19 Nov 2021

Voices in the Air: Sarah Johnston on 100 years of radio

From Smart Talk, 7:05 pm on 19 November 2021
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Photo: RNZ

Read the full text of the talk

Kia ora koutou kātoa. Thank you to RNZ and National Library for organising this celebration of the start of radio in New Zealand, 100 years ago tonight.

Tonight is something of a game of two halves: first I will talk about the first broadcast of voice and music by radio and the start of radio broadcasting in this country – and then I’m also going speak about a research project I am working on, radio recordings made of New Zealand’s forces overseas during World War II.

I have always been a huge fan of radio, ever since childhood listening to the Weekend children’s request sessions, and then as a teenager, eating my breakfast with Morning Report coming out of the family transistor beside me. As a radio journalist I became one of those voices and worked for RNZ and Deutsche Welle in Germany, where I experienced the power of voices coming out of the air from the other side of the world. And as a sound archivist working with the Radio New Zealand archives, I learnt that that power of the voice doesn’t diminish with time – listening to a voice from 80 years ago can transport you not just through space but also time. Sound to me, has a power that in many ways seems different to that of visual images.

100 years ago tonight, an experimental radio broadcast took place which signaled the arrival of this brand new technology, radio broadcasting, in Aotearoa. In time, radio would transform many aspects of New Zealand society and usher in many changes, which have included competing media such as television and now the internet. But radio has adapted and survived.

So this evening we are going to listen to the past. But I should start with a disclaimer - that there is no recording of that first broadcast from November 17, 1921. In fact, there are no known recordings of any radio broadcasts in New Zealand until 1935.

This is because no radio broadcaster had recording equipment, until the National Broadcasting Service purchased some disc recorders in 1935. Up until that time, all radio was simply broadcast live-to-air and not recorded or archived in any form.

The exception was of course commercially recorded music, which was imported from overseas in the form of 78 rpm discs. And that is what New Zealand’s first radio broadcast of speech and music 100 years ago, largely consisted of. So we can at least get a feel for how that first broadcast sounded.

Prof. Robert Jack

Prof. Robert Jack Photo: Te Ara

The man responsible for the beginning of radio in Aotearoa was Professor Robert Jack of the Physics Department at Otago University. He had been at the university since 1914 after emigrating from Scotland. He had been experimenting with this new medium for some time.

Marconi had invented wireless telegraphy around the turn of the century – and it was being used to send messages using Morse code. Transmitting voice and music by wireless had been tested in several countries, with the world’s first radio station beginning broadcasts in the United States in 1920.

Jack himself had been picking up some broadcasts from overseas, include a boxing match in the United States. On a trip back to Scotland in 1920, he purchased some surplus military equipment, left over after World War I, which enabled him to take his wireless radio experiments to the next step – successful transmission of voice and music.

He made some tests broadcasts from one room to another at the university and he told the Otago Daily Times about his experiments with radio, in an article in August 1921.

He described the potential of radio to overcome New Zealand’s isolation, asking:

Why should the people of New Zealand not be allowed to hear the best things going? No country in the world stands to benefit more than New Zealand by thus having the disadvantages of its isolation removed.”

Wireless listening in the first two decades of the 20th century, was a very niche hobby. For a start you had to know Morse code to make any sense of what you were hearing. Then you had to build your own wireless set and submit plans of it to the Post and Telegraph office for approval. You had to jump through quite a few hoops to get a license to enable you to operate a wireless receiver. The government was not keen on amateur use of wireless telegraphy - it was only a few years since the end of the First World War. And even then, all you would be listening in to on your crystal set, was Morse signals and static, via a set of headphones on your head. So, it was fairly esoteric pastime – and the government tightly controlled this new technology as it was felt it could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Jack was collaborating with radio enthusiasts Frank and Brenda Bell, a brother and sister who had a rad io receiver on their family farm at Shag Valley in inland Otago. “Bobby” Jack, as his students called him – never to his face, was by all accounts a fairly austere Scots academic, but one of the records we know he chose to play as part of his test transmission on November 17th, was a rather saucy popular song from 1917 – and as it is the one song for which we have a confirmation that it was played in his test on and heard by listeners, it has gone down in the record books as the first song ever played on radio in New Zealand.

