New Zealand was an early adopter of radio and a late adopter of television. Until the 1960s radio was the main non-print medium. Radio broadcasting began as a private activity. From the 1930s it came increasingly under state control. Reforms in the 1980s led to an industry that by 2010 was once again overwhelmingly private.
New Zealand’s first identified broadcast of a radio programme was on 17 November 1921. It was made from the University of Otago by physics professor Robert Jack. The broadcast included music, such as the popular song ‘Hello my dearie’. Radio Dunedin (long known as 4XD) began transmitting experimentally in 1922 and is said to be the longest continuously broadcasting station in the Commonwealth. By the end of 1923 stations were broadcasting from Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson, Wellington, Whanganui, Gisborne and Auckland.
Clive Drummond recalls his excitement at hearing one of Robert Jack’s pioneering radio broadcasts in 1921: ‘So one night I … heard [the song] Come Into The Garden Maud. I can’t tell you what I said, but I nearly went through the roof, as you can imagine. All the sound you ever heard was morse and static, but to hear a voice – well!’1
Some early broadcasters, such as Jack in Otago and Clive Drummond in Wellington, were radio enthusiasts. Others, such as Wellington’s Charles Forrest and Douglas Shipherd, and Robert Burrell of Auckland, were businesspeople who saw the commercial potential of radio. Regular playing of records, coupled with occasional instrumental live performances, subtly promoted sales of records, musical instruments and radio receivers.
Initially, radio broadcasts were seen by most people as only of interest to a small number of enthusiasts and commercial operators. Radio broadcasts first gained the attention of politicians not because of their content but because they needed access to the radio-frequency spectrum, originally used for state-controlled communications and national security. As early as 1903 Parliament passed a law requiring the licensing of all stations sending or receiving ‘wireless telegraphy’. Radio broadcasts in the early 1920s raised fears that uncontrolled use of the spectrum would interfere with government activities.
In 1923 the state established an annual fee: five shillings for radio receivers (increased to £1 10s in 1925) and £2 for transmitters. Controls on broadcast content were also introduced. All content had to follow a strict moral code, advertising was banned, and Sundays had to have substantial religious programming. These rules were closely monitored by the Post and Telegraph Department..
In 1928 the Racing Conference banned radio race commentaries, fearing they discouraged people from going to the races and encouraged illegal gambling. Race commentators began plying their trade from step-ladders, trucks, delivery vans and vegetable carts outside racecourses. They also sent ‘spies’ on-course to obtain the results and dividends. The problem was solved in 1932 when the New Zealand Broadcasting Board agreed to pay for broadcasting rights.
In 1926 the Radio Broadcasting Company (RBC) was established to provide a national broadcasting service. It was set up by electrical engineer Ambrose Harris and dairy farmer William Goodfellow, who saw the value of radio for rural people.
While nominally a private company, the RBC was heavily state-influenced. Its main revenue came from a compulsory annual radio licence fee. The state licensed the right to receive transmissions and controlled the allocation of transmission frequencies. The company board was stacked with government officials and representatives.
Existing independent stations became known as ‘B’ stations, to distinguish them from the RBC’s ‘A’ stations. To avoid interfering with newspaper revenue, advertising on radio was prohibited. Many of the B stations only stayed on air because they were sustained by voluntary support or were subsidiary activities of radio and record retailers.
The 1920s saw the development of many standard radio features, including children’s programmes, broadcasts to schools and religious broadcasts. New Zealand’s first live sports broadcast covered the Australasian sculling championship in Nelson on 28 April 1923. Alan Allardyce made the first live rugby commentary in Christchurch in May 1926.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the establishment of the commercial radio services, announcers’ names began to be used regularly on air. Until that time announcers were usually anonymous, as broadcasting authorities frowned on the idea of ‘radio personalities’. The regular daily children’s programmes were conducted by a range of ‘uncles’, ‘aunties’, and ‘big brothers’, never their real names. In the small society of New Zealand, the public knew who the ‘anonymous’ announcers were, treating some of them as celebrities.
