The son of a Timaru grocer, John McBeth joined Radio New Zealand's programming department at its Timaru station Radio Caroline straight from school in 1967.
He was a passionate sports fan playing senior rugby as a winger and a utility back. His enthusiasm wasn't necessarily matched by his physique, and injuries became a regular occurrence. During one enforced lay off in 1970, he offered a sports service to Radio Caroline's Saturday music show. Broadcasting soon replaced playing on a permanent basis.
After moving around RNZ's provincial stations, McBeth joined 4ZB in Dunedin in 1973. He was still working in music programming, with sports reporting as an active side line. When Iain Gallaway, one of the masters of Otago and New Zealand sports broadcasting, retired in 1977, McBeth took his place as Carisbrook's resident rugby commentator. In February 1983 he was appointed to a newly created position as RNZ's chief sports reporter in Wellington. The role was part of a move by the broadcaster to put more emphasis on sports journalism.
McBeth became RNZ's main rugby commentator in 1985 and went on to call the 1987 and 1991 World Cups. His exclamation of "Whoop-dee-do" after John Kirwan scored a runaway try in the All Blacks' opening game in 1987, led to accusations he wasn't approaching the role with the Winston McCarthy-like gravitas some seemed to expect.
McBeth defended his right to maintain a sense of humour, but took his job very seriously, and won a number of awards for his radio reports along the way. He confessed to suffering from terrible recall and struggling to remember scores once games had finished ("it doesn't interest me, old scores and that sort of thing"). But his pre-match preparation was exhaustive and he told the Dominion Sunday Times, “broadcasters and good journalists prepare for a game just as fully and as hard over the final 24 hours as any All Black does. It’s not all fun and sitting in bars. Damn it.”
In 1991 he made his first appearance on television, presenting the Boots’n’All rugby chat show. This initial foray was followed a year later by his appointment as Television New Zealand’s lead rugby commentator, replacing Keith Quinn who had held the position for 17 years. The move was signalled as part of “an overall quality drive to update the presentation of rugby” on TVNZ. Quinn’s approach was apparently no longer “fashionable” at a time when coverage of Australian rugby league was proving highly successful.
McBeth’s radio work had allowed him to retain a degree of public anonymity, but he recognised this would now change. He told the NZ Herald that his highly visible new role would require "a square jaw, a thick skin and broad shoulders".
His tenure as lead commentator lasted until 1994 when TVNZ returned Quinn to the position and McBeth assumed the role of fronting rugby coverage and side-line commentary. The two were firm friends and their friendship was not affected by these changes in fortune. In fact, McBeth offered invaluable support when Quinn suffered a major health setback in 1996, before returning to commentating the following year.
An evolving media landscape was bringing further changes in fortune in this period. TVNZ had traditionally been New Zealand rugby’s TV broadcaster but now those rights went to Sky. TVNZ remained the free-to-air partner, with McBeth, Quinn and colleagues commentating on a limited number of games to pictures originating from Sky. In a further shake-up, TV3 became the free-to-air partner after the 2003 World Cup, ending TVNZ and McBeth’s involvement in rugby coverage.
He now worked across a variety of other sports, and continued to play a prominent role at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games (he even cameoed during the Olympic scenes of movie Via Satellite). McBeth also found himself coming to grips with America’s Cup yachting over four Team New Zealand campaigns for the Auld Mug, including being frontman for TVNZ during New Zealand’s historic 1995 victory. He confessed to Third Age NZ that “when I started, I knew that the pointy end of a yacht was the bow and the big thing sticking up in the middle was the mast and it had sails on it”.
With TVNZ’s sports broadcast rights dwindling, McBeth was made redundant in 2007 (along with Keith Quinn and Geoff Bryan) in a major restructuring. He took the news philosophically and began working as a freelance commentator.
On top of rugby, yachting and Olympic and Commonwealth Games track and field and swimming, John McBeth has commentated at two Winter Olympic Games, two Asian Games, two world bowls championships and a variety of other sports events. In 2010 and 2013 he was employed by the Oracle America’s Cup syndicate to assess and train television commentators.
On Keith Quinn’s website, he claimed that his proudest achievement in broadcasting was “never swearing in a commentary — or was it convincing a massive TV audience that I knew something about yachting during hundreds of hours of America’s Cup coverage?”