Hello My Dearie (Stamper/Buck) T.B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter, New York, NY, 1917.

Hello My Dearie (Stamper/Buck) T.B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter, New York, NY, 1917. Photo: The Library of Congress

“Hello My Dearie” was recorded on the Columbia label in 1917 by Cicely Debenham and Bertram Wallis. It was composed for a London stage show called “Zig-Zag” which had been popular with soldiers on leave from fighting in France and Belgium, during World War I. It then also featured in New York in the “Ziegfield Follies” of 1917. Lyrically, it takes as its theme another ‘new’ technology – this time from the late 19th century – the telephone, with the singer placing a call to her gentleman friend and suggesting a romantic rendezvous, a hook-up

That we have a copy of this historic recording at all, is due to the efforts of two gentlemen who were the keepers of our radio history for many decades: Peter Downes and Jim Sullivan, both former Radio New Zealand employees of many years. Peter and Jim hunted for many years in a pre-internet, pre-YouTube, pre-Spotify, pre-Shazam era to identify what this song was, and then to actually acquire this recording from 1917.

As I said, we have no recording of Prof Jack’s voice, but in 1971 RNZ’s predecessor, the NZBC, re-created the first broadcast for a radio documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the event. They found a suitably Scots gentleman and using Professor Jack’s original equipment, which is housed at Otago Museum, created this recording, which gives something of the flavour of that broadcast. So let’s listen now to what we would have heard coming through the airwaves, had we tuned in 100 years ago tonight.

“Hello My Dearie” and Prof Jack recording plays

So with that, New Zealand radio was on its way!

The average New Zealander would have been quite unaware of this momentous event, and as I mentioned, “Bobby” Jack’s initial test broadcasts were heard by only by a small group of dedicated wireless enthusiasts. Among them, as I said, were Frank and Brenda Bell, who were radio ‘hams’ about an hour away from Dunedin where Prof Jack was transmitting. Brenda Bell noted details of the reception that night in her diary: she wrote “Got some items from the Professor including one song, “Hello My Dearie.”

Some thirty years later, in a radio interview in the 1950s, she recalled that night and how they got the exciting news through to Otago University, to let the Professor know his test broadcast had been heard.

Brenda Bell audio plays

Otago Daily Times, 19 December 1921.

Otago Daily Times, 19 December 1921. Photo: Papers Past

Clive Drummond in The Evening Post.

Clive Drummond in The Evening Post. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library (EP/1955/1929-F)

Prof Jack obtained permission from the Post and Telegraph office to continue his test transmissions for two hours every Wednesday and Saturday night, which he did up until Christmas 1921 and this was reported in the local press.

Further afield in Wellington and Auckland, radio enthusiasts who were unaware of Jack’s experiments were very excited when tuning in for an evening, expecting to be listening to Morse signals, they suddenly heard a voice – and music!

Clive Drummond was a young Post Office telegraphist in Wellington and he would go on to become one of our best-known early radio announcers with a long radio career on 2YA in Wellington. However, later in life he recalled the moment in late 1921 when he unexpectedly discovered Jack’s broadcasts one night.

Clive Drummond audio plays

Realisation of the possibilities of radio began to spread. Word was reaching New Zealand of overseas broadcasts – and enthusiasts like Clive Drummond began forming radio societies and associations. In October 1922, under the patronage of Prof. Jack, the Otago Radio Association set up New Zealand’s first radio station. It was known by several names – for many years it was 4XD. It was the first radio station in Australasia and only the fifth in the world. Its broadcasts began ahead of the BBC by five weeks. And it is still broadcasting today as Radio Dunedin, one of the world’s longest-running radio stations, it will celebrate its centenary on air in 2022, an amazing achievement.

