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Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial

5: Broadcasting the Centennial

page 77

5: Broadcasting the Centennial

In radio the Centennial Council and the government had a powerful new medium to publicise and record centennial events. Radio broadcasting, an innovation from the 1920s, enjoyed popular appeal in the 1930s and was accepted into most homes. By 1939, 84% of households had a receiving set and radio was spreading into other venues, from hotels to workplaces to schools. In 1939, 50% of primary school children living in the main centres were able to listen in at school.1 The spread of radio had a profound influence on the way people informed and entertained themselves and how they thought about themselves. Radio introduced its listeners to and joined them into national and international environments. International events were discussed and international entertainments, from popular songs to radio serials, became firm programme favourites. On a national level, radio personalities, epitomised by Daisy Basham (Aunt Daisy), were becoming household names. Radio commentaries of national sporting events were introduced. The broadcasting of parliament brought the great national issues of the day into living rooms up and down the country. Janet Frame's mother was not alone in taking part in those debates while cleaning the house.2

There was widespread acceptance throughout New Zealand of the inherent importance of the centennial celebrations. The government, in what was clearly a bipartisan understanding, desired the strengthening of a sense of nationalism during the centennial year and radio was much engaged in the task. This desire and the perceived importance of the celebrations were increased by the declaration of war in September 1939. As the Governor General later noted, the celebrations now served 'not only as historical and commemorative functions but as a means of cementing the national spirit so vital to the country at the present time and of strengthening the determination of our people to defend and safeguard their inheritance'.3

Private broadcasting ended with the first Labour government. It was replaced by two government departments, the National Broadcasting Service (NBS), headed by James Shelley and the National Commercial Broadcasting Service (NCBS), headed by Colin Scrimgeour. The broadcasting response to the centennial was two-pronged. Shelley and Scrimgeour disliked each other and this was a factor in their cooperation, normally as minimal as was compatible with their duties. But more importantly page 78 they had differing understandings of the purposes and pleasures of broadcasting which also reflected differing understandings within the Labour government. Scrimgeour was allied with Michael Joseph Savage, the Prime Minister, Shelley with Peter Fraser, Savage's deputy and successor. The alliances, particularly that between Scrimgeour and Savage, reflected divisions within the Labour Party which were later brought into the public arena by the actions of John A. Lee. However, the greater reasons for the differences were cultural and related to the differing ambitions for broadcasting held particularly by the Auckland MPs as opposed to those from the south. The Auckland MPs were always appreciative of commercial radio, and generally had little time for the Reithian approach to broadcasting with its aim of raising the population to a higher level of cultural appreciation. Broadcasting was to be used to carry the government's words to the people but otherwise was a medium principally for commerce and entertainment. The southerners, led by Fraser and Walter Nash, were more accepting of a high cultural purpose for broadcasting. Indeed they championed Shelley to his appointment as NBS director accepting that he strongly advocated such a purpose.

The Centennial Exhibition was the first of the centennial events to get under way, the most varied and longest running. Each broadcasting service had its own centre at the exhibition. The NBS broadcasting studio was small and known as the 'goldfish bowl' because of its large soundproof windows through which the public could observe. From it broadcasts were relayed through 2YA, the country's most powerful station, giving as extensive a coverage as possible at the time from a single station. The NBS string orchestra opened the studio with its first broadcast on 14 December 1939. But the lively presence of the NCBS had the greater public impact, with Scrimgeour taking the opportunity to promote his department while serving the needs of the celebrations.