This, from 1958, was a typical introduction from Aunt Daisy to her morning radio show: ‘Good morning everybody! Good morning everybody, and we must talk very fast today, because we have to get off air at 25 past because of the drawing of the Art Union. So we have to go very, very quickly.’1
Maud Basham, known as ‘Aunt Daisy’, dominated the morning airwaves from 1936 until 1963 through the ZB commercial network. Her morning show began just after 9 a.m. each weekday. She was generally followed by an hour of radio serials, usually Australian, and then the ‘shopping hour’. Other regular features included stunts, quizzes, talent quests, sports results, radio plays, competitions and popular music. Commercial stations continued to get the most listeners in this golden age of radio. Evening radio was the centrepiece of listening, with extremely popular ‘give away’ shows such as It’s in the bag.
Well-known radio personalities and shows from the time included:
Phil Shone, a 1ZB breakfast show host, brought Auckland to a standstill on April Fools’ Day (1 April) in 1949. Shone persuaded thousands of listeners to place strips of paper smeared with jam or honey outside their houses, close all their doors and windows and don protective clothing before venturing out. These were precautions against a non-existent swarm of wasps that was supposedly descending on Auckland.
From the 1930s to the early 1960s the National Broadcasting Service’s programming included pre-recorded talks, religious programmes, comedies and radio drama. Many of the radio plays were locally produced. Music included light recorded work along with live performances by local brass bands, orchestras, instrumentalists and vocalists. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Gary Chapman’s easy-listening variety show, Saturday night at home, was popular enough to survive the introduction of television.
Sports broadcasting was one of the most popular features of the non-commercial YA stations. Commentator Winston McCarthy became legendary as ‘the voice of New Zealand rugby’.
The Official News Service consisted of a local bulletin, originally straight from the Prime Minister’s Department. From 1950 the government’s Tourist and Publicity Department produced the bulletin. International news was largely sourced from the BBC. In 1942 a Māori-language news service was established to broadcast war news. This service, read by Wiremu Parker, continued into the 1950s.
The 1950s saw state radio streamlined, with three basic programme structures emerging:
State-sanctioned broadcasting had great difficulty coping with post-war social changes. Popular artists such as Elvis Presley had carefully regulated airplay, while discs containing anything deemed offensive were physically mutilated to prevent their accidental broadcast.
After the National Party became the government in 1960, it began reducing government involvement in broadcasting. The New Zealand Broadcasting Service became a public corporation, renamed the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. The NZBC was finally allowed to establish an independent nationwide news service.
The recently arrived transistor technology helped New Zealand radio survive the onslaught of television in the early 1960s. Transistor radios were ideal for a youth audience, making radio portable – ideal for outdoor summer activities. They gave young people control over which station they listened to, whereas the tuning dials of big family radios had generally been in the hands of their parents.
The NZBC was also responsible for setting up a television service. Television, along with new social attitudes and tastes in music, presented major challenges for radio. Evening radio went into decline as people switched to television. This led to the demise of the big radio quizzes, ‘give away’ shows and talent quests, which were replaced by music-based programmes. Radio adjusted to no longer being New Zealand’s principal broadcasting medium.
Changes in society in the early 1960s were not strongly reflected on radio. Commercial stations did introduce disc jockeys such as ‘Cham the Man’, Neville Chamberlain. They played popular music, although generally the more mainstream songs. Broadcasting bureaucrats were not impressed, strongly resisting pop music and ‘foreign’ influence. In response a ‘pirate’ radio ship was launched in November 1966. Radio Hauraki, broadcasting from international waters, captured Auckland’s young listeners with its top-40 programming.
It was not all smooth sailing for pirate station Radio Hauraki during its 1,111 days at sea. Their first ship, the Tiri, was wrecked after running aground on Great Barrier Island in January 1968. Its replacement, the Tiri II, also ran aground, in June 1968, but was refloated. The last day of seaborne broadcasting, 1 June 1970, was marred by tragedy, with the drowning of announcer Rick Grant during the voyage back to Auckland.
In 1968 the government set up the Broadcasting Authority (BA), tasked with regulating broadcasting standards and licensing public and private radio stations. The BA took a more liberal approach than the NZBC had. In 1970 Radio Hauraki and three other private stations received licences, beginning a gradual reduction in state influence and control.
