The world’s first sports commentary on the then-newfangled medium of radio is believed to have involved boxing in the United States in 1921. Before then sports reporting was almost totally in newspapers and magazines.
The first broadcast in New Zealand followed a race for the Australasian sculling championship in Nelson on 28 April 1923. The race’s progress was relayed from a launch on Nelson Harbour.
By 1926 in Christchurch, Alan Allardyce had secured work with a local radio station. Not content with studio work, he began to experiment with outside broadcasts of local popular sports events, including trotting, cycling and hockey.
On 29 May 1926 Allardyce commentated on a charity rugby match between High School Old Boys and the Christchurch club on Radio 3AC. It was the first live sports broadcast in New Zealand with exact mentions of game details. The match had been previewed in the local morning paper the Press, but there was no report afterwards.
Test matches on radio
The very first radio broadcast of a rugby test match was from Twickenham in London in January 1927. The following year the touring All Blacks in South Africa had their test matches broadcast live to local audiences, and by 1930 radio description of tests had arrived in New Zealand. The first rugby test between New Zealand and Great Britain to be broadcast was at Carisbrook in Dunedin on 21 June 1930. The commentator was Alfred Canter of Dunedin.
‘Goodnight, mother dear’
For 16 days in 1932 the New Zealand expatriate actress Nola Luxford provided a daily one-hour radio report about the Los Angeles Olympics for Australian and New Zealand listeners. It was the first reporting on the games from a New Zealand perspective. Previously all reports had come through Press Association wireless and cable. Luxford always ended her reports with ‘Goodnight, mother dear.’
Radio’s golden years
In the 1930s radio commentary of sports events quickly became familiar in New Zealand. This was particularly common for rugby, cricket, wrestling, horse racing and trotting, although commentaries were done at many major sports events.
Winston McCarthy became a significant influence on world sports broadcasting in the 1940s and 1950s. Born in Wellington in 1908, he dabbled in radio as an amateur for some years before being dispatched to commentate on the post-war 1945–46 New Zealand ‘Kiwis’ army team’s tour of the UK and Europe. McCarthy’s colourful manner of commentating was in stark contrast to the staid style which had built up in the previous 20 years in Britain, and he gained instant fame. Over the next 15 years he broadcast in dramatic fashion 38 All Black tests at home and on tours. When McCarthy retired it was said he was one of the world’s most recognisable New Zealanders. He also commentated at the 1950 and 1954 Empire Games and the 1956 Olympic Games.
‘Listen, listen … it’s a goal!’
Winston McCarthy’s most famous phrase invited listeners to pay attention to the roar of the crowd following a successful kick at goal. He was also known for colourful phrases such as ‘Goodness gracious me’ and ‘Put it in again, sonny’.
The tradition of sending radio commentators to broadcast back the ‘New Zealand version’ of major overseas sports events involving New Zealand teams began with Winston McCarthy and continued in the 2000s. Live radio commentaries are standard procedure, but commentators also service the many radio news and programme outlets that have sprung up.
For many years radio sports commentary was heard free of commercial interruption on state-owned radio, but in 1998 a commercial Radio Sport was established and began to provide live commentaries of most major sporting codes such as rugby league, football, rugby, cricket, athletics and bowls. Radio Sport also hosted extensive talkback sessions on sporting matters.
Noteworthy radio broadcasters or commentators have included:
- rugby – Ken Anderson, Brian Ashby, Paul Allison, John Howson, Bob Irvine, Joe King, John McBeth, Jack McGuinness, Graeme Moody, Brian Russ, Colin Snedden and Charles Williams
- cricket – Iain Gallaway, Alan Richards, Colin Snedden (again) and Bryan Waddle
- rugby league – Raymond Cody, Murray King and Des White
- Olympic and Commonwealth Games – Garry Ahern, Lance Cross and Charles Martin
- general reporting and historical reporting – Peter Sellers
- Gordon Hutter, a racing commentator and a famous broadcaster of wrestling in the 1930s.
Partly because of off-course betting, radio commentaries of racing and trotting have long been popular in New Zealand. Since 2005 race commentating has been administered by the Totalisator Agency Board (TAB).
There have been some outstanding New Zealand racing commentators who developed a distinctive ability to speak fast and accurately and raise the pitch of their voice as the race reached a climax. Among racing commentators of note have been Dave Clarkson from Christchurch, who was named commentator of the century in 1974, and Reon Murtha, also from Christchurch. Peter Kelly, based in the lower North Island, called about 23,000 races, including 28 Wellington Cups, from 1955 to 1973. Reg Clapp, the ‘voice of the north’, was a well-known caller of harness races for more than 40 years from 1948, especially at Alexandra Park in Auckland. His equivalent for the gallops in Auckland was Syd Tonks.