The NCBS broadcasting studio was the commercial station, 5ZB, resident at the exhibition for the entire six months of the exhibition and first broadcasting on the opening day of 8 November 1939. The 5ZB studio was built into a railway carriage and from April to June 1939 had toured those North Island centres which were on the railway network but did not have commercial radio stations. The carriage was returned to the railways after the centennial exhibition and the station dismantled. The station's senior announcer and manager was Ian K. Mackay. He was joined by Annas (Jill) Gale, previously an announcer at 4ZB, and 2ZB technician S. J. Murray. Mackay began his radio career in 1932 with the Nelson private station, 2ZR, and had been associated with Scrimgeour in the political agitation to have private broadcasting accepted. He went with Scrimgeour into the NCBS and was regarded as one of its more innovative broadcasters. He lived in the 5ZB carriage for the duration of the exhibition. This station was the public voice of the exhibition, covering the official functions and many of the events and entertainments. The prime minister paid a visit ten days after the exhibition opened in the presence of 50,000 people. Interviewed by 5ZB he expressed the hope that every child in the dominion would page 79
The Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, second from left, standing by the railway cariage, visits station 5ZB. Colin Scrimgeour is standing to the right of the post in the front of the photograph with Ian Mackay next to him and 'Jill' Gale on its other side. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ The Listener, 1 December 1939, C-27759-1/2.

The Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, second from left, standing by the railway cariage, visits station 5ZB. Colin Scrimgeour is standing to the right of the post in the front of the photograph with Ian Mackay next to him and 'Jill' Gale on its other side. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ The Listener, 1 December 1939, C-27759-1/2.

come to the exhibition.4 5ZB gave continuing publicity to the celebrations and was a major factor in drawing so many visitors to the Rongotai site. At a time when New Zealand had a population of less than 2 million, there were 2.6 million visitors to the site during the six months it was open. Along with the celebrations 5ZB was also effectively publicising itself and from the start was one of the most popular attractions at the exhibition. Mackay reported on 31 December 1939 that 'at peak hours the crowd has been embarrassing in numbers . . . during the late afternoon and right through the evening the platform is jammed.'5

Broadcasts from 5ZB began daily at 3 pm with its theme song 'Heigh Ho, Come to the Fair', and continued until 9.30 pm. Its programmes were a mix of regular features interspersed with advertising and interviews with important visitors to the exhibition. It began with a daily radio tour which highlighted a stand or exhibit from the exhibition's various courts. Exhibition news and information was broadcast at 6.30, relay broadcasts from exhibition displays at 8.30 and, to end the day, another bulletin of exhibition news and highlights of the next day's programme. The studio presentations ranged from The Three Hill Billies in costume (Very popular') to the Ngati Poneke concert party and Bessie Pollard, the 3YA pianist, whose fifteen-minute recital went 'quite well'. Programmes were deliberately kept 'bright and light'. One weekly report made special mention of the 'repeated requests ... for Billy Russell's "On Behalf Of The Working Man". This was played on Friday evening and held a very large crowd outside who expressed their appreciation in no uncertain manner.'6

The station operated on low power and had limited coverage. To compensate, page 80 Scrimgeour arranged for recordings to be made of 5ZB's daily tour and other popular events and the other ZB stations replayed them. Commercial radio always attracted the vastly greater audience and this continued to happen at the centennial. The NCBS provided a ZB lounge in the main Industries court for public relaxation and filled the lounge with publicity for its stations and personnel. The lounge was reported as Very well patronised . . . Undoubtedly the majority of people are interested in the wall photographs of ZB personalities'.7 The NCBS also provided a specially designed relay van which allowed contact to be maintained between all the sections of the exhibition, and particularly enabled relays for broadcasting to be made from the various stands and exhibition functions. The NCBS was quick to transform events into broadcast celebrations. The arrival of the millionth visitor, Mrs L.D, Cogan, from Dunedin, on the afternoon of 16 January 1940 became the occasion for a short wave relay from the gate. Probably the biggest single event was a reception for the Howell family, better known as radio stars Fred and Maggie Everybody and their daughter Daisy Sproggins. Fred and Maggie Everybody was a highly popular ZB serial. The Howells' visit to New Zealand in January 1940 was a huge public success and many thousands attended their reception at the exhibition.8