Changes in commercial radio formatting followed as more private stations gained warrants. Music stations focused on popular music. The talk radio format was established, beginning with Auckland’s Radio i featuring Eccles Smith and Gordon Dryden. Commercial radio entered a period of fierce competition. The tradition of radio stations providing ‘something for everyone’ disappeared. New stations focused on target audiences, determined by a range of factors including age, gender, social status and lifestyle.
The YA and YC services were able to broadcast nationwide signals from Wellington. Increased national content meant reduced local and regional programming. In 1964 the YA stations were rebranded as the National Programme and in 1975 the YC stations were labelled the Concert Programme. In the mid-1970s the National Programme launched flagship shows such as Morning report, Evening report (later renamed Checkpoint), and the Nine to noon show covering social and cultural issues. Many prominent broadcasters emerged through these programmes, including Geoff Robinson, Sharon Crosbie, Kim Hill and Sean Plunket.
The changes to the National Programme meant many traditional programmes lapsed. Drama was reduced to one small unit and religious programming was greatly diminished. Local music all but disappeared from public radio, a situation that persisted until the 1990s.
The Māori presence on the National Programme remained small. During the 1950s the Napier radio station broadcast Te reo o te Māori, a weekly half-hour programme in Māori, hosted by Ted Nēpia. In 1963 the show was absorbed by the NZBC’s Māori Programmes section, with coverage extended to eight stations. Te Reo o Aotearoa, a Māori and Pacific Island broadcasting unit, was set up in 1978. Significant Māori broadcasters from these programmes included Wiremu Kerekere, Haare Williams, Whai Ngata and Henare te Ua. Te Ua went on to front the Radio New Zealand programme Whenua from 1995 to 2003.
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:
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
The new Labour government established a royal commission on broadcasting in 1984, 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.
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 and features, and promoted local events. Relentless consolidation saw most stations swallowed up by the large networks.
By the early 2000s most 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. Other radio celebrities were:
The networking process also saw the creation in 1998 of Radio Sport, New Zealand’s first radio station dedicated to sports coverage and commentary.
By the 2010s 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%. Between 2001 and 2011 radio advertising dropped by just 2%. Over the same period advertising in newspapers dropped 10% and advertising in television 4%.
In 2013 there were 41 stations in the Auckland metropolitan area. This compares with London’s 36 stations and New York’s 43 – in cities with nine times Auckland’s population. There was one radio station for every 5,250 New Zealanders, compared to 1:250,000 for Sydney and 1:350,000 for London.
By 2011 New Zealand’s commercial radio was dominated by two major overseas-owned companies, The Radio Network (TRN) and MediaWorks. Between them they 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 it has also attracted critics, who argue that the dominance of commercial media, combined with the decline of public media, threatens ‘public space’ on the airwaves.
In 1989 the government established the Broadcasting Commission, soon renamed NZ On Air, to take care of the social objectives of broadcasting. Its remit redefined public broadcasting as local content: New Zealand-made programmes reflecting New Zealand identity and interests.
In 1993 NZ On Air devised the Kiwi Hit Disc to promote the radio play of New Zealand music. Compilations of New Zealand songs were sent out to radio stations on a monthly basis, to provide them with a continuous supply of new material by local artists. The scheme was later rebranded NewTracks.
NZ On Air was required to ensure a range of broadcasts providing for the interests of:
In 2001 the list was extended to include programmes for youth (14–21), and programmes which reflect the spiritual and ethical beliefs of New Zealanders.
NZ On Air was initially funded by the television licence fee, which was abolished in 2000. Since then NZ On Air has received direct government funding.
Radio New Zealand (RNZ) is New Zealand’s public radio broadcaster, funded through NZ On Air. RNZ has three principal services:
In the 2000s RNZ developed a prominent presence on the internet, providing real-time streaming of its programmes, on-demand access to most programmes as soon as they were broadcast, and a range of web-based material supporting live programmes. RNZ has a wide and eclectic audience; RNZ National attracted the largest audience share of any radio network in 2011, while RNZ Concert was said to have the largest per capita audience of any classical music station in the world.
The Iranian Cultural Society had a Farsi-language programme on Wellington Access Radio, with a potential audience of 50 Farsi-speaking families in the Wellington area. They had a simple way of determining that all of their potential audience was listening: whenever the programme advertised a social event, all 50 families turned up!
