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October 2, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Dabbling in Magic: Independent Radio in New Zealand

Radio has played a big part in nurturing New Zealand’s cultural identity; it is part of our history — politically, socially, and musically. Alternative and independent radio stations in particular have acted like little greenhouses of New Zealand talent. They have been built with a sense of excitement, and are entrenched within the DIY culture that we love as a nation.  

Since radio first began broadcasting in New Zealand there have been amateurs experimenting with it, often ignored government bans. Brenda Bell, New Zealand’s first female amateur radio operator, was one of those who ignored such bans. She sums up the attitude, in a quote in Patrick Day’s The Radio Years: “Many of us had a sense of awe, of dealing with things greater than we could understand. And we knew that throughout history many good men, and women too, had been ruined, tortured, and burnt at the stake for dabbling in magic not one fraction as wonderful as this.”

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Radio in Small Nations, edited by Richard J Hand and Mary Traynor, discusses the role of radio in forging national identity in small countries, allowing people to see themselves reflected in local and national radio through particularity of place, ethnicity, and language. This is reflected in The Radio Years, which discusses how radio serials, which were first aired in New Zealand in 1928, became a subject of debate, since many of them were imported from Britain and America, and held “non-New Zealand values.” New Zealand slowly moved away from using imported material for these serials and by  the ’70s most of the performers and writers of radio serials were New Zealanders. New Zealanders wanted to see themselves reflected in their entertainment, and this meant local voices and stories needed to be given a public platform.

In 1921 the government started giving out transmitting permits, and with this New Zealand broadcasting really began. Radio had sparked excitement in the public. Robert Jack gained the first transmitting permit, and broadcasted music by playing records on a gramophone and having live singers — this was a brand new way to listen and have access to music in New Zealand. Day writes that it “provoked an emotional response in the first listeners.” This excitement persisted through to the ’50s when amateur radio was finally permitted. Day talks about how at the end of the ’50s broadcasters were excited to explore and extend the “nature of New Zealand broadcasting and its place within New Zealand society” with more independence.

In the late ’60s amateur radio experimentation became popular in universities as student radio emerged. The stations dealt with flimsy construction to transmit their signal. Andrew Glennie from RDU (currently Christchurch’s “only bastion of alternative radio”), talked to RNZ about how they had to put up the transmitter before every broadcast, and how their transmission construction began as a table on a box in the middle of a creek. They certainly weren’t the only one with limited resources; RadioActive and Radio One also dealt with cheap parts and self-built transmitter masts. Despite these humble beginnings, many of these stations have gone on to become successful alternative radio stations, helping to grow our music industry and nurturing many upcoming New Zealand broadcasters.

In 1969, 95bFM, University of Auckland’s well known indie station, launched an illegal pirate radio station from the Waitematā Harbour. Andrew Dickens, who was station manager of 95bFM from 1981, told RNZ about how in the early ’70s the transmitter was passed from flat to flat to stay ahead of the police. The station was eventually granted a semi-commercial in the ’80s, and their success inspired other student radio to apply for broadcasting warrants.

 

L to R- Richard Segedin, Romi Patel, and Ron Imms, 95bFM technicians working late into the night to upgrade the mixer before an on-air broadcast. AudioCulture.

L to R: Richard Segedin, Romi Patel, and Ron Imms, 95bFM technicians working late into the night to upgrade the mixer before an on-air broadcast. AudioCulture.

 

95bFM technicians Pete Gronous and Neil Dudley (at front). AudioCulture

95bFM technicians Pete Gronous and Neil Dudley (at front). AudioCulture.

 

The end of Waikato University’s Contact 89FM, which ceased broadcasting in 1998, was a loss in New Zealand student radio. Max Christoffersen wrote for Stuff: “The demise of Contact 89FM still raises tense emotions today. With hindsight I will always wish I had harangued Vice-Chancellor Bryan Gould to not let the station be sold to private interests that would guarantee the end of its broadcast life and the end of its founding student and university-centred spirit.” Max talks about the station with heavy sentimentality — “every time I drive into Hamilton today I think of the students who built the station foundations in the 1980s” — and emphasises the community that the station was building by providing “a window to university life.”  

