This is a profile I wrote of my favourite New Zealand sports journalist as student a few years back. As a result it’s probably a little over-weaning and dated, but I think it still gets to the heart of why when there’s a big sporting issue there’s no one I’d rather hear attacking it than Brendan Telfer. No one wanted to publish it at the time. I guess Telf’s not glamourous enough.
The Old Campaigner
A profile of Brendan Telfer – previously unpublished, from 2005.
By Duncan Greive
“I think we’ve had it with John O’Neill. If he can’t be bothered to answer his phone when he says he will then he can stick his A-League somewhere in his flash hair-do or something.”
Brendan Telfer is furious, in his mild-mannered way. The chief of Australian soccer has just reneged on a second scheduled interview in two days, leaving Morning Sport with a gaping hole in its schedule to fill. However unlike other Radio Sport hosts; in fact unlike almost anyone else working in broadcasting today; restraint is the word. This journalistic throwback rebels by his very orthodoxy. Where all around him radio hums with risqué comments, stings and sponsors, heat and flash, Brendan Telfer is calm, measured and very much of the Old School.
Telfer hosts Morning Sport, Radio Sport’s source for in depth interviews and more cerebral sporting coverage than might be possible at other hours. He sits at the beaten up mixing desk in the station’s cramped inner city studio, reeling off another of the clear, logically-argued and meticulously assembled monologues he is famed and occasionally derided for. His producer, Glen Larmer, sits in the room opposite, phone wedged against his shoulder while simultaneously manipulating a mouse and a fader. Larmer has hurriedly procured John Walker to speak on Hamish Carter, and Morning Sport will ride out its back-room misfortunes with barely a glitch.
Five hours later Brendan Telfer is drinking tea in the back garden of his large corner villa in an inner-city suburb, bathed in the mid-winter sunshine. Inside his son, Jay, obsessed with military history, repeatedly stumbles through Jingle Bells on their upright piano, while his second wife Jan unloads the shopping. Telfer Sr has just completed a round of golf, and the steely concentration he displayed earlier in the day has evaporated.
Morning Host Tony Veitch calls him the “doyenne of sports journalism”, and Telfer was part of a wave of sports reporters that were recruited during the massive expansion of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in the early ’70s. Along with Grant Nisbett and Keith Quinn, who together represent an austere holy trinity of the craft, he “more or less flew the plane”, and was swept along with the industry’s changes, defining its new frontiers.
The Montreal Olympics were the first to be beamed live into New Zealand homes, and Telfer covered the games as a 25-year-old. For him, it was to prove revelatory.
“I’d never even been to America before and there I was, commentating on our gold medal in the hockey. The interesting thing is we hadn’t planned to cover it, but when we started doing well there was suddenly this huge demand in New Zealand to televise the game live. So this producer turned to me and said ‘Brendan, you’re doing the hockey.’ And I’d never been to a game of hockey in my life.”
The seat-of-the-pants approach to learning the trade has left Telfer with a reservoir of skills and knowledge, one which is invaluable as a radio host, but also leaves him open to criticism when he misses a beat. Journalist Tim Bickerstaff claimed that Telfer was “losing the plot” after he misstated the number of majors Nick Faldo had won, and Tim Watkin’s feature on the fledgling station for the New Zealand Herald in 2000 lead with a similar factual error. For Bill Francis though, station manager of both Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB, Telfer is invaluable.
“He’s someone who can probe and delve into an issue as well as anyone working in the sports media. Any sportsperson making news or controversy will need to take into account that Brendan’s going to delve and find out what the real story is.”
He is the station’s best big issue interviewer, and sporting administrators in particular are often subjected to lengthy and uncomfortable interrogations at his hands. Some have even been known to refuse to appear, as Morning Sport producer Glen Larmer recalls.
“I remember on one occasion we rang up Guy Hedderwick, the CEO of the New Zealand Knights [soccer team] to ask him to comment on an issue. And he said that he wouldn’t come on, because Brendan was too negative. That’s his choice. But we don’t think in terms of positives or negatives. All Brendan’s doing is asking questions.”
The top of the hour closes in, having passed without incident despite it being Wednesday, the slowest day of the sporting week, and the loss of a key interview. Brendan asks Glen when it is safe to hit the button which commences the bank of ads in the lead up to the hourly news, and is told “10:58 or 10:59, but nothing in between.” A consummate broadcaster, Telfer sums up the hour’s events and arguments, sliding past the 10:58 deadline and looking the absolute picture of control. He then slowly, deliberately winds down before punching the key exactly halfway between the minutes, at 10:58:30. Larmer just shakes his head “five years and he’ll never get that right.”
Telfer is normally a placid subject, rigorous but occasionally dispassionate. His flecked grey shirt matches his hair, and he toys distractedly with his sunglasses until the subject of former sports stars in the media arises. At their mention he moves forward in his seat, gesticulating emphatically as he remonstrates with the logic behind the rise of the sports jock.
“Sometimes it seems that the more outrageous you are, the more likely you are to be successful, regardless of what broadcasting skills you may or may not have. You look at someone like Matthew Ridge, who succeeds, and you ask well, why do they succeed?
“It’s become a feature of sports broadcasting in recent years, and it’s driven again largely by ratings. Ratings surveys show – and programme editors believe – that if you have a famous sportsman fronting a sports show it’ll get a better rating than someone who hasn’t played sport but might look better, sound better and be more intelligent. But it’s better to have Matthew Ridge doing it, because he’s Matthew Ridge.”
Perhaps aware that he is beginning to sound like the kind of dinosaur some would caricature him as, he throttles back a little, and becomes more reflective in tone.