After the summer holidays attendances at the exhibition lessened and the NCBS took the lead in continuing promotion of the celebrations, in opposition to what it regarded as 'a defeatist attitude that the war is making the exhibition what it is' on the part of the National Centennial Publicity Committee. Perhaps the major example was the NCBS promotion of a New Zealand Centennial Beauty Competition 'to discover Miss New Zealand'. With the active support of Aunt Daisy the competition was planned for Easter so as to attract crowds at the end of the long celebrations.9 What was good for the exhibition was also good for commercial radio. Revenue from advertisements broadcast over 5ZB covered the costs of maintaining the station at the exhibition. The public goodwill for the NCBS and its enthusiastic support for
Forty thousand people were at the Exhibtion for the lunch-time visit of Fred and Maggie Everybody and their daughter Daisy Sproggins. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ The Listener, 19 January 1940, p48 C-27760-1/2, p.49 C-27761-1/2.

Forty thousand people were at the Exhibtion for the lunch-time visit of Fred and Maggie Everybody and their daughter Daisy Sproggins. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ The Listener, 19 January 1940, p48 C-27760-1/2, p.49 C-27761-1/2.

page 81 a great public event was even more important than a break-even balance sheet. The government was also well pleased. D. G. Sullivan, who as Minister of Industries and Commerce had watched over the government's interest in the exhibition, wrote to Scrimgeour to express its appreciation. He praised the NCBS for the 'unlimited publicity' it had provided, the opportunity it had given New Zealanders to hear the 'famous visitors' it had brought to the microphone, and the 'cheerful atmosphere' it had created for 'New Zealand's greatest effort'.10

Scrimgeour's other major contribution to the centennial celebrations was the nationwide broadcast by the ZB stations of the celebrations at Waitangi on Tuesday 6 February 1940. The broadcast from Waitangi was a public recognition that the century being celebrated dated from the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and it was conducted as one of the centennial year's highlights. It was fitting that this broadcast was made by the NCBS, for Scrimgeour was the single senior broadcaster in the country who had considered the relationship between the Maori people and broadcasting and had developed a policy on the topic. Eager as always to promote the NCBS he also considered his department could benefit Maori and encouraged them to become radio listeners. He promoted a policy of correct pronunciation of Maori, an innovation in itself at the time, and appointed Maori staff including one Maori announcer to each of the four commercial stations. Three of those announcers, all but 4ZB's Airini Grenell from Dunedin, were at Waitangi for the 1940 broadcast.

The arrangements were an organisational feat. K. W. Kilpatrick, the NCBS programme director, and Kingi Tahiwi, a 2ZB announcer, drove the 2ZB sound truck from Wellington to Waitangi and back, picking up 1ZB announcer Uramo
Forty thousand people were at the Exhibtion for the lunch-time visit of Fred and Maggie Everybody and their daughter Daisy Sproggins. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ The Listener, 19 January 1940, p48 C-27760-1/2, p.49 C-27761-1/2.

Forty thousand people were at the Exhibtion for the lunch-time visit of Fred and Maggie Everybody and their daughter Daisy Sproggins. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ The Listener, 19 January 1940, p48 C-27760-1/2, p.49 C-27761-1/2.

page 82 Paora (Lou Paul) in Auckland, and Alan Snow, owner of the amateur transmitting station ZL1HJ, in Whangarei. The party were joined at Waitangi by Bill Illingworth, a 1ZB engineer there on vacation, Ari Pitama, a 3ZB announcer who had travelled north with a South Island Maori party, and Scrimgeour himself who, both by his presence and by devoting considerable departmental resources and personnel to the broadcasts, indicated their importance to the NCBS. The wider national purpose for the broadcast was well phrased by Kingi Tahiwi: Tt is well that we should remember the Treaty of Waitangi, and remind ourselves how the goodwill of two peoples can keep alive the spirit of a working arrangement which could, with the slightest misapprehension on either side, suffer the fate of so many treaties.'11

The Waitangi broadcasts were the most technically difficult of the centennial radio celebrations. They drew attention to the theme of progress that was central to the celebrations and reinforced the public understanding of radio as a popular expression of technical innovation. Outside broadcasts had been pioneered in the late 1920s, covering sporting fixtures such as rugby commentaries and reporting major public events such as the arrival of Kingsford-Smith after the first successful flight across the Tasman. In the 1930s they became more commonplace, the first Labour government's introduction of parliamentary broadcasts being the example par excellence of regular outside broadcasts that attracted a large and appreciative audience. By 1940 outside broadcasts, even at a considerable distance such as those from Waitangi, were no novelty, but they still presented real challenges technically and the occasion showed the competence and innovative spirit of the NCBS management and staff in a good light.

