3 Apr 2017

Checkpoint turns 50

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 3 April 2017

It was 1967.  

There were no smartphones, selfie sticks or internet feeds, but breaking news and eyewitness reports were about to become part of New Zealand journalism.

As Radio New Zealand's Ken Funnell put it, Checkpoint's first broadcast on 3 April was a turning point for current affairs in this country.

"The aim was to tackle local and international stories in a 'probing, questioning and analytical way'."

"[Checkpoint] provided the opportunity, for the first time, for an up-to-the-minute look at current developments in some depth."

And he said the programme could also react fast to breaking news.

"Checkpoint soon learnt to cash in on radio's ability to get immediate on-the-spot reports and reaction from observers overseas. Nowhere was farther away than a telephone call … The element of immediacy had entered New Zealand radio."

The impact of those live reports was obvious a year later when the Wahine capsized in Wellington Harbour, killing 51 people.

Elizabeth Alley was the programme's first producer and spent the day rushing between Radio New Zealand and Wellington Hospital where she tried to interview survivors.

"It was a pretty extraordinary event because gathering material on equipment in those days was much more difficult than it is now. It was heavy, unwieldy. It wasn't particularly efficient."

But it was a huge achievement for the fledgling current affairs programme.

"We did get that programme to air. It was probably a significant moment in Checkpoint's life."

Another producer, who later become the organisation's chief executive, Beverly Wakem said the coverage took a regional story to the rest of the country.

"That was really ... radio at its absolute best, the immediacy, the colour, the ability to make that real and urgent for the rest of the nation."

International news was also on the agenda and Elizabeth Alley was responsible for building up a team of contributors around the world.

"We paid them but we paid them so little that I remember one of our American contributors used to chortle, 'Oh, another cheque from New Zealand to frame.'"

Over the 50 years the format and broadcast times for Checkpoint have been modified many times, with the programme starting out at 9pm before moving to the early evening in 1980.

The first dedicated presenter, Adele Broadbent, was introduced in 1994 when the show was extended to 90 minutes.

"When I started there I was so incredibly nervous because it was following some fantastic names in radio, some really massively good thinkers."

She recalls a period of hard-hitting political interviews. "We put a few ministers on the mat, [interviews] which were challenging but enjoyable. A lot of big changes to legislation and a lot of questioning to be done."

In 1997 Mary Wilson became Checkpoint's longest serving presenter, fronting the show until 2015 when she became RNZ's Director of News Programming.

Don Rood was the show's new editor, charged with turning an established current affairs format into a hard-hitting daily news show.

Whilst a loyal audience was already in place, he said the combination of pacier stories, live reports from the field and Mary Wilson's interviewing skills gave Checkpoint "something no one else was doing".

"No ads, just news and it was exciting and it was dynamic and it was exhausting but it was great fun. It was exhilarating."

In January 2016, RNZ launched a ground-breaking initiative with the fresh multi-platform format of Checkpoint with John Campbell.

Checkpoint is now New Zealand's longest running news and current affairs show on radio or television.

Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.

The programme attracts a live drive-time audience of almost 240,000 people. However many more watch it live on Freeview Channel 50, on the RNZ website's video stream and on Facebook.

John Campbell said making the programme available to a more diverse audience was something he was very proud of.

"If we can get those people and retain our traditional audience, then that will be the achievement of the new Checkpoint whilst holding tight to the values of the 50 wonderful, incredible years that have preceded us."