The spread of private broadcasters, 1970s to 1980s
During the 1970s there was a rash of broadcasting legislation as changing governments tried to maintain control of the airwaves. Radio New Zealand (RNZ) fiercely resisted competition, challenging every application to the Broadcasting Authority (BA). Gradually state influence and control over broadcasting waned.
The number of private radio broadcasters rose from five in 1972 to 22 by 1984. Radio personalities of the time included breakfast hosts:
- Merv Smith on Auckland’s IZB (1963–86)
- Kevin Black (‘Blackie’) on Radio Hauraki
- Barry Corbett on 3ZB in Christchurch for 16 years
- John ‘Boggy’ McDowell on Invercargill’s Classic Hits FM from 1979–2012.
A long wait for FM
The first warrants for FM (frequency modulation) radio stations in New Zealand were issued in August 1982. Entrepreneurs had been applying to set up FM stations since 1963. The broadcasting authorities resisted such newfangled technology. As the NZBC stated in 1963, it saw ‘no justification for such an innovation in the foreseeable future, high quality reception being available from the present amplitude modulation (AM) systems’.1
Deregulation, 1989 to 1996
In 1984 the new Labour government established a royal commission on broadcasting, only to reject its recommendations. The government decided instead to completely deregulate New Zealand’s broadcasting structure, beginning in 1989. The National government completed the task in 1996, selling RNZ’s commercial stations to overseas broadcasters. These changes were designed to increase competition and consumer choice, while separating commercial from non-commercial broadcasting.
Increase and consolidation
The number of radio stations dramatically increased following deregulation, reaching nearly 300 by 1999. Initially, most commercial stations were local, with programming reflecting the interests of their target audiences. Stations provided news, sports, current affairs, features and promoted local events. Relentless consolidation saw most stations swallowed up by the large networks.
By the early 2000s the overwhelming percentage of airtime originated from network sources in Auckland. Commercial radio promoted national celebrities such as Paul Holmes, breakfast host on Auckland’s NewsTalk ZB stations from 1987. Holmes was comfortable and successful in both radio and television, along with:
- Mike Hosking (NewstalkZB)
- Peter Sinclair (Radio Avon, ZMFM)
- Simon Barnett (More FM, Christchurch)
- Paul Henry (Radio Pacific, Radio Live).
The networking process also saw the creation of Radio Sport in 1998, New Zealand’s first radio station dedicated solely to sports coverage and commentary.
By 2013 New Zealand had a large number of radio stations servicing a relatively small population. The country’s commercial radio stations have led the world with their percentage of the total national advertising expenditure. Over many years radio’s share averaged 12%. From 2001 to 2011 radio advertising had dropped around 2%. Over the same period newspapers dropped 10% and television dropped 4%.
A station for everyone
In 2013 there were 41 stations in the Auckland metropolitan area. This compares with London’s 36 stations and New York’s 43 stations. Both those cities have nine times Auckland’s population of 1.3 million. There was one radio station for every 5,250 New Zealanders compared to 1:250,000 for Sydney and 1:350,000 for London.
The structure of commercial radio in New Zealand
By 2011 New Zealand’s commercial radio was dominated by two major overseas-owned companies, The Radio Network (TRN) and MediaWorks. These two companies owned around 80% of the more than 320 individual licensed commercial radio stations. TRN and MediaWorks were reported in 2012 to have a combined audience of 89% of commercial radio listeners.
In 2013 TRN owned six national networks and one localised network. MediaWorks had eight national and two localised networks. Localised networks offered the same format nationwide but also provide a range of local content. All the national networks originated from Auckland. TRN was wholly owned by the Australian Radio Network, which in turn was owned by APN News & Media (Australia) and Clear Channel Communications (United States). MediaWorks’ largest owner was the Australian private equity firm Ironbridge Capital.
Private radio has been commercially successful, but has also attracted critics. They argue that the dominance of commercial media, combined with the decline of public media, threaten ‘public space’ on the airwaves.