Wellington’s first radio station broadcast from the roof of O’Neill’s Buildings,
Cnr Tory St and Courtenay Place.

Wellington’s first radio station broadcast from the roof of O’Neill’s Buildings, Cnr Tory St and Courtenay Place. Photo: Sarah Johnston

Business owners, particularly retailers selling gramophone records and radio parts, saw the opportunities radio presented, and began to set up low-power stations on their premises.

Radio Record magazine,  03 August 1928.

Radio Record magazine, 03 August 1928. Photo: Macmillan Brown Library

Charles Forrest, who had a shop, the International Electric Company which sold radio parts, began Wellington’s first radio broadcasts from a studio on the roof of O’Neill’s Buildings, which are still on the corner of Tory St and Courtenay Place in Wellington.

Similar stations opened elsewhere. By the end of 1922 there were three stations in Dunedin two in Wellington and one each in Christchurch and Auckland. And 572 New Zealanders had obtained radio listening permits.

In January 1923 the government moved to further regulate this new industry.

New licences were introduced: five shillings a year to operate a receiving set i.e. a radio, two pounds to broadcast, “matter of an educative or entertaining nature” – no direct advertising permitted, although they could say where they were broadcasting from and who was providing the music you were listening too – usually the local music store.

The Radio Record, a weekly magazine began publication, letting listeners know what they could hear and how to get the best reception. In most cases broadcasts were only a few hours a night, on certain nights of the week, but the ability to hear music from out of the thin air slowly grew in appeal.

Lionel Slade was a member of the Christchurch Radio Society, which set up station 3AC and he explains how they helped spread interest in the new medium.

Lionel Slade audio plays

Radio advertisements, The Evening Post, 10 March and 20 December 1926.

Radio advertisements, The Evening Post, 10 March and 20 December 1926. Photo: Papers Past

Within five years of Jack’s first broadcasts, radio was being promoted as something your family needed to have. Advertisements in newspapers read “what is a home without a radio? Your family is missing too much without one.” No longer did you need headphones to listen – radios now had a speaker, a horn rather like a gramophone - so the family could all gather around. Listening was a shared experience – and this began the heyday of the radio as the entertainment hub of the home. There were now 4,700 radio licences in the country.

Radio stations remained in private ownership, with income restricted by the limitations on advertising. In 1925 the government entered into an agreement with the Radio Broadcasting Company based in Christchurch.

Their contract was for five years and was to operate 4 radio stations in the main centres, for which they would receive a share of the licence fees the government was charging listeners. These eventually operated under the call-signs 1YA in Auckland, and 2YA, 3YA and 4YA in the other centres. In Wellington, transmitter and masts were erected on Mt Victoria in 1927, while in Auckland they were on the roof of a Karangahape Rd department store, George Courts. Smaller private stations still continued to operate throughout the country.

What were they broadcasting? Programmes consisted of a lot of music – mostly live performances in the studio by local people. This was an era when most people could sing or play an instrument - and only a small amount of recorded music. They broadcast two hours a night, 8pm-10pm and often took live relays of music from local concert halls, dances and theatres. Sports broadcasts began, with the first rugby match being covered in May 1926 in Christchurch, and the first race meeting – trotting, broadcast a week later form Addington.

Children’s programmes began too, especially when broadcast hours were expanded into the afternoon and early evening, and quickly became very popular with songs, stories and letters from young listeners. Radio presenters adopted pseudonyms, and were known as a radio Uncle or Aunt – and one of them became probably our best-known radio personality, “Aunt Daisy” – Maud Basham, began her very long career, as a children’s radio presenter in the 1920s.

Whanganui Concert Party at 2YA Wellington, 06 February 1928.

Whanganui Concert Party at 2YA Wellington, 06 February 1928. Photo: RNZ collection, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Hare Hongi  - Henry Matthew Stowell (Ngāpuhi) c.1919.

