. Tucked away at the opposite end of the chamber and seldom noticed is the second best spot to watch the action – and one where arguably you have even more control.

John McGregor poses at the 130 microphone control panel in the  Parliament Audio Booth

John McGregor in the Audio Booth Photo: VNP / Phil Smith


It’s a box really, up a stair steep enough to be called a ladder just off the Ayes Lobby. But it has a wide sound-proof window (you can safely comment on the action in here), that provides an elevated panoramic view across the chamber.


This is the radio booth, where audio operators from RNZ control the 130 odd microphones that link the chamber to the country. Whether you follow Parliament on the radio broadcast, or Parliament TV, on the news, or in the pages of the official record Hansard, the words all come to you through this tiny room.


The men who staff it are experienced studio engineers, some of whom specialise in this role, and some spend other days controlling the live studio for RNZ National, recording a live concert, or putting the finishing touches to a podcast.


I met two of the operators in their domain to find out how they make it work. John McGregor has been here since 1963, much longer than any MP. He began when the radio booth was kept warm by the glowing, humming valves that made it work.


Back then there was no security at Parliament, but most of the messenger service were ex-servicemen. ID badges weren’t necessary he says because you were “known”. Amongst his strongest memories is the turmoil surrounding the ‘schnapps’ election called late one evening in 1984 by the palpably drunk prime minister, Robert Muldoon.


Colin Pearce is the ‘new boy’ by comparison, with only ‘35 odd years’ inside the box, but he joined the team in time to witness the impassioned debate over the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1986.


He recalls the incredible tension across the House, where no-one knew which way the votes would split, and also between chair-mates (MP’s shared leather, two-seater couches at the time), who were often diametrically opposed on an issue they had deep personal feelings over.


To discover how these operators manage to wrangle the sound of 121 barracking members I suggest you listen to their own descriptions in the audio item. They make it sound easy.