Palmerston North radio station powered by John Ward turns 25

By Judith Lacy 5 Mar, 2024

John Ward shares his love of classical music through his radio station The Gramophone Room. Photo / Judith Lacy

At first glance, it looks like a sock or singlet drawer.

“You try pull a drawer out, you will see what I mean.”

Take up John Ward’s invitation, engage your muscles and drawers lined with classical CDs reluctantly reveal their contents.

“Hear that radio? That’s my transmission, that’s my hobby gone wrong. It just keeps on going.”

It is 25 years since the Palmerston North music lover launched classical music radio station The Gramophone Room. It broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 88.1FM.

Ward and his friends celebrated the anniversary with cake and drinks.

The aerial that makes it all work is outside Ward’s music room cum treasure trove.

He has downloaded tens of thousands of movements from his records and CDs creating terabytes of data. Ward says The Gramophone Room can go on forever if not switched off.

The programme list is automatic but he can insert announcements to say what music is playing.

Naxos, the Abyssinian cat, has woken up and enters the room with a dart across the piano keys. He knows where his master will be.

After attending Palmerston North Boys’ High School, Ward got a job as a photo engraver. The Palmerston North company he worked for serviced several North Island newspapers.

After the Wellington–Auckland night express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai on Christmas Eve 1953, Ward spent the holidays making glass plate negatives.

The tuba player was part of the Palmerston North brass band that played for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on January 8, 1954, as the royal couple departed by train.

Ward recalls Prince Philip saying to a girl playing the flugelhorn: “Do you bang, blow or scrape that thing?”.

Ward turns 87 next week. He was born in Palmerston North and grew up in Matipo St and then Guy Ave. Age has not diminished his recall of details or his technical mind.

John Ward’s studio is full of equipment of a range of vintages. Photo / Judith Lacy

Ward got into fixing and running jukeboxes in milk bars and later pubs. He has one in his lounge.

He used to be in demand to build and demonstrate amplifiers and microphones – people were astounded they could hear breath marks from another room. More recently, he has given people advice about their aerials.

He was a boy soprano at All Saints Anglican Church and a member of the church’s Scout troop. The young Ward was a regular customer at HMV Sales and Service, on the corner of Cuba and Rangitīkei Sts.

He would get his records home on his push bike by putting them up his jersey and tucking it into his belt.

New Zealand used to have regular power cuts when Ward was a child as the country was short of electricity. He took the opportunity to plug his crystal set into the mains via a decoupler to get more radio stations, “highly illegal”.

Ward’s adventures, activities and achievements would fill 24 hours of programming: running a U3A music appreciation group, recording children entering music competitions, spending two years in his early 20s cycling around England.

Politician Jack Marshall’s wife Margaret heard him playing the piano on the ship to England and invited him to join the captain’s table.

This cello on the wall of John Ward’s Palmerston North studio was brought to New Zealand from England by his father. Photo / Judith Lacy

In 1925, his father emigrated from England on a Salvation Army-assisted passage and initially settled in Wyndham, Southland. Ward still has the cello his father played and brought with him.

In 2004, Ward received a Palmerston North Civic Honour Award for the performing arts and broadcasting and a Queen’s Service Medal for community service.

In 2011, Palmerston North classical music lover Daphne Kyne told The Tribune she could not imagine life without The Gramophone Room.

“If [John] kicks the bucket before I do, I tell him I’m going to clobber him.”

Sadly, she died in July 2019.

John Ward (second from left) and friends celebrate the 25th anniversary of his radio station, The Gramophone Room.

Judith Lacy has been the editor of the Manawatū Guardian since December 2020. She graduated from journalism school in 2001 and this is her second role editing a community paper.

© The New Zealand Herald – March 5, 2024

This material remains © NZME Publishing Limited and is only to be used for non-commercial personal or research use. Any other use requires permission of the copyright holder.

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