Hare Hongi - Henry Matthew Stowell (Ngāpuhi) c.1919. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library (Ref: PAColl-7081-25)

The role of Māori on early radio was largely that of performers – concerts by local kapa haka were broadcast on 2Ya by groups like the Petone Maori Entertainers and groups from Ōtaki.

On Waitangi Day 1928, a very elaborate three-hour Pageant of Māori History was broadcast, one of the first national relays, heard on stations throughout the country – and also in Australia.

This involved the Prime Minister, Māori politicians Sir Maui Pōmare and Sir Apirana Ngata and a concert party from Whanganui, lead by Hamiora Hakopa.

This was considered a ‘big deal’ and in the day sleading up to the broadcast, radio retailers took out advertising inviting people who did not yet own radios to come and listen to the broadcast in their premises.

It was very well-received by listeners and had glowing reviews in the press.

The first scheduled programme that used te reo Māori on air regularly, was broadcast in 1928 and 1929. It was a “lecturette”, a 20-minute programme on correct pronunciation of te reo Māori and place names in particular.

Henry Stowell, who also went by the name Hare Hongi, was an author, historian and genealogist of Ngāpuhi descent, and he took over the programme which had been started by a te reo-speaking pakeha, JF Montague.

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By 1931 the Radio Broadcasting Company’s five-year contract was at an end and it was not renewed by the government, which reacquired the YA stations and proposed to run them under the BBC non-commercial model, with funding coming from licence fees.

There were 36 of the smaller, privately owned “B” stations in 1931, but they had a constant struggle financially for sponsorship and were often funded by donations from their listeners.

Eventually, the government moved to purchase most them as well, and nationalised broadcasting.

In 1935 the first Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage came to power. He was a great promoter of radio, seeing it as a way for his government to bypass conservative newspaper owners and speak directly to the people. New Zealand was the first nation to broadcast Parliamentary debates in 1936 and the government also established a commercial network, the ZB stations.

In January 1937 at the opening of station 2YA’s new transmitter at Titahi Bay, which made it the most powerful station in the country, Savage made a speech which summed up his belief in the power of the new medium:

MJ Savage audio plays

Sadly Savage’s belief in radio’s potential to ensure peace was overly optimistic and less than 3 years later, he would again use radio to broadcast to the nation on the outbreak of World War II.

So that was a very quick tour of the first decade or so of radio in New Zealand – and we now find ourselves at the start of World War II.

Professor James Shelley, 1931. Photograph by William Weigel for the New Zealand Free Lance.

Professor James Shelley, 1931. Photograph by William Weigel for the New Zealand Free Lance. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library (PAColl-6388-20)

Mobile unit broadcasters using a  portable disc recorder in Egypt, 1943.

Mobile unit broadcasters using a portable disc recorder in Egypt, 1943. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library (DA-03223-F)

The National Broadcasting Service, which the government set up to run the non-commercial YA stations, was headed by a former academic from Canterbury University College, Professor James Shelley.

He suggested to the government that a mobile broadcasting unit be sent overseas with New Zealand’s forces.

Shelley listed among its proposed activities:

“To make disc records of events, voices of personalities, eye-witness accounts etc., for sending to New Zealand to broadcast here and to form part of an historical library of the war for future use.”

He wrote that the unit’s work would have immediate value in maintaining the morale of the troops and the nation, by keeping New Zealanders in touch with their men overseas.

So that was the start of radio broadcasting heading off to war, and for the next 5 years, small teams of broadcasters would travel with New Zealanders in Egypt, Libya, Italy and the Pacific, recording their voices on mobile disc recorders.

Disc recording, which cut the sound onto lacquer discs, something like a vinyl LP, was still fairly new technology here, but using portable recorders meant that radio microphones could start recording outside the studio, and capturing the experiences of a broad range of New Zealanders – rather than just those who were invited to come into a radio studio.

