OMC never escaped the shadow of hit single 'How Bizarre'; Karyn Hay will always be associated with her first television gig. In the early 1980s, Hay found fame for a five-year stint hosting music show Radio with Pictures. As Listener writer Diana Wichtel puts it, Hay's unreconstructed Kiwi vowels "were, depending on your point of view, the end of civilization as we knew it or a breath of indigenous fresh air". Civilization continued; so did Hay's rich career.
Hay grew up in a tiny Waikato town (Waitoa), near Te Aroha. Growing up, Hay watched local music shows Happen Inn and C'mon. Her father worked at a dairy factory and played banjo; her mother did sewing work. Hay argues that "from the moment I could breathe" she had a problem with authority: "at school, with my parents, with my first job at Radio New Zealand". Her uncle was a member of Tauranga pop band The Four Fours, later to morph into blues rockers The Human Instinct; Hay would be more excited by poetry and Sartre. Her older brother started in televison before her.
As journalist Veronica Schmidt put it, "the thought of arguing for a lvinig prompted her to apply for law school". Then she heard about a cadetship with Radio New Zealand. Starting at Hamilton's 1ZH, she began copywriting (writing advertisments); the job took her to Napier and Auckland's Radio Hauraki, where she revelled in relative freedom, and was awarded for a punk rock poem advertising a gig at The Gluepot.
At Hauraki she began working as a DJ, shortly before the channel went commercial. Then she wrote to TVNZ, suggesting they might like a new presenter for alternative music show Radio with Pictures. Female music hosts were a rare species on Kiwi television. "She was right for the times", said RWP producer Peter Blake in 1984. "After the whole punk new wave thing, the music was changing, and the programme with it."
Initially Hay came in for her share of flak - she was female, there were indications she could not list Traffic's entire back catalogue in exact order of release, and then there was her voice. Although New Zealand announcers no longer universally channelled BBC style pronunciation, as had been the case in previous decades, the Kiwi accent had only occasionally reached screens in its full glory. Radio with Pictures director Simon Morris argued that the people ringing up to complain "were nearly all women, and they'd say, 'Oi can't believe her voiyce. It's droidful!'
Hay stayed for five years, winning over a number of fans in the process. Off-screen, she joined the campaign to introduce a local music quota, and criticised narrow-minded radio stations and the glass ceiling.
"She was cool in a deadpan way," remembers Morris. "You'd play a clip that was totally hyped up, like Duran Duran, and the contempt on her face would be palpable."
In 1987 Hay exited New Zealand for London with partner Andrew Fagan, ex-lead singer of pop band The Mockers. Love was in the air from the moment Fagan was called over for an interview, and sat down curled-up at her feet. The couple bought their new home, boat the Moonfleet Smuggler, within a week of arriving. For at least the next decade, they were anchored mainly in London (where Hay worked as a DJ), inbetween return stints to New Zealand. The couple talk about their time in London in the Gary McCormick documentary Connections - The London Connection.
Returning to New Zealand in the early 90s, Hay was "absolutely shocked" at how local television had become so ratings orientated. She began training as a studio director at company Kids TV. Feeling that involvement was better than complaining, in 1992 she took over presenting duties on late night music show Coca-Cola TVFM. Hay also worked on scripts and programming for the show.
When arts magazine programme The Edge launched in 1993, Hay was enlisted to direct some pieces, and do occasional film reviews. But it was hard to keep her away from music for very long. In 1995 she joined fellow ex-RWP host Dick Driver to produce a new music show, loosely modelled on Radio with Pictures. Music Nation was hosted by Bic Runga and Ian Hughes.
The 90s also saw Hay directing a number of music videos, including songs by The Verlaines ('Mission of Love'), Shona Laing ('Mercy of Love'), and an almost hit from The Dribbling Darts of Love: 'Hey Judith'.
Having decided long before that she would become a writer in her 30s, Hay's debut novel Emerald Budgies emerged in 2000. A darkly comic tale of drug addiction and betrayal, it won the full gamut of reviews, and the 2001 Hubert Church Best First Book Award at the Montana Book Awards. Unhappy at still being described as 'the girl from Radio with pictures', Hay had originally decided on the nom de plume Lee Maxwell after finding a British publisher. But on the book tour that followed, she felt like an imposter in a spy movie. "I started thinking, maybe I don't want to be this new person, maybe it's not so bad being Karyn Hay."
By 2004, Hay was alternating morning radio for rock'n'roll station Channel Z, with writing in the afternoon, after becoming a Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellow. A long time supporter of Kiwi music, Hay was made general manager of Channel Z in 2006, after it had been reborn as 100 per cent New Zealand music station Kiwi FM.
In 2004, Hay spent a fortnight in East Timor for an episode of travel show Intrepid Journeys. In 2008 she decribed her latest show as presenter, Rocked the Nation — a show which involved "trawling through 500 hours of footage, followed up with a series of discussions that eventually resulted in a punch-up".
Hay was hosting breakfast radio on Channel Z, when the programme director suggested bringing in Hay's husband as co-host. Although "never a planned collaboration" , the two continued to broadcast together in a night-time slot on Radio Live, before Hay went solo in 2015. That year she caught up with an array of legendary female musicians for TV documentary NZ Women in Rock. She also presented a mini-season of Kiwi documentaries for the Rialto Channel.
In 2018 it was announced that Kay was set to join Radio New Zealand for a new late night show, playing on week nights. In 2020 she was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to broadcasting and the music industry.
Profile updated on 2 January 2020
Glenn McConnell, 'Karyn Hay returning to Radio New Zealand with a few pictures' Stuff website. Loaded 16 January 2018. Accessed 2 January 2020
Pamela Stirling, 'Who's that girl?' (interview) - The Listener, 10 March 1984, page 14
Veronica Schmidt, Hayday' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times (Sunday pullout), 11 July 2004, page 23
Laura Weaser, 'Karyn Hay takes the lead' (Interview) - The NZ Woman's Weekly, 15 September 2015