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Profile image for Gordon Dryden

Gordon Dryden

Presenter, Interviewer

After starting in journalism, Gordon Dryden went on to pioneer the concept of a second TV channel, rub shoulders with political heavyweights, and write a book about education which sold in the millions. The common thread, as he put it: “a burning desire to do something, enthusiasm to do it” — plus Dryden’s long passion for encouraging “informed debate on positive alternatives”.

Born to a sawmiller in the southern town of Ōwaka, Dryden attended roughly 15 primary schools around the South Island. At age 14 the avid reader quit school to pursue a journalism career. At 15 he got a job at Truth, having lied about his age. Jumping around various newspapers, including a stint subediting in Fiji, he ended up editing foreign news at Wellington’s Southern Cross at 18.

In his book Out of the Red, Dryden argued that despite winning a journalism award in 1950, he was blacklisted from news jobs for his part in revealing a government request to ‘kill’ a story (about the government breaking a pledge to unions, to honour secret ballots.) Dryden moved to Communist Party weekly People’s Voice. Conflicts over party politics meant a rocky ride, and soon led him to move into advertising. Just a week after writing a Communist Party pamphlet on international petrol companies, he "was churning out a new radio commercial for 'clean-burning' Europa". Dryden spent five years in advertising, before becoming a public relations consultant in 1961.

That same year, a comment to a TV producer on the complexities of interviewing helping win Dryden his first television gig. He took over from ex All Black Eric Boggs as host of Auckland show Sportsroom, for $8.40 a week. He also commentated a handful of rugby league games for radio and TV. On the radio, Dryden made a list of verbs, crossing them off if he over-used them.

After one impressive try, he exclaimed "If that doesn’t earn [fullback] Billy Harrison a place in next week’s team, I’ll swim to Devonport blindfolded". Harrison failed to make the team; Dryden followed through with his mid-winter swim, via a small paddling pool placed on the Devonport ferry. A parking ticket was dismissed after Dryden told the authorities "I’m sorry, I had to swim to Devonport, and it took longer than I thought."

While the PR work continued, the next decade would be dominated by efforts to set up a second television channel. Dryden can be seen discussing the topic, six minutes from the end of this 1966 documentary. During a 1970 public enquiry into the future of television in New Zealand, he spent more than four days on the witness stand. That year he took a "round-the-world crash course", traversing the globe to write a 70,000 word report on privatised television. He persuaded BBC chairman Charles Hill to visit New Zealand to argue "in favour of a British-type system", but the offer was not taken up.

Dryden hoped to win the licence for a second channel. He was backed by businessmen James Doig, Clifford Plimmer, James Wattie and cinema magnate Robert Kerridge. The plan was for an independently-operated channel working in tandem with government-mandated programming, offering community-organised educational content across New Zealand and the Pacific.

In 1972 the Broadcasting Authority called for applications to run a second channel. Hopes that Dryden’s application might be judged before the 1972 election were dashed when the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was ordered to prioritise an enquiry into the firing of Listener editor Alexander McLeod. Incoming PM Norman Kirk then entered the fray, declaring the new channel would be run by state television. Four months later Dryden was finally awarded a licence by an independent broadcasting authority, but days after that, Broadcasting Minister Roger Douglas announced the actual state of play: two competing, state-owned corporations. Ultimately Dryden was paid $50,000 compensation for his research. He said it was never used. 

Dryden was a pioneer of local talkback radio. In 1973 he began hosting daily talk show Powerline on Auckland's Radio i. In 1980 he was one of the founders of Radio Pacific, New Zealand's first all-newstalk station. 

Dryden’s work on Powerline saw him invited on to the new second TV channel, in the lead up to the 1975 election — including this debate between PM Bill Rowling and opposition leader Robert Muldoon. Dryden would go on to host the channel’s election night coverage, predicting National’s win ahead of Television One, by using results from the most marginal seats in previous elections. He felt a live interview with Muldoon two days after victory was "one of my best", alongside another that tested 'miracle' cancer doctor Milan Brych.

Dryden’s election work saw him recommended for his own weekly slot; in 1976 he began presenting current affairs show The Friday Conference.  TVNZ news executive Bruce Crossan later said that Dryden was "as good a communicator as I've seen on New Zealand television. I don't know anyone who does his homework as efficiently, and in an interview situation he was the best there is."

On 4 June 1976, Dryden interviewed Abraham Ordia, president of the African Supreme Council of Sport. Ordia was in New Zealand, hoping to talk to Muldoon about NZ maintaining sporting contact with South Africa, despite international sanctions. Ordia never got the meeting. But his Friday Conference interview with Dryden before a packed audience proved memorable.

Weightlifter Precious McKenzie described not being allowed to represent South Africa because of his colour, and Auckland Star columnist Connie Binnie described the event transforming "from a dialogue… into a diabolic confrontation between Māori and Pākehā". Dryden considered it "one of the most important and valuable television programmes I have participated in … New Zealanders held a mirror up to themselves — and saw the reflection of bigotry, racism and prejudice". Dryden discussed the programme during this 2016 interview for NZ On Screen

By 1977 Friday Conference had become Thursday Conference. That year Dryden began hosting twice-weekly current affairs show After Ten, and alternating hosting duties with Sharon Crosbie on Question Mark. By now he'd earned himself a reputation as a tough interviewer. Muldoon repeatedly agreed to interviews on Thursday Conference on one condition: that Dryden was not the interviewer. The interview never eventuated.

That decade, he co-founded multinational home and decor publisher Trends, with his Radio Pacific colleague David Johnson. He also spent time as a prominent member of the centre-right New Zealand Party. He left after a disagreement with leader Bob Jones shortly before the 1984 general election.

In 1990 Dryden set up child development charity Pacific Foundation, with Lesley Max. One of the organisation's first projects was television series New Zealand: Where to Now, which saw Dryden travelling the globe to explore breakthroughs in learning.

After a meeting with American educator Jeannette Vos, the two discovered many similar ideas; they decided to author a book about the best ways to learn. The Learning Revolution was published in 1994 and would go on to editions in 23 languages, and Chinese sales of ten million plus. The person once described by Muldoon as "the most dangerous man in New Zealand" had now added best-selling author to his CV.

Dryden continued to write (including sequel book Unlimited), and was a regular speaker at education conferences. Through his company The Learning Web, Dryden also championed the development of digital publishing. In this video interview, he talked about his involvement in the "future of touch screen video books, because I believe that is the future of education and more importantly, it is the future of publishing."

Gordon William John Dryden died on 26 September 2022, in Whāngarei. He was 92.

Profile written by Simon Smith; updated on 29 September 2022

Sources include
Gordon Dryden 
'Gordon Dryden: A TV current affairs pioneer...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 9 May 2016. Accessed 6 May 2016
Gordon Dryden, Out of the Red (Auckland: William Collins Publishers, 1978)
The Learning Web website (broken link). Accessed 30 January 2016
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Carroll du Chateau, 'Would the Real Gordon Dryden Please Shut Up'  - Metro, April 1984, page 58
Karyn Scherer, 'The Industrious Revolutionary' (Interview) - The New Zealand Herald, 20 October 2008
'Gordon Dryden' Celebrity Speakers website (broken link). Accessed 30 January 2016
Learning Revolution website. Accessed 29 September 2022
'Gordon William John DRYDEN' - The NZ Herald, 29 September 2022