Kiwi Radio Legend – Ambrose Reeves Harris
I recently met with Winstone Harris in Christchurch and we spent several hours chatting about his fathers pioneering role in establishing radio broadcasting in New Zealand and his own memories of those early days. We’re fortunate that some of our earliest radio heritage remains within living memory of those closely connected at the time.
Young Ambrose traveled to the USA to work alongside Thomas Edison at his Edison Laboratories between 1910-1913. The world of radio in those days was small enough for a young electrical engineer from Wanganui to work directly with Edison, and when he returned home he helped construct the Lake Coleridge power station near Christchurch and introduced fleets of battery powered trucks to local businesses decades before the current ‘eco’ vehicles were in vogue.
As Edisons’ representative in New Zealand, Ambrose moved into selling a range of electrical goods, including early radio receiving sets. By the mid-1920’s he and dairy farmer William Goodfellow negotiated to establish a national broadcasting service and together they formed the Radio Broadcasting Company of New Zealand that began operation in 1925.
This private business operated stations 1YA Auckland, 2YA Wellington, 3YA Christchurch and 4YA Dunedin. It also installed a transmitter for 2YB New Plymouth and supplied programs to provincial stations 1ZH Hamilton, 2ZF Palmerston North, 2ZD Masterton, 3ZR Greymouth and 4ZP Invercargill.
From its headquarters in Christchurch, the RBC effectively introduced through its programs a shared feeling of what it was like to be a New Zealander at the same time as radio sets appeared in every home and ‘talkies’ graced cinema screens.
The ‘Radio Record’ a weekly publication listing the RBC’s programs was launched 80 years ago in 1927 and soon became one of the nations most popular and well read magazines with feature columns about radio, film, stage and theater productions.
Ambrose was a man interested in modern and efficient management methods, and he built both the RBC and his own company, AR Harris Limited on foundations of fairness and free enterprise.
Winstone remembers his father taking radio receivers to their holiday home at the Selwyn Huts [near Christchurch] and 30-40 people gathering around to listen to programs as varied as concerts, talks, farming news, interviews, sports results and much local talent appearing live in front of the 3YA microphones. Not to mention ”Chuckle & Chook’ two early radio personalities.
In 1931, after six and a half years of nation building via radio, the contract of the RBC expired and the government refused to allow a renewal. Instead, they nationalized the RBC network that then became the NZ Broadcasting Board and headquarters were quickly moved to the capital, Wellington. Compensation at below real value of the plant and equipment was paid to the RBC and within a few years, the government also closed down most of the remaining private stations.
Ambrose wrote shortly after the RBC was nationalized: “The site chosen for 2YA was the rocky eminence of Mt.Victoria, overlooking the city [Wellington], whence, untrammelled by man-made structures, the radio waves sweep the whole of New Zealand, across the Tasman Sea, to the South Sea Islands and to the furthest shores of the Pacific.”
At the time, 2YA with 5kW power was the most powerful radio station in the Southern Hemisphere and second only to Daventry in the British Empire.
We’re grateful to Winstone for sharing some of his engaging memories of his father and for providing photos and other memorabilia for the Radio Heritage Foundation archives.
Ambrose Reeves Harris 1885 -1963 – Kiwi Radio Legend
Please contact us if you have any photos, recordings, booklets, printed materials, posters or memories of the Radio Broadcasting Company or any other early broadcasters from the period 1920-1940.