A Tale of Three Cities
By David Ricquish
On July 1 1932, the NZ Radio Record published the first issue of a helpful guide to most of the radio stations then known to be operating in the world, and many of which could be regularly heard in New Zealand.
New Zealand radio listeners were amongst the best served in the British Empire when it came to radio choice in 1932. In fact, there were almost as many private stations as in Canada, which had a much larger population. Auckland listeners alone had seven separate stations to choose from, just one less than listeners in the much larger cities of Sydney and Toronto.
In Auckland, the choice ranged from 1ZB (La Gloria Gramophone Company), 1ZJ (Johns Limited), 1ZM (Mr W Rodgers), 1ZQ (Atwater’s Piano Company), 1ZR (Lewis Eady Limited), and 1ZS (McCabe’s Radios) through to 1YA of the Radio Broadcasting Board. A total of seven stations, some sharing the same frequency at different times of the day and days of the week, but all different in their own way.
Over 70 years later, and of the original stations, 1ZB remains on air (although no longer using this callsign) as part of the NewsTalk ZB network, and 1YA (again no longer using this callsign) is part of the Radio New Zealand National Radio network. Both operate on both AM and FM in Auckland. There are echoes of 1ZM still, with the ZMFM network on FM.
Across New Zealand that year, there were thirty-three private stations on air, along with just four from the fledgling state broadcaster.
In Australia by comparison, there were only 43 private stations broadcasting across the entire continent, with an additional state network now covering all the states with 12 stations.
Sydney listeners had a choice of two state programs, one from 2FC, the other from 2BL of the National Broadcasting Service. The six private stations ranged along the dial from 2GB (Theosophical Broadcasting Station), 2UE, 2KY (Trade and Labour Council), 2UW (Radio Broadcasting Limited), and 2CH (Council of Churches) to 2SM (Catholic Broadcasting Company).
The radio landscape over 70 years later is little changed on the surface. All eight of the original stations remain on air and all on AM. The six private stations even have the same call signs, whilst the two state stations continue to broadcast separate programs, one still with the same callsign (2BL) and the other as 2RN as part of the Radio National network.
In Canada, the choice was more limited, despite larger distances and a bigger population. There were just 34 private stations on air, only one more than New Zealand. The Canadian National Railways operated a nationwide service similar in size to the Australian state service, with 13 stations. Newfoundland, a separate colony, had one private station.
As in Sydney, Toronto listeners could also listen to six private stations, ranging from CKCL (Dominion Battery Company), CFRB (Rogers Majestic Corporation), CPRY (Canadian Pacific Railways), CKGW (Godderham & Worts Limited), CKNC (Canadian National Carbon Company), through to CFCA (Star Publishing), and two Canadian National Railways stations CNRT and CNRX which provided separate program options.
The Canadian broadcasting dial has changed a great deal, with just CFRB of the original eight still broadcasting with the same heritage call letters over 70 years later. Most of the others have migrated to FM.
Early listeners in all three cities had strikingly similar choices back in 1932. They even enjoyed many of the same programs, with radio serials, quiz shows, request sessions and much of the same music.
However, the Auckland broadcasters faced severe restrictions on their ability to generate advertising and sponsorship revenue and were run by small companies or early radio enthusiasts compared to the well connected and funded private stations in Sydney and Toronto.
Within a few years, the private stations in Auckland were silenced by nationalization, and absolute state control ruled the airwaves until pirate broadcaster Radio Hauraki forced law changes in 1970.
Sydney and Toronto listeners continued to enjoy a mix of private and state broadcasting ownership throughout the whole 70 year period, and a much wider range of music, personalities and programs than Aucklanders.
Today, all three cities have many more radio choices, especially on FM. Auckland, in particular, has embraced the freedom of low power FM broadcasting almost to saturation point, and with some 50 stations now serving a million listeners and the demand for more stations unfulfilled, is making up for those 35 lost years with a vengeance.
Despite TV and the internet, radio remains incredibly important as part of the social, economic, cultural and political landscape for listeners in Auckland, Sydney and Toronto. Listeners also hear the same music, similar formats and advertising for the same brands, so in some ways, continue to be drawn together by radio in much the same way their grandparents shared common listening experiences in 1932.
As a postscript on other connections, The NZ Radio Record later became incorporated into a weekly magazine still published today as The Listener and now owned by an Australian publishing group.
The majority of major commercial radio networks in New Zealand today are owned by Australian, American or Canadian media companies and Radio New Zealand, the state broadcaster, is managed by an Australian.
A New Zealander now manages the Australian ethnic network broadcaster SBS and a sister ministry of New Zealand’s Rhema Broadcasting Group controls the large Vision FM and Rhema networks throughout Australia. UCB, an umbrella organization originally established in New Zealand by the Rhema Broadcasting Group is also behind the opening of a new FM station in Canada.
The old dominions and a commonwealth remain closely connected in radio broadcasting today, long after the sun has set on the British Empire.
David Ricquish is a member of the Radio Heritage Foundation Board.
NZ Radio Record (c) Cleve Costello Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.
1ZM, 2CH (c) Eric Shackle Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.
George Wade & the Cornhuskers (c) Radio CFRB Toronto © in the book ‘Coast to Coast – a personal history of radio in Canada’ by Sandy Stewart. © CBC Enterprises 1985. From the Mark Nicholls Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.
Radio Hauraki (c) David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.