The favoured technique for outside broadcasts was to send the signal via landline to the broadcasting station. Although the best option, this was never particularly successful as the standard telephone lines of the time, with their narrow bandwidth, were not good at transmitting music. But no landline was available north of Auckland, and the less-preferred option of short wave transmission was adopted. The call sign of Whangarei's 1ZA was assigned to Snow's transmitter for the signals from Waitangi to 1ZB in Auckland. The signal was also transmitted by Paparoa's Frank Hart on ZL1NH and Waipu's Cliff McLean on ZL1A1, giving 1ZB a choice from three alternatives. The transmissions consisted of signals from twelve microphones giving the official speeches and ceremonies along with a re-enactment of the 1840 signing of the Treaty. The broadcasts were played on all four of the commercial stations.

Scrimgeour and his staff made good use of the day to get listeners to tune to a ZB station and stay tuned. A 'Stop Press' notice in the Listener told them of a 'last minute programme change. Watch for the Waitangi centennial broadcast from all ZB stations ... Keep your set tuned to your ZB station on that day for a unique and historical broadcast.'12 The ZB stations rebroadcast highlights of the commemorations the following Sunday evening. Much was made of the broadcasts, with Oliver Duff devoting the next editorial of the Listener to the feat. Under the heading 'Waitangi on the Air' he contended that New Zealanders were becoming page 83 citizens of the world and were evolving into different people. 'If the lighthouse-keeper at Puysegur Point hears not only what Maori and Pakeha are saying [at Waitangi] but what Berlin and Moscow are trying to tell him about London, he is no longer a lighthouse-keeper ... he can no longer become the man he was than a frog can again become a tadpole.'13 The following week the Listener returned to the topic and noted the application of the newly available recording technology. 'We shall never know exactly what was said at Waitangi in 1840 but every speech at the Centennial celebration had been recorded and could be preserved for all time.'14

Scrimgeour's task was to develop a commercial broadcasting system and generate advertising income on the back of assured audiences tuned to the ZB stations. Shelley worked in a different world. Educating listeners was a major broadcasting purpose for the NBS. The centennial gave a focus to this purpose, and the array of programmes generally in 1940 was much informed by the celebrations. Talks programmes, particularly the Broadcasts to Schools and the talks in the Adult Education series, included many matters pertinent in centennial year. In the era before national programming, stations had separate schedules. 1YA, 2YA and 3YA produced their own programmes with 4YA and 3ZR Greymouth rebroadcasting 2YA's programmes. The 2YA programmes were the most comprehensive, reflecting good cooperation between its producer and David Hall who, as publicity officer of the centennial branch, was heavily involved in preparing the Making New Zealand series. Throughout the school year, under the title One Hundred Years, it broadcast 30 fifteen-minute programmes for children from standard three to form two. These were episodic in form, giving an historical account of the country's settlement and development since British occupation. 'Settlement' was the theme for the first term, 'Resources' for the second, and 'Communications' for the third.15

