25 Jan 2018

95bFM: Turning the page on a new chapter

2:55 pm on 25 January 2018

Inside the revamp taking Auckland's student radio station into the future.


Caitlin McIlhagga, the soon-to-be general manager of bFM.

Caitlin McIlhagga, the soon-to-be general manager of bFM. Photo: Luke McPake/The Wireless

To look at Auckland’s 95bFM in 2018, is to see something remarkably young and vibrant. Within the walls of the bFM office, sitting two stories above the University of Auckland quad, is a sensible but somewhat unpredictable party-like atmosphere. People seem to be constantly coming and going; lollies from Munchie Mart are generously offered round; and it’s completely unclear who is actually working and who just happens to be there. In one corner stands a browning Christmas tree, atop which a photo of Harry Styles takes the place of a star, and someone jokes that they could save money by just leaving it up for the rest of the year.  

On air this irreverent informality remains intact, but rather than amateurish it feels colloquial, familiar and - particularly in the case of the station’s news programming - entirely trustworthy and credible. At a time when millennials are often dismissed as depressingly dysfunctional, if not perpetually infantile, the inner workings of bFM are a testament to the competence of modern youth.

Perhaps then it was more of a surprise than it should have been when last week general manager and longtime bFM veteran Hugh Sundae announced that he would be stepping down after three years in the role, and handing the reins to the station’s 25 year-old administration assistant, Caitlin McIlhagga.

Since it began as ‘Radio Bosom’, the University of Auckland’s student radio station, in 1969, 95bFM as an institution has spent nearly 50 years amassing a following of zealously devoted listeners while developing a reputation for identifying, developing and unleashing new broadcasting talent into the local media industry. But like any hallowed history bFM’s has also been checkered - and not always as synonymous with youth and progress as one might hope.

Coming after a period of intense, but almost uniformly positive change, the appointment of McIlhagga felt deliberately forward thinking - and holds the potential to be something of a watershed moment.

For McIlhagga, who recently completed an Arts and Law conjoint degree while working part-time at both bFM and a small accounting firm, the news is clearly still sinking in.

“I love b, I have my whole life”, she says. “So becoming general manager is kind of like a dream that you never really thought would happen.”

Sundae’s departure brings with it not only role changes but something of a restructure. While he took on both the roles of general manager and programme director, these will once again be split in two between McIlhagga and Breakfast show producer Sarah Thomson, who will be seconded to the role for an interim period of three months

As predecessors go, McIlhagga says, it would be hard to beat one as influential as Sundae.

“Things have changed dramatically in Hugh's time. I mean he's leaving us in this incredible position where we've gone from being focussed on radio to be being this multimedia independent broadcaster.”

Caitlin McIlhagga (left) chats to volunteers in the bFM station office.

Caitlin McIlhagga (left) chats to volunteers in the bFM station office. Photo: Luke McPake/The Wireless

In his three years as general manager of the station, Sundae has been widely credited with bringing bFM out of the dark ages: launching a new website, rejuvenating the station’s volunteer base, growing the news team and organising multimedia projects such as the live-streaming of events and the very popular Orcon IRL panel discussions. In fact, for an organisation so often confronted with the harsh financial realities of independent local media, to look at what Sundae has achieved it seems hard to believe he was not in the role longer.

Yet even with this exemplary track record, Sundae’s actions never escaped the watchful eye - and dissatisfied murmurings - of a fiercely protective listenership, the most recent example being his decision last May to resurrect bFM veteran Mikey Havoc as the station’s Breakfast show host.

With little prompting required to get fans rarked up over the endless, and seemingly irresolvable, tension thought to exist between old and new at the station, the decision was hotly debated and faced harsh criticism on social media by those who saw the move as regressive.

“I saw a lot of what people were saying at the time and for the most part I just sort of shut up about it”, says Sundae now. “But there were one or two times where I had seen posts and I'd have to kind of chime in just to give some context because - at the time when we made that decision - it really was last chance saloon.”

To talk to Sundae, one might think that predicaments like this - ones that required hard and often thankless snap decisions - were characteristic of his time at a station that several times was only months if not weeks away from shutting down.

In that context, he says, decisions like the Havoc one were easy: “In order for us to provide an outlet for that new young talent to actually learn, we've got to exist”.