The first mobile broadcasting unit sails from Wellington in August 1940 (L-R: Norman Johnston, Noel Palmer, Doug Laurenson)

The first mobile broadcasting unit sails from Wellington in August 1940 (L-R: Norman Johnston, Noel Palmer, Doug Laurenson) Photo: The New Zealand Listener, 13 Dec 1940.

They also started to capture actuality, so New Zealand radio listeners back home could ‘hear” the war in reports from the Mobile unit broadcasters.

These were either broadcast back to New Zealand via the BBC on shortwave radio – or if the recordings weren’t as time-sensitive, they were shipped back to New Zealand, which could take several weeks.

Here’s a short excerpt from one of their first recordings – made on board their troopship in August 1940 as they prepared to depart from Wellington with the Third Echelon.

Announcer Doug Laurenson is describing the thousands of men arriving on the docks by train and boarding the ship.

Doug Laurenson audio plays

The mobile units recorded eye witness accounts of campaigns New Zealanders were involved in, talks by troops on their part in the war – whether that was in action or in some other more mundane but vital work, like working in an army bakery, or the postal unit. But the recordings they became best-known for, the “voices in the air” that New Zealand listeners truly valued during the war, were the short messages home, that thousands of New Zealanders in the army, Royal Navy and Air Force got to record with the mobile units.

Arch Curry, NZ Broadcasting Unit, recording New Zealanders in the Cassino area, Italy, April 1944.

Arch Curry, NZ Broadcasting Unit, recording New Zealanders in the Cassino area, Italy, April 1944. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library (DA-05598F)

These messages, recorded on discs were sent back to Wellington from overseas, edited together into a weekly programme called “With the Boys Overseas”, which became appointment listening in New Zealand homes on Sunday nights through the war.

Here’s an example, recorded near Cassino in Italy in 1944. First we hear Arch Curry of the Mobile Broadcasting Unit and then messages from six New Zealanders who were serving in a Spitfire wing of the RAF.

Messages audio plays

There are around 1600 discs recorded overseas by the mobile units, suriving today in the RNZ sound archives at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. Ngā Taonga is currently digitising these recordings. I have been fortunate enough to receive funding from the Judith Binney Trust and the New Zealand History Research Fund to research and write about these recordings and I am working with Ngā Taonga to enhance the existing descriptions of their contents and verify the identities of the hundreds of New Zealanders whose voices are heard on them.

Mobile Unit recordings on lacquer transcription discs

Mobile Unit recordings on lacquer transcription discs Photo: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

This means eventually the digitised recordings can be listened to online and the voices of New Zealanders at war will be more easily discovered by their descendants.

I’m interested in the response to these recordings by New Zealand radio audiences during the war. So far I have learned that the Broadcasting Service was overwhelmed by demand from the public to hear more messages, to have them repeated, to know when their son or husband was going to be recorded. Māori listeners were particularly keen to hear recordings of their men, and the mobile units responded by recording concerts by the Māori Battalion, as well as messages from them. I’ll end tonight with one of these recordings.

Broadcasts of concerts by the Māori Battalion. The New Zealand Listener 12 Jun 1942.

Broadcasts of concerts by the Māori Battalion. The New Zealand Listener 12 Jun 1942. Photo: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision ID 12879

This is the mobile unit in Egypt in 1942 – We first hear Norman Johnston opening the broadcast by describing the scene and then a mihi from Private Tiaki Tapiri of Ōhinemutu, and finally the waiata “E pari rā”, from men of B Company of the Māori Battalion.

Concert audio plays

If you want to hear more recordings such as that, I recommend you visit the Maori Battalion website, as it has many of the mobile unit’s recordings of those men, available to listen to online. Also search on Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s website, and if you want to know more generally – or get in touch – I have a blog about my research project.

World War Voices homepage

Photo: World War Voices

Thanks to the National Library of New Zealand, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision, the Judith Binney Trust, and Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage for their partnership with RNZ on this project. 

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Photo: RNZ