After starting in journalism, Gordon Dryden went on to pioneer the concept of a second TV channel, rub shoulders with political heavyweights, and author a book about education which has sold in the millions. The common thread, as he puts it: “a burning desire to do something, enthusiasm to do it” — and Dryden’s long passion for encouraging “informed debate on positive alternatives”.
After a childhood spent attending over ten different schools around the South Island, Dryden quit high school at 14 to pursue a journalism career. At 15 he got a job at Truth, having lied about his age. After 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 argues that despite winning a 1950 journalism award, he was blacklisted from news jobs for his part in having revealed 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 accurate reporting and 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, “I 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 — taking over from ex All Black Eric Boggs as host 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 particularly impressive try, he emphatically exclaimed “If that doesn’t earn [fullback] Billy Harrison a place in next week’s team, I’ll swim to Devonport blindfolded.” When 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 he 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. By 1970 he was embarking on “a round-the-world crash course in television”, traversing the globe to write a 70,000 word report on privatised TV, in a bid to win the licence a second channel. Backed by a quartet that included Robert Kerridge and James Wattie, the plan was for an independently-operated channel working in tandem with Government-mandated programming, offering community-organised educational content throughout NZ and the Pacific.
In 1972 the Broadcasting Authority called for applications to run a second channel. Hopes Dryden’s application might be judged before the 1972 election were dashed when the NZBC 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 his licence, but a few days later Broadcasting Minister Roger Douglas announced what was to come: two competing, state-owned corporations. Ultimately Dryden was paid $50,000 compensation for his research, which was never used.
Dryden’s experience on early talkback radio show Powerline soon saw him on the new second channel during 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, based on results taken from the previous elections’ most marginal seats. He regards the live interview he conducted with Muldoon two days after victory as “one of my best ever”, alongside another which asked the hard questions of 'miracle' cancer doctor Milan Brych. Dryden’s election work saw him recommended for his own weekly slot; in 1976 he began presenting current affairs programme Friday Conference.
On 4 June 1976, Dryden interviewed Abraham Ordia, president of the African Supreme Council of Sport. Ordia was in NZ hoping to discuss with Muldoon NZ’s continuation of sporting contact with South Africa, despite international sanctions. Ordia never got the meeting. But his interview with Dryden on Friday Conference 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.”
By 1977 Friday Conference had become Thursday Conference. That year Dryden began hosting twice-weekly current affairs programme After Ten, and alternating hosting duties with Sharon Crosbie on Question Mark. By now he had 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.
For much of the 80s Dryden was back in business, after co-founding multi-national home and decor publisher Trends, with David Johnson. He also spent time as a prominent member of the centre-right New Zealand Party, although 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 Dr. Jeannette Vos, the two discovered a lot of 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 just added best-selling author to his CV.
Dryden continues to write (including sequel book Unlimited), and is a regular speaker at education conferences.
Profile written by Simon Smith
'Gordon Dryden: A TV current affairs pioneer...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 9 May 2016. Accessed 9 May 2016
Gordon Dryden, Out of the Red (Auckland: William Collins Publishers, 1978)
The Learning Web website. Accessed 30 January 2016
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Karyn Scherer, 'The Industrious Revolutionary' (Interview) - The New Zealand Herald, 20 October 2008
'Gordon Dryden' Celebrity Speakers website. Accessed 30 January 2016
Learning Revolution website. Accessed 30 January 2016