Dame Beverley Wakem
Member since December 1989
Across the glossy surface of the Ombudsman’s boardroom table, Beverley Wakem adjusts the tiny microphone on her lapel with all the confidence of a seasoned broadcaster. “You get out of Rotary what you put into it,” she said.
“If you put as much into the club as your work and time commitments would allow, your opportunities for fellowship and service to the community can be very rewarding and worthwhile. And you meet some outstanding people.,” she added.
Beverley describes her membership as “an opportunity to put something back.”
“When I joined the club it was fairly conservative and a bit of an “old boys” club. From being a bit blokey and stuffy it has grown and developed to become very modern and innovative.”
Beverley was the first female member of the club. “In the old days when you became a member you were left to sink or swim – but these days there is a very well coordinated buddy system. You aren’t left alone so it becomes easier to build your networks.”
Nominated for membership by Tony Hassed, Beverley was all too happy to say “yes!” “I’ve been proud to see this club grow. It used to be thought of as a cheque book club, but in recent years it has once again become very active in the community. It’s much more of a sleeves-rolled-up-club these days but it hasn’t lost its quintessential dignity as the oldest established club in New Zealand.”
Beverley’s first brush with Rotary came in the form of a Rotary Graduate Fellowship. She applied because . “Nine years into my time with broadcasting I felt a bit like a sausage machine, I couldn’t see where my next career step would be because opportunities for women, particularly as an executive, were limited.”
Beverley’s Rotary Graduate Fellowship was made tenable at the University of Kentucky in the United States. Despite being her fifth choice, the University proved to be a stimulating and progressive environment with a well ranked school of diplomacy and several departments that Beverley believed to be cutting edge.
“It actually turned out to be an amazing experience,” she said. “It was an extraordinary university with about 20,000 students on campus.”
Beverley excelled at the School of Journalism and Communication, gaining more scholarships that enabled her to finish a Master’s degree in Communication. She recalls the opportunities availed to her through her university networks.
“There were ex-television network people amongst the staff in the faculty and I was given an introduction to go and observe the coverage of the 1972 presidential elections at NBC in New York.
“At the time, Richard Nixon swept back in, and the country came to rue that with the Watergate scandal – which I was there for. It was just a fascinating experience for someone with my background in news and current affairs.”
Prior to her stint in the United States, Beverley was employed by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as a cadet where she worked as Public Affairs Producer while completing the remaining two years of her undergraduate studies as an English and History major at Victoria University.
Upon returning from the United States, Beverley became the Executive Producer of District Current Affairs for Radio New Zealand and then Controller of Programmes for the following nine years.
“The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation had restructured following a royal commission of inquiry into the future of public broadcasting.
Radio New Zealand was being set up as a standalone entity. It had appointed a local director general and two assistant director generals, one from the United States and one from the BBC.”
“The American and the Englishman” saw Beverley’s potential, encouraging her to apply for vacancies for senior positions advertised in the circular. “They were for the top divisional heads of the organization and one of them was 11 grades ahead of where I was,” said Beverly, thinking for sure the pair had been mistaken.
“They can’t have meant those – I’ll wait.”
The night before applications closed Beverly received a panicked phone call - “where’s your application?”
Reminiscent of university days, Beverley stayed up all night writing an application for the position of news and current affairs chief and another for the senior divisional head for programmes, for which she was successful. When asked why she hadn’t considered herself a candidate for those senior roles Beverley said it had been the culture of the place.
“When I left there was no way that a woman could be promoted to a senior level and I didn’t understand what kind of a change the Englishman and the American were intent on making. Once I understood that I saw a door and thought – well I’m going through that door.”
Beverley set about pooling the ideas of the senior management team, “getting everybody to open their bottom drawers and pull out any idea they’ve ever had to see what we had to work with.”
“We reshaped the whole of the National Programme and introduced a new breakfast programme and made it more vibrant, lively and engaging.”
“They were exciting times. To be in on the ground floor and feel that you really were shaking the tree and making a difference was wonderful. We were modernizing the place, giving the staff a bit of air and space to be creative. They produced some wonderful work and I was able to elevate some extraordinarily talented people. And all I had to do is sit there and direct traffic – it was fantastic,” she laughed.
Beverley believes that she has been able to make a contribution in whatever she has done in her career. Her years in radio were the highpoint.
“I’d been in the place 26 years and at least 15 of those years near or at the top”.
“Public radio, especially in the absence of a national newspaper provides the glue that holds everything together in many ways. You felt that you are giving the country a voice. “It was challenging, creative, and frustrating at times,” she said.
Beverley’s roles demanded creativity, on which she thrived. With an illustrious career history under her belt, you would never imagine this mover and shaker once had aspirations to become an opera singer. “At one time in my life I had aspirations to be a singer. I have a deep contralto voice, but I realized that it wasn’t a big enough talent to take me where I wanted to go.”
“I still thoroughly enjoy music and theatre and my time as Chair of the St James Theatre Trust was the most fun I’d ever had in my life.”
“We ran the theatre profitably at the time, but it was like the biggest gambling game outside of Las Vegas. If the theatre is dark, you aren’t earning any money, so we completely redeveloped and refurbished. We built a wonderful atrium and used that for product launches and shooting commercials and we got the theatres re-established on the South East Asia touring circuit.”
“Refurbishing the theatre was risky. At times I thought - crikey - will we ever recover from this?”
Beverley believes that if she hadn’t been introduced to Rotary via her foundation scholarship it would simply have been a matter of time.
“I think it would have been inevitable that I would have found it – or it would have found me,” she said.
Researched and written by Lauretta Ah Sam, Communications Intern Dec 2011 - Feb 2012