State control – the NZBB versus the B stations
In 1932 the Radio Broadcasting Company (RBC) was replaced by a government agency, the New Zealand Broadcasting Board (NZBB), which inherited the RBC’s stations. The number of stations and range of programmes increased, but the conservative nature of broadcasting did not change. Programmes on state-owned stations generally followed a formal structure resembling a concert. Evening broadcasts sometimes included an interval, and close-down was never later than 10.00 p.m.
An informal code stipulated that broadcasters avoid any vulgarity or political or social controversy. ‘Controversial’ visitors to New Zealand were prohibited from broadcasting, including the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti and British monetary reformer C. H. Douglas. The state-controlled A stations were often criticised for bland and unpopular programming.
They’re playing our tune
The cash-strapped B stations often relied on listeners to donate the latest records. In 1932 sailors from the ship Kaponga gave a new single to 3ZR Greymouth. In gratitude, 3ZR played the tune twice as the Kaponga left port. The ship was immediately wrecked on the Greymouth bar, fortunately without any loss of life. The aptly named song was, ‘He played his ukulele as the ship went down.’
Many listeners preferred the livelier, independent B stations. They were subject to strict government inspection and were still forbidden to run advertisements, but from 1931 programmes were allowed to carry the name of a sponsor. New Zealand’s first radio personalities appeared on the B stations. ‘Uncle Scrim’, Colin Scrimgeour, was particularly popular. Scrimgeour, a Methodist minister, addressed the social issues of the economic depression in his 1ZB religious programme, the Friendly road. The government jammed Scrim’s 1935 pre-election broadcast, fearing that he would encourage listeners to vote Labour. The discovery of this action sparked a public outcry.
Labour – the state takes all
In 1935 the newly elected Labour government made broadcasting a state department. The New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS) took over all of the NZBB’s functions. In opposition Labour had championed the B stations; once in power they changed their policy to one of state purchase. The NZBS absorbed all of the B stations, other than Gisborne’s 2ZM (renamed 2XM) and Dunedin’s 4ZD (renamed 4XD). With these two exceptions broadcasting became a state monopoly, remaining so for the next 25 years.
Radio in the 1930s
New Zealand in 1930 had 53,407 licensed radios, one radio for every 25 people. By 1939 there were 317,509, one for every 5 people. This was the third-highest licensed radio density in the world, after Denmark and Sweden. The new mass communicator proved its worth after the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, when radio acted as a vital information tool.
The new structure under Labour
Due to Labour’s distrust of ‘hostile’ newspaper coverage, New Zealand became the first country to provide regular live broadcasting of Parliament. The government also created the world’s first state-owned commercial radio organisation. Advertising was allowed on commercial stations from 1936. In 1937 the NZBS was split into two divisions, the non-commercial National Broadcasting Service (NBS) and a state-run commercial division, the National Commercial Broadcasting Service (NCBS).
James Shelley, former professor of education at Canterbury University College, was appointed to run the NBS, while Colin Scrimgeour was in charge of the commercial service. Their approaches clashed. Shelley saw radio as a means of cultural education, while to Scrimgeour it was a source of popular entertainment and information.