New Zealand’s form of community broadcasting is access radio. Resources and training are provided for community groups and individuals to make their own programmes. ‘Outside’ help is limited to basic radio skills training and access to technical resources. Minority ethnic programmes tend to dominate the schedule.
In 2013 there were four community access stations in the South Island and eight in the North Island. The communities involved range from rural Wairarapa to the melting pot of Auckland.
A ministerial directive in 1989 required NZ On Air to fund access radio. NZ On Air also concluded that radio was the most effective broadcasting medium for the country’s diverse communities. The deregulation of frequencies and markets in the late 1980s and 1990s opened up radio to community groups.
Access radio broadcasters tailor their programming to be eligible for NZ On Air funding. Community access radio therefore enjoys an unusually high level of state funding and support.
The first iwi radio station, Te Upoko o te Ika in Wellington, officially began broadcasting in 1987. It was developed from the pioneering experimental Wellington station Te Reo o Poneke (1983–86). Māori gained wider access to broadcasting frequencies from 1989, following a series of Waitangi Tribunal recommendations and court challenges to government decisions.
Twenty-one local iwi stations were set up between 1989 and 1994. Their licences stipulate that the frequencies must be used to promote the Māori language and culture, and be aimed at a primarily Māori audience. Support was provided by NZ On Air and, from 1995, by the Māori broadcast funding agency Te Māngai Pāho. Iwi stations are owned and controlled by Māori tribal interests, broadcasting within specific tribal areas.
Henare Kingi, former announcer at Te Upoko o te Ika, said, ‘A lot of elders thought if nothing was done about the language it would die out. That was one of the reasons why those who fought for the airwaves actually took it into their own hands, to the government and to the Privy Council, and later it was proved when we started broadcasting.’1
In 2013 there were a number of radio stations specifically mandated for ethnic or other minority groups, including:
These stations all receive state funding through NZ On Air or other government agencies.
A significant proportion of minority radio broadcasting is done by stations without state support. These operate either as fully commercial broadcasters or through support from sympathetic followers. Major contributors in this category include:
Otago University’s Radio One FM describes itself: ‘We're about variety. We're about diversity. We're about goodness. Our DJs cover everything from punk-pop futurefunk to bangin' bhangra beats, catchy synth singles to cosmic soul death disco. Planted at the heart of urban culture, sorting the gold from the gunk and turning it up – that's us.’2
Campus-based radio is often supported by the local students’ association. Student radio provides a range of alternative news, current affairs and opinion pieces aimed at a student audience.
The earliest student radio in New Zealand, Auckland University’s ‘Radio Bosom’, was launched illegally in 1969 as a capping stunt. It became Radio B in 1980 and was later renamed 95bFM. Over a 20-year period stations were established on six New Zealand university campuses. In the 1970s and 1980s student radio was one of the few platforms on which emerging New Zealand bands could get airplay.
Each campus radio is a stand-alone station, but occasionally they come together as an alternative nationwide radio network, bNet. Most stations receive a small amount of financial support from NZ On Air from a fund designed to support New Zealand music on radio.
New Zealand also has a large number of informal radio stations operating in what is commonly called the ‘guard band’. This is a small area of the radio spectrum set aside to prevent the ‘bleeding’ of one major user of the spectrum into another. Within this narrow band it is possible to broadcast a low-powered service. Guard-band stations cover a wide range of activities, from local commercial radio broadcasts through to schools, religious groups and individual hobbyists. It is estimated that up to 200 such services are operating at any one time.
Day, Patrick. A history of broadcasting in New Zealand. Vol. 1, The radio years. Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting History Trust, 1994.
Day, Patrick. A history of broadcasting in New Zealand. Vol. 2, Voice and vision. Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting History Trust, 2000.
Downes, Peter, and Peter Harcourt. Voices in the air: radio broadcasting in New Zealand, a documentary. Wellington: Methuen in association with Radio New Zealand, 1976.
Neill, Karen, and Morris W. Shanahan. The great New Zealand radio experiment. Melbourne: Thomson and Dunmore Press, 2005.
The radio book. Christchurch: New Zealand Broadcasting School, Christchurch Polytechnic, 1994.