“So it’s like, do you guys want us to go off air and then no one's gonna have a fucking show? Or can we make this decision which is pragmatic, brings back someone who has an audience - and everyone's fighting for an audience - and who the advertising agencies recognise, whilst we’re also bringing in this young talent?”

bFM Drive host Big Hungry in the studio.

bFM Drive host Big Hungry in the studio. Photo: Luke McPake/The Wireless

Just under a year later, McIlhagga’s appointment certainly goes a long way to reframing such stories as necessary and productive compromises rather than setbacks. She, for one, does not hesitate to credit him with carving the path that brought her here.

“I definitely view this as a continuation of everything that Hugh has done”, says McIlhagga of her new role. In fact, she says, after a “fairly tumultuous” couple of years for the station there is finally time to enjoy - and examine - the fruits of that labour.

“There's all this great stuff set up and I feel like you need to make sure that all of those processes are streamlined, and all of those things are working really well, before you can look at dramatically shaking things up.”

Of course, one might argue that just McIlhagga’s appointment is something of a shakeup. With less media experience than Sundae - who spent five years at the NZ Herald - but seemingly more pre-existing business acumen, the splitting of the roles between her and Thomson will see two young women take charge of both the station’s financial and creative decisions. What’s more, McIlhagga joins the team as a member of an all-female senior management team. Even with bFM’s own history of leadership from female station managers and influential on-air female talent, as a milestone for any institution, it seems remarkable.

In fact as recently as 2011 - the year McIlhagga started as a volunteer - rumours were rampant of a laddish boys club culture and, as Duncan Greive reported in his seminal Metro exposé, so too were allegations of inappropriate behaviour from senior male staff and board members towards young female volunteers.

Thankfully this dark past too seems to have been left behind during Sundae’s tenure - and for McIlhagga the incredibly even gender split of the greater team is mostly incidental. She is, however, aware that at least her initial performance in the role will be viewed by many through the lens of her identity.

“That's kind of just the way that it works out you know”, she says. “I get that, on one hand, it is the exception to the rule because we do have incredibly poor representation of women on big boards and our pay equity legislation is set up to completely miss the point with female-dominated lower paid industries, and there are all these visible and invisible barriers to gender equality.

“But I think that the dream would be if it wasn't a question that you needed to think about, and I think we'd like to live that dream now.”

bFM volunteers at work in the station's newsroom.

bFM volunteers at work in the station's newsroom. Photo: Luke McPake/The Wireless

Seemingly relieved to be leaving on good terms, Sundae says that there is no big secret behind his departure from bFM. Coming up to his third year anniversary at the station and about to turn 40, Sundae describes his decision to leave as having emerged from a kind of intuition.

“I've always tried to get in and get out again. I don't like staying in jobs - maybe it's an ego thing - but I don't like the idea of being in a job where people are wondering when I'm gonna go. I like to leave before I'm expected to leave.”

With plans to work freelance, and potentially start a business with his wife, he concedes, it may also be to do with the fact that the job has a been a hard - and extremely demanding - one.

“It’s been a pretty intense three years. There's been restructures and all sorts of shit going on and I'm just tired and need to do something else.

“I really love the station and felt like I had to kind of give it my all. But now I'm at a point where things are tracking pretty well and it seems like a good time to go.”  

While Sundae says he entered his role at the station during a time of financial turmoil, it seems McIlhagga can look forward to a much less rocky start. Perhaps more daunting is the weight of expectation: bFM’s infamously devoted audience will no doubt be watching and waiting, ready to speak up the moment they notice anything going off the rails.

It’s a lot of pressure, says McIlhagga, but pressure she understands.

“I get that people are so emotionally invested in the station, and what we do and what it means and what we stand for. Which means stuff like Havoc coming back is going to be incredibly controversial, but its controversial in an emotional sense. People have this emotional reaction to things that happen within the station which is beautiful you know.”

For now, though, McIlhagga just needs time to grapple with the responsibility she has been afforded.

“I kind of look at it as, we look after bFM for the moment. We're here for a short time and part of looking after it and respecting it means that you look to what's been done in the past and you look to the traditions cos' they're important - to us and to our listeners and to everybody.”

It is a sentiment shared by Sundae, who will have his last day at the station on the 2nd of March.

“Getting people feeling like they're coming through and they've got a path to where they want to go, was probably the biggest priority for me and to be able to leave and have a 25-year-old woman take over the management that's just like fuck.

“It couldn't have worked out better.”