For adults, throughout the year, usually in the early evening, the YA stations included centennial subjects in their regular talks programmes. Radio talks were circumscribed by the radio regulations which prohibited the broadcasting of 'propaganda of a controversial nature', so radio could not address the majority of contemporary issues. One of the few exceptions in centennial year was a Saturday evening debate broadcast by 3ZR Greymouth, between teams from the Federated Catholic Clubs and Societies of New Zealand (South Island) on the proposition: That a Nation's Commerce is Greater than its Culture. Notably this broadcast was from a station of tiny transmission power (0.1 kW) well away from the main centres. Generally the emphasis of the talks was historical. 2 YA did a series of talks by church leaders on the men and, in the case of Rev Mother Aubert, women who brought Christianity to New Zealand. Edward Gibbon Wakefield's role in the creation of the New Zealand Company was recalled by Dr G.H. Scholefield in a series on the founding of Wellington, and Rev A.B. Chappell gave a series over 1YA on Our Early Colonists. The largest series of programmes, also mainly on the pioneering period, was broadcast by 2ZJ Gisborne, a station owned by the NBS but operating privately under contract. The centennials of the founding of Otago and Canterbury page 84 were still in the future and 3YA and 4YA gave less attention to the production of centennial programmes. Talks focused mainly on events immediately before and after 1840 but there were other topics also. Shelley in his annual report made specific mention of 2YA5s surveys of the social and economic history of New Zealand in the form of dialogues in which the past was reconstructed, of 3YA's discussions on the impact of European civilisation upon New Zealand and of the series New Zealand Brains Abroad, which dealt with New Zealanders who had distinguished themselves in the larger world.16

The NBS also made outside broadcasts of events. On 22 January 1940, 2YA broadcast the opening ceremony of the Wellington provincial ceremony from the Petone foreshore. 3YA broadcast the two pageants performed at the official South Island celebrations at Akaroa in April. But most of the outside broadcasts made by the NBS were of musical events associated with the Centennial Music Festival. Indeed, in spite of its efforts in other areas, its music festival broadcasts were the major contribution of the NBS to the centennial programme. Shelley chaired the Centennial Music Committee and the NBS played a central role in planning the music festivals to be held in the four main centres and the celebrity concerts which visiting overseas soloists and selected New Zealand instrumentalists later gave in fifteen provincial towns. An extensive programme was prepared, the cost of which was borne by the Department of Internal Affairs and the NBS, the NBS's share being £13,243.17 Each YA station broadcast a live performance of all the festival concerts in its centre, twenty-four outside broadcasts in all. Stations also broadcast concerts from the Celebrity Concert series in provincial towns. The centennial year ended with a YA relay broadcast of a concert in which the prize-winning entries in the Centennial Music Composition Competition were given their first performance. In that broadcast New Zealanders had their first opportunity to hear orchestral and choral works by Douglas Lilburn.

Within the NBS the aim for the Centennial Music Festival was to do more than celebrate the centennial. For Shelley the occasion was an opportunity to advance the grand dream he had for broadcasting and New Zealand, the establishment within the NBS of a conservatorium of music and the spoken arts, including within that establishment a national symphony orchestra. The desire did not originate with Shelley. Alfred Hill, the doyen of New Zealand musicians, had written to the Prime Minister in 1936 advocating a national conservatorium of music. It was time, Hill argued, that New Zealand took over from England the teaching and examining of its musical talent. That would happen with a conservatorium which would also lift New Zealand 'from the status of a village to that of a full-grown city'.18 Shelley came to broadcasting sharing that desire and it was accepted by the government. Savage, the Prime Minister who took to himself the broadcasting portfolio, allowed Shelley to announce the government's decision to establish a conservatorium of music and the spoken arts at the January 1937 opening of 2YA's new transmitter at Titahi Bay. Shelley also used the occasion to announce the foundation of the New Zealand Listener, a weekly magazine devoted to 'programmes, interesting articles and page 85 information'. The whole purpose was to raise standards. New Zealanders, Shelley said, 'were not content with a poor standard on the football field' and neither should they be in music and drama. As a result of the developments he was foreshadowing, the NBS 'would become what it ought to be, the authoritative guardian of the arts of music and drama'.19

The Listener was established, though not until 1939. Under Oliver Duff's editorship it immediately established itself as a significant national voice for music, drama, literature, film and informed comment, as well as for the NBS. Its publicity for the centennial did a great deal to focus public attention on the music and drama festivals, the literary and other centennial prizes, and the centennial exhibition of New Zealand art. Its extensive, well-informed reviews of the centennial publications were invaluable.