This sense of community and sentimentality is part of what helped RadioActive earlier this year when it started a Givealittle campaign to keep the station going. Their campaign video featuring prominent New Zealanders such as King Kapisi, Metiria Turei, and Samantha Hayes, all who had spent time at the station, urging people to donate to keep the station running. Justin Lester also pitched in to say that if we didn’t have RadioActive then Wellington would be “losing a really important voice.” The station reached its goal, because it had created such a strong sense of community within New Zealand and Wellington, evident in the support it garnered from some of these names in New Zealand entertainment and politics.

This is the second time that RadioActive has reached out for help to the community they have built. When VUWSA could no longer afford the station in 1989, RadioActive scrambled to become independent, and the community of volunteers, listeners, and friends all pitched in money to form a business and keep it going. Salient interviewed Miles Buckingham from RadioActive in March, and he spoke about how a security guard was put on the door by the students’ association to stop them from getting in when they could no longer afford to be run from the university, “although I think Liam Luff managed to break back in and run “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy on a loop.”

Independent radio stations have gone on to help shape New Zealand music and broadcasting culture. Paul Casserly says that “[Radio] used to be kind of the record store for the country. Now, it’s not that. But it still is relevant, so it’s having to find its way again, which it seems to be doing.” The community and sentimentality that has been built out of these stations is what has kept many of them going. Is this feeling still alive in the newcomers at these stations?

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I spoke to several people working in independent radio, who are not yet part of its history, about the contemporary culture of alternative radio, and asked them if the community and sentimentality around these stations is enough to keep them going.

The answer was a resounding yes.

Many of the people I asked had listened to these stations or had ties with the stations growing up. Gussie Larkin from RadioActive talked about how her mum used to DJ on RadioActive “when she was a young mum with me,” and remembers that it was often playing in their Cuba Street home growing up. Geneva Alexander-Marsters from 95bFM had a similar experience, as her mother was also part of the Auckland station: “My mother actually did a graveyard show back in the ’70s when it was still a student run station. Funny how I ended up in the same place!” Geneva did a graveyard shift with a friend when she was 16, and described how they would “show up in uniform and do the 3.00am to 7.00am slot and then head to school for the day!” Most people I spoke to had already been a listener of these stations before they started DJing there; they were already a part of the community before they began at the station.

The excitement of radio still exists in this younger cohort, which is how alternative radio has always grown and created communities. These stations still require volunteers to help run them; Tommy Wroe from Radio Control emphasises that “the most important people involved in the station are all the volunteers,” so “there has to be a strong community.” George Banach-Salas, who volunteers at RadioActive, says that “I have always felt very welcomed and cared for” and that the “majority of us are volunteers and do this for love!” In an Audioculture article “BFM — The First 10 Years”, Russell Brown says that 95bFM (then Radio B) “attracted the same kind of enterprising, slightly strange kids that it does today.” These newcomers and volunteers seem to easily find a comfortable space within these stations and feel at home there. Gemma Syme from RDU says it “sounds cheesy, but these are my people.”

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The sense of community and sentimentality are definitely still strong within these stations, which has helped them last. They still need to grow to stay alive, and that is something that newcomers are aware of. One important way that the next generation involved in radio are helping grow the stations is by being aware of changing technology, and as Gemma explains “translating to digital platforms” — by creating online content that helps them stay relevant.

Another important way they are helping grow these stations is through wider representation. Geneva notes the importance of making an effort to “provide a range of artists from different backgrounds, prioritising people of colour, transgender artists, ladies in bands, young bands, unfamiliar genres, and of course, music that features Te Reo Māori.” This is a trend across all of these stations, of an increasing awareness of what music they are presenting, and giving everyone a voice and a platform. Jess Fu from 95bFM was aware of this when she got involved; she wanted to contribute to the Auckland music scene and support local musicians, but underlying that was an urge to expand the community “to help create more representation of women of colour in radio, because I know how frustrating it is to be underrepresented in media as a young Chinese woman.” George from RadioActive says that most student/alternative radio stations are really keen on supporting and promoting youth and I think are quite political.”  

Giving local people a voice, and having the ability to see yourself reflected back in a public platform, is what has always been exciting about radio, especially alternative radio. This is how radio became popular in the first place, and how it helped shape New Zealand culture, so as long as this growth continues to happen these stations have a good shot at lasting.

 

“It has to continue, it’s just common sense” — Geneva.

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