Keith Slater started his journalism career in the woolshed, swapping yarns with his fellow shearers. Born in the Taranaki town of Stratford, Keith's family soon moved to a dairy farm just out of Auckland. He got his UE and took a job as a roustabout for a shearing gang, doing stints in the South Island, Australia and the United Kingdom. Shearing by day, he often disappeared off to the ute after sunset, to catch up on some Homer or Tolstoy — a personal favourite. “I had a passion for reading,” he said. "I read the classics, the rubbishy ones — whatever was around”.
Flying was another passion. He notched up flying hours and tried unsuccessfully to join the Royal Air Force, both in New Zealand, and while on his OE in the UK. A back injury put paid to shearing gangs so Slater scratched another itch, and headed to Waikato University to study Politics, Philosophy and English. One day he couldn’t find the right research material for an assignment, so hopped on his bicycle and headed for the Waikato Times office.
After a yarn with a journalist, Slater ended up following him on his round. New TV channel South Pacific Television soon caught his attention. Slater introduced himself to head journalist Jim Brown, and was invited to interview for a position. The new journalist was sent off for training in Auckland. “I stayed in the InterContinental," said Slater. "I couldn’t believe it”. Then it was back to Hamilton and into the newsroom. His first story to air was classic 'cute lamb' territory, but things soon heated up.
“Within my first week there was an abuction of a young girl in Hamilton, right after some drownings on the Waikato River. I covered the drownings and was off to Auckland with the story. On the road got a phone call. I had to hotfoot it back to Hamilton to cover the abduction. Outside the house was TV1 reporter Sue Kellaway and her team. She looked at me and said ‘well how shall we do this?' I said 'let's just knock on the door.' We both got interviews, got footage in the can and it was back to Auckland to each do our story...that night I had two of the big stories." .
Slater absorbed his craft. “Structure is key, it’s the essence of good storytelling.”
After the merger of TV1 and TV2's news department, Slater was transferred to Wellington to cover the agricultural rounds. His next career move couldn’t have been more suited. While covering the Golden Shears competition Slater met legendary Country Calendar producer Frank Torley, and soon joined the Country Calender team. One of Slater’s highlights as a writer/director was adding ‘Fleet’, the radio-controlled dog to the shows gallery of spoofs. Slater honed his skills in writing and directing, and was hand-picked for a producer training course.
In the late 80s he produced the long-running Fair Go. When TV3 arrived on the scene in 1989, Slater was approached by Rod Petersen, TV3’s head of News and Current Affairs, and offered a role as executive producer. His EP credits include 3 News, Nightline, A Current Affair, 60 Minutes and 20/20, which was awarded Best News and Current Affairs Programme four times running during his watch. The news teams were tight units, and rivalry between the state broadcaster and the fledgling channel was fierce.
In 1998 20/20 pipped its competition with a story exposing Christchurch doctor Morgan Fahey as a sexual predator. Controversially, 20/20 used a hidden camera to confront Doctor Fahey, and the story was subject to heated debate. A Broadcasting Standards Authority complaint was laid, then cleared. “We were facing the might of the medical establishment," said Slater. "But TV3 backed our team to the hilt”. The story won Amanda Millar a Qantas Media Award for Best Interview.
Slater also executive produced a range of special live broadcasts including elections, Waitangi Day and some major funerals. “Waitangi has a place in my heart: high theatre, high drama.”
In the early 2000s Slater "crossed to the dark side" back to TVNZ, to executive produce his favourite current affairs show, 60 Minutes. In 2002 he returned to TV3, where along with News and Current Affairs Chief Mark Jennings, he was a backbone of the TV3 newsroom. He became chief of the Auckland News Bureau and as his wife, journalist Janet McIntyre puts it, the "go-to guy with so much knowledge and experience"; Jennings recalls Slater's "laser-like" ability to find the weak point in any story.
Slater helped Jennings with the practicalities of producing nightly current affairs show Campbell Live, while still enjoying "the daily grind" of life in the newsroom. Under Mark Weldon’s tenure the MediaWorks newsroom faced major cuts. Slater left TV3 News (now Newshub) in 2016 and was soon working on a beloved story: a project with aviation historian Larry Hill on three Kiwi fighter pilots who had fought in some famous WWll air battles. With funding from NZ On Air he produced four mini-documentaries in time for Anzac Day in 2017. Last of the Few screened as a video special on the Stuff website. Stuff digital editor Mark Stevens described Slater as ‘one of the industry’s best storytellers’.
As of 2017 longform journalism faced an uncertain future, but Slater remained undeterred. “There’s enough room for all of us: TV, radio, new media," he said. "There will be enough room”.
Slater passed away in late June 2017, after a fight with pancreatic cancer. On hearing the news, ex TV3 reporter Melanie Reid — who worked with Slater for almost 25 years — recalled his "kindness, tolerance, and intelligence". She also remembered the time the two walked into a shearing shed in North Otago, while doing a story for 60 Minutes. "We could tell the farmers thought 'here are a couple of Jafas from Auckland'. One yelled out to us 'have you come to shear some sheep mate?' Keith ambled over, grabbed the blades and sheared a couple of sheep with absolute precision. You could have heard a pin drop.”
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Mark Jennings, 'Journalism loses a true hero' Newsroom website. Loaded 23 June 2017. Accessed 24 June 2017
Chloe Winter, ‘NZ On Air funds six documentaries investigating NZ culture and issues’ Stuff website. Loaded 12 December 2016. Accessed 24 June 2017
Unknown writer, 'Legendary newsman Keith Slater dies' - The NZ Herald, 23 June 2017
Unknown writer, ‘Last of the Few: A special video series revealing the stories of daring and courage of three of New Zealand's surviving air veterans’ Stuff website. Loaded 24 April 2017. Accessed 24 June 2017