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Radio man tunes in for early harbour crossings

Flagstaff Team

Andrew Dickens leaves his Devonport home before dawn each day to host breakfast on the radio. He tells Helen Vause about his long career on the airwaves – and how getting serious about his health paid off.

Veteran broadcaster Andrew Dickens and his family moved across the harbour to live in Devonport just before lockdown late last summer.

For a short while, he enjoyed relative anonymity, exploring the local maunga and beaches and settling in happily. But everyone soon worked out he was that guy from radio.

And he didn’t spend much time working from home in lockdown. The veteran broadcaster’s work was considered an essential service.

Dickens and his partner, Helen, landed in a cul de sac where everyone was mostly home, waving out, chatting in a socially distanced way and taking care not to trip over each other in their comings and goings.

It’s a friendly spot. Even while he chatted with the Flagstaff about his life and times in commercial radio, there was a knock at the door from a neighbour arranging welcoming drinks for another newcomer to the neighbourhood.

After decades in a rambling Ponsonby villa, the couple had decided to downsize, but wanted to be close to the city.

A big apartment in central Devonport was the answer – if they could avoid a daily battle with Lake Rd traffic.

Electric scooters were their first purchase. Dickens reckons they can whizz to the ferry in 30 seconds, cross the water and then shoot off anywhere else they want. A perfect solution, he says. “They’re the way of the future.”

Not that they help for his own commute. As breakfast host on radio station Gold, he has to drive over the harbour bridge well before dawn – and before the ferries start running – and is wrapping up on air just as the last of the commuters straggle into work.

At 58, Dickens has spent many years in broadcasting, mostly in commercial radio where it’s best not to get too comfortable in case they drop the show, take your chair away or, one way or another, show you the door. Sometimes, of course, a broadcaster moves on because of a better offer.

Dickens says getting fired a few times and rolling with it is all part of a career that’s taken him through many towns and stations and some stints overseas.

“Sometimes you would see the end coming, of course. These days, better contracts make it more secure but we’re paid less,” he laughs.

Covid also brought job losses and tightening media budgets, he notes.

Dickens jumped at the chance to host breakfast on Gold, when the station was launched last year, and he was able to hang on to a Monday-afternoon slot on Newstalk ZB.

He’s been doing the early morning starts since last July, and says for an early bird like him getting up and off just after 4.30am on weekday mornings is a breeze.

Early nights work well in his household, he says, and occasional afternoon naps can cover the rest of the sleep deficit.

As you would expect of a radio host, Dickens can talk a mile a minute in sharp, witty style.

You can tell there could be plenty more words ready to tumble out if there’s a story to be told, or repartee to engage in.

Dickens’ flair with performance started with drama when he was a student at Auckland Grammar School.

When he headed to the University of Auckland to study law and science, his parents may have imagined their articulate son holding the floor in a courtroom one day.

But just weeks into his student days, someone lured him into campus radio station bFM. “I just loved it from the minute I walked in the door. The buzz, the excitement of radio. That was it for me, I was hooked and that was pretty much the end of the studies,” he recalls.

When the station was looking for a manager, the then 18-year-old leapt at the job, while continuing to work on air.

Not that he told his parents he’d flagged the studies and legal career in favour of a start in radio. They would hear about it soon enough.

“I instantly knew it was for me,” says the broadcasting veteran of four decades.

He took jobs where he could find them. In his early 20s, there was the midnight-to-dawn shift in Hamilton.

He also had stints in Greymouth and Whanganui, before returning to Auckland to work for Radio Hauraki.

He found his way to a course in journalism at AUT, adding to his skills, and from there had a period with state broadcaster Radio New Zealand as a journalist and presenter. The cut and thrust, living-on-the edge lure of commercial radio drew him back, however.

On his OE, he landed a job at an English-speaking station in Monaco and lived in the South of France for almost three years.

On returning to New Zealand, he eventually found the role that turned out to be ‘the big one’ for him at the time, doing breakfast at Classic Hits.

It became the top-rating music breakfast show, and he had 13 years in the chair until being ‘let go ’ in 2010.

Dickens loves putting music to air but he also enjoys talk radio, thrashing out the issues and making his opinions pretty clear.

He says it doesn’t faze him when the screen in front of him lights up with multiple ‘likes’ ‘hates’ or ‘right on mate’.

“One day you could overdo it and find yourself out. But I’ve reached the stage where I’m not afraid of that any more,” he says.

“You get past being scared.”

“I just loved it from the minute I walked in the door. The buzz, the excitement of radio. That was for me, I was hooked…”

But he is scared of cancer. At 40, he realised his was a high-stress life and that he wasn’t bulletproof.

He asked his doctor to start a regime of annual health checks and although he was considered far too young to be worried about prostate issues, he ticked that test box too when he had a moment alone with the lab forms.

For years, there was nothing doing with the prostate. Until, one day in 2019, his doctor called him in to say the latest test indicated trouble could be brewing.

It was, and in November of that year Dickens had his prostate removed. It’s all fixed now, he will tell you – and he will quickly flash the scars.

But this health experience gave him one of the frights of his life.

What if he hadn’t been checking? His specialist told him the outcome could have been very different had the aggressive cancer been left undetected much longer.

“The unthinkable had just happened to me – we don’t do cancer in my family.”

What about all the men who might not be checking for prostate problems? Dickens decided he was just the guy to go very public on what had happened to him and he’s lost count of how many men wanted to talk to him about their own scares and prostate stories.

He is passionate about the need for men to have regular health checks.

Looking forward, the radio legend says there is still plenty more mileage in him on air and maybe more opportunities lay ahead.

There have been many milestones along the way but one he particularly likes to retell is the meeting of his life partner Helen (and mother of their two grown sons) over 40 years ago, before that fateful leap into radio.

“We met on stage when we were at school doing The End of the Golden Weather. She was 15 and I was 17.”


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