“I don’t have any great issue with it, because if that’s what people want, then give it to them. It’s democracy at work. If you can’t cut it with an audience, you haven’t got a future. Those are the ground rules that determine employment in this industry.”
They are indeed, at present, and in some ways Telfer is fortunate to hold such a prominent position. In the years that followed the deregulation of the television and radio markets Telfer’s main employer, TVNZ, haemorrhaged sports to fledgling pay TV operator Sky, and his principal source of work, sports commentary, disappeared from underneath him.
Now virtually all sports are with Sky and only the netball and the Olympic and Commonwealth games remain as staples of the state broadcaster. This consequently left Telfer still nominally in the employ of TVNZ, but “there was just no work.” Fortuitously this period coincided with the inauguration of Radio Sport.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, who have since faded into the background, Telfer has prospered. A new breed of mercenary radio host has risen up, personified by Martin Devlin. Devlin had the breakfast slot on Radio Sport until recently, but was poached from music radio, and is now doing general talkback on Radio Live. His approach of maximum offence and noise, of viewing sport as a vehicle for self-promotion and dirty jokes ran in direct contravention to Telfer’s loftier vision of sport.
“I always remember a lecturer I had, a guy named Mervyn Thompson. He was a playwright, and he loved his sport, despite being a real intellectual guy. And he said to me once: ‘When I look at Bruce Robertson with a rugby ball, he’s like a Rudolf Nureyev; he’s like a musician; he’s like an artist. They all have this x-factor about them. They all have this certain visual elegance and brilliance about them.’
“And he’s right. Any suggestion that sport is anything other than a form of art is just ignorance, it’s just snobbery. It is a form of art at its best.”
The clichés of sports fans and journalists just don’t apply to Telfer. He has a degree in English literature which he completed part time during the ’80s, and when asked his favourite author, band and film-maker he reels off a decidedly cultured list.
“It’s Norman Mailer, the Rolling Stones and Francis Ford Coppola. They’ve always been the big three for me.”
This kind of intellectual curiosity is what makes him such a magnetic and refreshing presence on radio. As Bill Francis notes “I always like going to Brendan when I know there’s something happening in sport, I know that if he’s got a major newsmaker on then it’s going to be really interesting.”
During the news break Brendan pulls out a dog-eared snap lock freezer bag. “I hope you don’t mind, I stuff my face about this time every day.” He pulls out a set of egg sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper and devours them, while high-lighting key segments of a lengthy yachting article he will be covering in the next hour.
Telfer got the sports bug after following the All Blacks to South Africa as a fan, where he eventually stayed for a year. This was in 1971, at the height of apartheid.
“If you were a white boy you were pretty much king of the pile. I was young, I was 19, and I really didn’t care too much about politics.”
All that would change when he met a Chinese national, and they took their forbidden love back to New Zealand. Since then his main concern has been commentating. He has made documentaries in Kenya and worked as a sports journalist for a number of years, but throughout it all commentating was his bread and butter, and he says that “the live description of sport is the one area of this job that I love more than anything else.”
It is somewhat troubling then for the nation’s sports fans to learn that within the industry the Telfer Curse is well known. Despite having attended every Olympic and Commonwealth Games New Zealand has participated in since Montreal, he has yet to call a gold medal since Walker’s famous 1500m win.
During the 1998 Commonwealth games he thought he had cracked it. He was commentating the 50km walk, with New Zealander Craig Barrett way out in front, when disaster struck.
“There was the dreadful sight of Barrett just collapsing, turning into a skeleton, like some impoverished refugee who hadn’t had a meal for about a month. It was a human tragedy, and tragedy is such an overused term in sport, but this almost had a tragic dimension, because of what was happening to the man physically.”
Barrett’s near death experience in Kuala Lumpur tops his list of sporting drama, but as far as celebrations go, he cannot go past the Silver Ferns’ World Cup triumph in 2003.
“To see them win in this funny little hall in Jamaica, on a Sunday afternoon in the Caribbean amongst all these crazy Jamaicans, with the stadium just full of dope, was incredible. The whole thing was really wacky, in every sense of the word, yet it was a great moment, especially because you were in such a colourful part of the world doing it.”
Glen and Brendan are discussing where to take the next hour. Brendan expresses surprise that they’re getting so many calls related to an outburst from Ricky Ponting the previous day: “It doesn’t give me a stiffie,” he opines dismissively. They stay with Hamish Carter.
The sun sits low in the sky and the kids are getting restless. He rises and shows me to his office, where a widescreen TV takes pride of place, but sporting books are outnumbered ten-to-one by novels. For someone who has spent more than three decades immersed in sport, has seen it rise from a largely amateur sideline to a massive commercial industry, Telfer remains fully cognizant of sport’s place in the world.
“Sport provides you with the opportunity to compete against other countries in a very pure, head-to-head kind of a way. It’s simple and it allows for a very straightforward allocation of sympathy. It’s very tribal and it goes back to who you are.
“I suppose the difficulty is that most sport is ridiculous. As I said to Graham Hill the other day, ‘you can rubbish the Commonwealth Games but for god’s sake try and explain to me the logic of two men standing on a canvas with puffed up gloves on trying to bash each others brains out.
“Or where’s the logic, intelligence or merit in grown men jumping into extremely fast automobiles and screaming around the same piece of bitumen as fast as they can without killing themselves. So all sport is utterly irrelevant, if you reduce it to its most basic activity. But it ultimately, for whatever reason, it works, and we love it.”
Morning Sport with Brendan Telfer is on Radio Sport 1332am 9am-12pm weekdays.