The ambitious music TV venture contributed much to the Auckland music scene of the 1990s, before being ignominiously shut down. By Gavin Bertram. Real Groove, Issue 180, May 2009, p24-25.
Ive got my 'TV tuned to channel U
Cruise Control. Headless Chickens
Culturally, New Zealand was coming of age in the early 90s, and a vibrant, young generation was finding its feet.
Auckland music station Max TV was one of the most visible gauges of where things were at. It only existed for a few years but during that time it had a huge impact on Auckland. Max's arrival in late 1993 coincided with the arrival of the Australian Big Day Out festival to New Zealand shores.
Both reflected the redefining of youth culture by late Gen X and early Gen Y members. The spark created by Nirvana and a whole wave of boisterously alienated guitar bands wrought a cultural revolution of sorts. It had been bubbling under for large part of the 80s, and it was as true in New Zealand as anywhere else.
Here there was an underground music scene that simply got on and did what they needed to. A whole substrata of independent labels, video makers, multimedia artists, promoters, underground media, dedicated to making creative things happen.
Max was borne out of this ferment, and out of an entrepreneurial imperative that imagined a land of home grown MTV. That’s precisely what the station's owners, veteran broadcaster Kevin Black and Geoff Thorpe, believed it could be. Ironically, it was someone elses MTV dream that eventually brought Max down.
The genesis of Max was around 1990. A syndicate including Black, Allan Rutledge and other FM radio types purchased a UHF frequency from the government in the newly deregulated broadcasting environment. They were unable to get a TV station operating and the frequency was again put up for tender.
"I went along straight to the receiver and bought the frequency," Thorpe remembers. "It wasn't worth very much, nobody had UHF aerials except Sky subscribers, and Sky was just fledgling. And it cost you a lot of money to broadcast at the time. One of be best ideas was doing music channel, and we did a deal with the record companies and got all their videos and got the thing going." Thorpe says it was an uphill struggle, as the agencies that held the advertising dollar purse strings had no faith in the enterprise.
They wanted hard viewer numbers, and these weren’t available. But people were watching. Max had a captive audience, because New Zealand at the time was starved of music on TV. Come the summer of 1993 and Auckland's youth suddenly had a music channel that catered to their diverse tastes, with a bunch of new personalities on screen.
Broadcasting out of a studio near Auckland Grammar in Mount Eden, a partnership had been established between Thorpe and Black, seasoned music TV producer Dale Wrightson, and technical whiz Reston Griffiths. They broadcast on the UHF bands 46.49, and 57 through a microwave link to TVNZ and onto the Waiatarua transmitter in the Waitakeres.
For the most part, chaos reigned. MaxTV's on air presence was anarchic, fresh, and prescient of what youth broadcasting would become a few years later.
''It was like a whole bunch of kids playing television, which is what the best kind of television is," Luke Nola, who presented Box Dog and Chat Bungalow, says. "In those days, to get anything on TV was so hard. What was on Max, you just didn't see then, but it's quite common now.” Others who presented on Max included TV3 weather presenter Toni Marsh, Auckland's best barman Hans Hoeflich, and George DJ Nick Dwyer. And Zane Lowe, who now broadcasts on the UK's BBC1 radio and MTV2, and won the 2006 Best Music Broadcaster award.
''They amassed a roster of VJs and people working for them who were really passionate and talented,'' Dwyer says. "No one told us what to do, and they really gave you creative freedom. So it allowed you to grow as a presenter far quicker than other stations.''
Max was tight financially, because the big advertising dollars never came in. Individual clients would spend. but the agencies never really came on board until near the end. Even so, the management invested in making better television. That had an impact, and events promoted on Max went through the roof while others floundered.
In the middle of their four year existence, Max moved from Mount Eden to the old Ponsonby post office on College Hill.
This was because both Wrightson and Griffiths had departed the fold, and the early Maori TV station Aotearoa Television Network (ATN) had become Max's landlords. Tuku Morgan, later a NZ First MP, was one of four directors overseeing the $8 million of taxpayer money at ATN. They were interesting times, Thorpe recalls.
"(ATN) were of a different world, really,'' he says.''We saw all the equipment just walking out the door, people were cutting up chairs and making a bonfire in the car park to cook their dinner, they spent money like water. They all had laptops and newish cars. I could see the writing on the wall, but we stuck that out for a year."
The extravagance at ATN was in stark contrast to Max's new Ponsonby studio, which was constructed during a working bee. Despite this, the Max TV management were ambitious, and working behind the scenes to win the local MTV franchise.
Thorpe and Black knew that TVNZ'S boss, the late Neil Roberts, was also chasing it, but they thought they'd usurped him. They even went to London to negotiate with MTV Europe, who they'd been told would administer the New Zealand franchise. Meanwhile, TVNZ were negotiating with MTV in the United States.
"We had the meeting at 930 in the morning and they said they couldn't do anything until New York opened later on," Thorpe reflects. "I said to Kevin as we walked out the door 'this isn’t going to work'. Because they'd lied to us, told us they could make a decision, and now it was being made in New York. We'd only got there that day, and we just booked a flight for the next morning."
This steeled Max's resolve to beat TVNZ, and for a while it worked. Advertising revenues rose, as did viewer numbers, and TVNZ became worried. Thorpe says Max even announced expansion into other centres, forcing TVNZ to change their advertising strategies around their new MTV franchise.
Eventually in September 1997, Neil Roberts called a meeting with Black and Thorpe, and asked what it would cost to buy Max. After four years of struggling to make the station financially viable, the pair had finally had enough. They'd failed to find investors, and big advertising spends still weren't flowing. Thorpe says he and. Black knew it was the end of Max, and the station was closed down that night.
Both TVNZ and Max's management were loudly criticised for their parts in the closure. A street party ensued in College Hill, and Max's last evening of broadcast became a celebration and a venting session, ''That broadcast will go down in urban folklore,'' Dwyer, who'd left the station by that time, says."A lot of presenters got very drunk and said a lot of things they shouldn't have said live on air, and probably shot themselves in the foot for any potential media career. Neil Roberts had many horrible things said about him that night. Business is business, but it was very sad for the Auckland music scene."
While it was an ignominious end to a glorious few years broadcasting, all involved had enjoyed a great time and wouldn't change the experience.
''I found the energy, dedication and atmosphere fantastic," Thorpe says. "Peter Urlich said Max did so much for developing music, for giving people the opportunity to get on the air, to develop fans, and get a feel for what would work."
''It's easy to look back on Max with rose tinted glasses,'' Dwyer reflects. "But it was pretty shoddy, very low budget. But what it did was provide a platform for so many future media stars."
Nola, responsible for some of the maddest on-air antics at Max, agrees, saying the unofficial maxim was that you didn't ask for permission, just for forgiveness after the fact. His experiences show just how much of the fabric of Auckland had become over its four years.
''To this day I still get people at the service station saying 'Hi, Luke from Chat Bungalow! I remember you."
Further reading: Media: MISSING MAX By Murray Cammick, RipItUp, p7, #245, January 1998