6 Aug 2015

John Campbell: 'What we do matters'

6:33 pm on 6 August 2015

John Campbell is looking quite surprised.

The New Zealand broadcasting and journalism icon has been good at showing surprise, those eyebrows arching ever so.

"This has happened so fast. This has happened quite fast," he exclaims, after the news he will be joining Radio New Zealand (RNZ) is made public.

Watch John Campbell talking to Glen Scanlon about his new role at RNZ

Campbell grew up in a RNZ-listening household, started his career as a journalist here and always keeps an ear tuned.

He can remember vividly the day he was watching Sharon Crosbie in the studio and she turned to him and 'said: "'Don't you look at me with your bedroom eyes, boy'. I didn't even know what she was talking about. I was completely taken aback!"

There goes that laugh. With its own exclamation point. He loves journalism with every fibre.

"It matters. What we do matters."

It is more important to him than ever. Now he is going to front a new multi-media, drive-time show on RNZ and he can't wait.

It has always been a very public life. Attempts to secret him into RNZ's building are blown by the people taking a smoke at the side entrance, the two builders in the causeway and the staff who jump in the elevator.

One is surprised and says she wishes she had her phone for a selfie. Campbell is disappointed for her.

John Campbell joins forces with RNZ.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

So, what would surprise the general public about John Campbell, a man everyone recognises?

He takes quite a while to consider, eyes darting, before leaping to life.

"I'm really foul-mouthed. My own children tell me off."

They mooted a swear jar but you can probably guess his response. His greatest fear, is, he jokes, not spiders but his kids not being happy. Might be time for that swear jar.

He is enthusiastic about everything. A well-known music fan, he loves Sharon Van Etten, Tiny Ruins, Marlon Williams, Edwyn Collins and his post-punk band Orange Juice.

The early Flying Nun years are a happy place and he returns later to ask can he please add Lawrence Arabia (Kiwi James Milne) - "such a nice chap".

"My ideal is short, simple songs about unrequited love."

He's a fan of 20th century American poetry, and talks of authors Philip Roth, Joan Didion and Richard Ford in reverent tones.

Food is simple: anything his mum cooks. Good man.

The conversation rattles forward. His favourite interviewee? He is surprised by his own answer: Harry Belafonte who appeared on RNZ's Saturday morning show when Campbell was the host.

Campbell says Belafonte had walked with Martin Luther King and was part of the civil rights movement.

"The way he described it so sublimely - it was like being there."

Film is tough. So much to like. The French film Au revoir les enfants jumps out but so does award-winner Boyhood.

He adores the quote the movie ends on:

"You know how everyone's always saying seize the moment? I don't know, I'm kind of thinking it's the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us."

It's a perfect fit for him.