However, the conservatorium, translated into Shelley's vision of a broadcasting house that would be the hub of a national cultural centre, did not become a reality. The government called for tenders in August 1938 and construction started but was stopped in 1940 as a war measure with the foundations only partially completed. . The building was never completed and the conservatorium of music and the spoken arts died on the vine. It remained a conversation piece in musical circles but foundered in the postwar world on provincial loyalties. The Auckland Musical Council entered the lists in 1950 with a proposal for a conservatorium of music at Auckland University College, and an 'executant diploma course' in music began there in 1956.20 The NBS had lost the initiative. The future of advanced training in. musical performance was with the universities.

However Shelley was successful with the symphony orchestra. It was born at the celebrations and is one of the enduring manifestations of his sense of purpose for broadcasting. Shelley's desire for a national orchestra was one he shared with Fraser and Heenan. The three were a powerful group and in 1939, many months before the centennial celebrations began, the first practical step towards that orchestra was taken. Permanent and full-time employment was offered to thirteen musicians and the National Broadcasting Service String Orchestra was formed under the direction of the English violinist Maurice Clare. As the opening of the centennial celebrations drew closer a thirty-four member National Centennial Symphony Orchestra, the nucleus of which was the string orchestra, was also formed. While the war interrupted the plan to make the orchestra permanent, its existence was determined at the centennial, and it was restarted soon after in 1946. Similarly its funding and administration—via the broadcasting fee with the musicians employed by the NBS— were established in 1939 and maintained for the next half-century.

Shelley was also, through his active promotion of drama in Canterbury and his close involvement with the British Drama League, one of the acknowledged leaders of drama in New Zealand. Soon after he became Director of Broadcasting he concentrated the making of all NBS drama productions in Wellington, and appointed Bernard Beeby as play producer. This was the beginning of New Zealand drama on a professional footing. It included the encouragement and performance of radio plays page 86 written by New Zealanders as well as providing employment for actors.21 Shelley was thus ideally placed to influence the contribution of the dramatic arts to the centennial celebrations and he included a section on drama in his proposal for a centennial music festival. The NBS took the lead at the national level and managed the Centennial Drama Festival in close association with the British Drama League and other local theatre groups. Shelley was one of the adjudicators of the national one-act play competition.

In their separate but complementary ways both the NBS and NCBS publicised the centennial events, keeping New Zealanders aware of and involved in the celebrations. Both broadcasting services substantially influenced the styles and formats of the celebrations. Radio broadcasting was acknowledged as playing a pivotal part in the great success of the celebrations. This was as it should be, for the then-recent innovation of radio was a life-changing technology that epitomised the achievements of the century. Radio was itself one of the reasons for celebration.

1 New Zealand Listener, 16 February 1940; Patrick Day, The Radio Years: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand, vol.1 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1994), chapter 8.

2 Day, The Radio Years, p.215.

3 New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol.257, p.3.

4 Standard, 23 November 1939.

5 National Archives (NA), AADL, 563 36 2/26 Pt.2.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Day, The Radio Years, pp.305-6; New Zealand Listener, 19 January 1940.

9 NA, AADL 563 36 2/26 Pt.2.

10 D. G. Sullivan to C. G. Scrimgeour, 31 May 1940, ibid.

11 New Zealand Listener, 23 February 1940.

12 New Zealand Listener, 2 February 1940.

13 New Zealand Listener, 9 February 1940.

14 New Zealand Listener, 16 February 1940*

15 Education Gazette, 1 December 1939, p.253.

5 National Archives (NA), AADL, 563 36 2/26 Pt.2.

16 Appendix to the Journal of the House of Representatives, F3, 1941.

17 Ibid.

18 John Mansfield Thomson, A Distant Music: The Life and Times of Alfred Hill 1870-1960 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 189-90.

19 Dominion, 26 January 1937; Day, The Radio Years, p.249.

20 Keith Sinclair, A History of the University ofAuckland 1883-1983 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1983), p.249.

21 Day, The Radio Years, pp.251-2.