Today, we’re going 2,500 kilometers north of Auckland to the Savage Island, the Rock of Polynesia, or as it’s more widely known… Niue.
It’s just 21 kilometers long by 18 kilometers wide, has a small population of less than two thousand people, and is internally independent in free association with New Zealand, who annexed it in 1901.
The island lies in the main South Pacific cyclone belt, and the story of Radio Sunshine is closely tied to the danger of these horror storms.
If you live on Niue, those are the cyclone alert levels you hear broadcast over Radio Sunshine. According to one of the first local broadcasters, Sione Jacobsen, cyclones are the sole reason the station was built, a cheap and effective way of keeping local people informed during a big blow.
As Sione tells it, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation made up a list of recommended studio equipment, and drew up a daily program format to suit local tastes.
All was ready in the small studio. A half Gates mixer, two AKG microphones, a receiver rescued from a Japanese fishing boat that had run aground, one reel-to-reel tape and a clock that lost three minutes every day.
Someone forgot to buy a transmitter though, so the local Telecommunications Department had to lend theirs, and because they had priority, the program of ZK2ZN was often just dead air as the transmitter was used to broadcast more important messages.
Back in 1967, someone else also realized that there were practically no radios on the island with which to hear the station, so a deal was done with National Radio of Japan, and several hundred transistor radios arrived to be sold at the wholesale price of $10 kiwi each. Sales soon dropped away because if your neighbor had a radio, it was on full blast, and you could save money by listening to his set. It was the only station on the island anyway.
From the start, Radio Sunshine has had to struggle for resources. The first transmitter of 200 watts broadcast on 550 kilocycles from a tiny 2 by 2.4m studio and it wasn’t for five years before things began to look up.
Radio New Zealand built a new 200 feet tower, installed a new 250 watts transmitter and moved the station into a building with both an on-air studio and a production studio that could now fit five people. The air conditioning unit was a gift of the Dutch government, along with the Alice mixer with eight inputs.
The slick station jingles from today are a long way from those early days. Sione Jacobsen says that by the end of the 1970’s, ZK2ZN had moved along the AM dial to 837 kilohertz, but the equipment had also moved along in age, and everyone was waiting for over four years for an Australian Aid package to move in.
Radio Sunshine mainly broadcast music in the early 1980’s, along with news from Radio New Zealand International and Radio Australia. Some talk programs were recorded for later broadcast says Sione, who remembers the station was on air for 8 hours daily with a breakfast show, and lunchtime and evening programs.
In 1984, a final move along the AM dial brought Radio Sunshine to 594 kilohertz. At this time, the last DJ out of the studio would switch the radio over to a station in American Samoa that was relayed through the night remembers Patrick Lino the General Manager of Radio Sunshine.
In the early 1990’s, the old AM equipment was replaced with FM, and over 25 years of faithful service from two low powered medium wave transmitters which could sometimes be heard as far away as New Zealand came to an end.
Cyclones were the reason for Radio Sunshine, and in January 2004, the island was stunned by the tsunami style waves that swept all before them as Cyclone Hetta struck. Radio Sunshine kept broadcasting as the winds got stronger, but, in the end, had to close down as the eye of the cyclone passed overhead and it was too dangerous to remain on air.
From reading eyewitness accounts of the complete destruction that day, it’s clear that the broadcasts of Radio Sunshine brought strength to the islanders as the bright music continued whilst the storm approached, and hope in the days following, as islanders and Pacific neighbors alike struggled to understand how a once beautiful tropical island had been transformed into what looked like a war zone.
Even in the aftermath of the cyclone, Radio Sunshine still struggled for resources. Funds sent from the Cook Islands helped the station recover.
And what’s the future for Radio Sunshine… this small station that serves the population of a very small town – an island where most Niueans have already left to live in New Zealand.
Is it still there just to struggle for funds and warn of cyclones, or can it have a brighter future?
This original feature was researched for the Radio Heritage Foundation and broadcast in 2005 on the Mailbox program of Radio New Zealand International:
For our free guide to current radio stations broadcasting in Niue, please use our Pacific Islands Radio Guide:
For a directory of shortwave, FM and AM radio stations broadcasting in Niue and other Pacific countries, we highly recommend the World Radio TV Handbook published annually since the late 1940s. The Radio Heritage Foundation is official WRTH country contributor for Niue:
An audio version of this feature is available for downloading and non-commercial and personal research use and rebroadcast without editing:
Download “Radio Sunshine, Nuie”Radio-Heritage-Foundation-2005-06-Radio-Sunshine-Nuie.mp3 – 18.93 MB
Audio contains interviews with Patrick Lino, excerpts of Radio Sunshine programs and music and station ID jingles obtained exclusively for the RHF project.
Enjoy a multi-media version of this story on YouTube: