The History of Radio New Zealand

Author: Andrew M. Clark
 International broadcasting using the shortwave band has been in full force since 1927 when Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States began broadcasting overseas using high powered transmitters. Several years later the Soviet Union began a new trend when it began to broadcast programs in different languages. (Wood, 1994, p. 36) When World War II broke out, New Zealand, like other countries around the world, began to consider the need for an international broadcasting service. This service would be used to let the world know how New Zealand stood ideologically, and as a means for New Zealanders living abroad to maintain some limited contact with their country.

Another determining factor was the issue of regional dominance. The major international broadcasters like the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Australia had strong signals in the region and failure to establish a shortwave service may have been seen as handing the Pacific region over to Australia. New Zealand had strong ties with many Pacific Islands, and this service would be a way of strengthening those ties.

Before exploring the ups and downs of the history of New Zealand’s international broadcasting service, it is necessary to understand a little about the geography of the Pacific region, and the relationship that New Zealand has with some of the islands. New Zealand is itself an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean about 1200 miles southeast of Australia. (See figures 1 and 2) New Zealand has an area of 103, 519 square miles, placing it in size between Great Britain (94,000 sq. miles) and the state of California (153,00 sq. miles). The population of the country is around three and a half million. New Zealand is responsible for several groups of islands in the Pacific including the Cook Islands. This island group became self governing in 1965, although New Zealand is still responsible for the Cook Islands foreign affairs and defense, and the inhabitants of the islands are New Zealand citizens. The other islands that are in a similar relationship with New Zealand are Niue Island, and Tokelau Islands. New Zealand is also administratively responsible for the Ross dependency in Antarctica. (New Zealand, Collier’s, 1997) The desire to strengthen relations with the islands and to not abdicate its role to other countries led to the development, in 1948, of New Zealand’s shortwave service. The external services division of Radio New Zealand began broadcasting that year to the Pacific Islands, Australia and Antarctica using two former U.S. Army transmitters. Each transmitter had a power of 7.5 kilowatts making it a weak service, especially compared to that of Radio Australia, and the always strong BBC World Service. However it served the purpose of establishing an international broadcasting presence in the Pacific region for New Zealand. (Clark, B.,1985)

Bryan Clark of the New Zealand Radio DX League says the original transmission consisted of a daily 2 hour broadcast of specially prepared programs. These included “Pacific Playground” a tourism show produced in conjunction with the tourism board and detailing New Zealand’s appeal as a tourist destination; a weekly “Mailbox” session in which listener queries about New Zealand were answered; as well as specialist programs on Maori music and folklore, New Zealand musicians, sporting results, achievements, etc. (1985)

These programs would suggest that initially New Zealand’s shortwave service had somewhat of an ambassadorial function. Rather than producing programs that might benefit its audience, the service seemed to provide programs that would benefit New Zealand financially through increased tourism, or even immigration.

Within ten years, the station was relaying national broadcasts from the terrestrial service from 5 am to 5:45 pm, and then from 6 – 9 pm programming tailored for the Pacific Islands was broadcast. At 9 pm the service repeated previous programming for the benefit of Australian listeners. (Clark, B., 1985) Unlike the larger shortwave services that were broadcasting in many different languages all over the world, New Zealand’s broadcasts were confined to a limited area and to a limited audience. Obviously listeners in Australia and the Antarctic could speak English, but there were many in the Pacific Islands who spoke only their native tongue. If nothing else, these broadcasts to the islands may have served as a form of cultural imperialism where the language or customs of New Zealand began to become more attractive than that of the indigenous culture. This may have increased tourism, but also the possibility of immigration, particularly if the economy in these countries was not flourishing.

By 1968, there was a realization that for such a service to be effective, programming must address the needs of the audience, and there must be some programming in the language of the main islands to which the broadcasts were directed. This led to the addition of a 15 minute weekly program for New Zealanders in the Antarctic, and “once weekly broadcasts in Samoan, Niuean and Cook Islands Maori.” For those in Antarctic, such broadcasts served the same purpose as the BBC broadcasting to ex-pats overseas. It was simply a means whereby they felt connected to their home country, even if the program was only broadcast once a week. (Clark, B., 1985)

The main problem with this service was still the low power. It obviously had potential, but there was still a question of its effectiveness. In 1973, a committee on Broadcasting recommended that the programming and transmitting power be revamped. According to the committee,

An overseas service would do much to promote a closer relationship between the South Pacific and New Zealand, closely matching and lending conviction to our other activities in the area. Neighboring countries (including Australia) could be better informed of day-to-day policy developments within New Zealand, particularly at times of rapid change. (Clark, B., 1985)

Bryan Clark notes,

The Committee concluded that this latter point was especially valid in terms of the South Pacific, where an adequate newspaper service had not been developed, and where broadcasting had been able to identify itself closely with the heart and soul of Pacific life. (1985)

Despite the best intentions of this Committee, their recommendations lay dormant and no action was taken to upgrade the service. It showed a failure of the government to recognize the need for a service that would strengthen New Zealand’s ties with the Pacific.

In 1976, almost 30 years after the service went on the air, the government shut down the service. The decision was purely a matter of economics. Closing the service trimmed three hundred thousand dollars from the Foreign Affairs budget. This decision was met with protests from people throughout New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and around the world. An editorial in the Otago Daily Times, described the closure as “a misguided move in the recent mini-budget cuts.” The paper commended the service for “[engendering] a lot of goodwill and [providing] a vital direct link with the neighboring Pacific Islands community. Sending the local radio stations a New Zealand news bulletin by telegraph will not be the same.” (Switched Off, 1976)

Pressure like this forced the government to reconsider its position and just a month later on June 1, 1976 the Minister of Broadcasting, Hugh Templeton, issued a press release which said, “…the Government had agreed to Radio New Zealand’s proposal to reactivate its external service transmitters.” (External Services of Radio New Zealand, 1976) The release said there had been much feedback from the pacific region and that the broadcast would restart “with re-broadcasts of the National Program including the broadcast of the rugby test with Ireland. Broadcasting of this kind would be of considerable interest to shortwave listeners in Tonga, Fiji, and Western Samoa.” The Minister of Broadcasting also announced there would be a provision of funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the station which would “provide a New Zealand broadcast service of considerable interest to the Pacific Islands and of particular use so far as news and current events were concerned to the Island communities with which New Zealand had special relations.” Among the programs that the service would carry was news in Samoan and Cook Islands Maori. (External Services of Radio New Zealand, 1976)

From 1977 to 1982 the shortwave service continued to receive an annual grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but in 1982 cuts in the government’s budget again forced drastic changes to the external service of Radio New Zealand. The shortwave service was still operational, using the original two transmitters, but was reduced to relaying programming from the national Radio New Zealand network. This served the interests of New Zealanders living in the Pacific Islands or in Australia but it hardly met the needs of the inhabitants of the various Pacific Islands that were supposed to be provided for. This programming was carried by very few Pacific broadcasters, and the current General Manager of Radio New Zealand International, Linden Clark, observed that for all intents and purposes New Zealand had no shortwave service. (L. Clark, personal communication, March 11, 1998)

Bryan Clark, in a submission to a Royal Commission examining the future of RNZI, wrote, with the exception of Uruguay, “Radio New Zealand’s 7.5 kilowatt transmitters have the dubious honor of being the lowest rated output used by any country for an external broadcasting operation.” He also observed that New Zealand was losing listeners because they could not compete with other stations that operated on higher power. This was particularly true when it came to fighting for the same frequency, Radio New Zealand’s service would lose every time. He said,

There was a time when news and other programming from New Zealand was relayed throughout the Pacific. This important link with our neighbors is now almost non-existent. In most cases, broadcasting organizations now use Radio Australia for this purpose. (1985)

In 1987 the strange legacy of Radio New Zealand’s external service took yet another a twist. A military coup took place on the pacific island of Fiji. The coup was led by native Fijians upset by the fact that Fijians of Indian descent occupied almost all of the positions of power in that country. This action not only ensured that ethnic Fijians would regain power, and as a result of a constitutional amendment remain in power, but it also paved the way for the re-establishment of an international broadcasting service from New Zealand. (Microsoft Encarta) Interest in the coup and its obvious ramifications for the Pacific region meant that the New Zealand government and the New Zealand people kept a close eye. There was also concern that only the Australian version of events in Fiji was being heard. This was because Australia had a powerful, far reaching shortwave service, whereas New Zealand had practically nothing. As a result a call for a credible shortwave service for New Zealand was renewed. The Otago Daily Times wrote,

The Constitutional crisis in Fiji highlights yet again a major New Zealand shortcoming- our continuing inability to be heard in South Pacific affairs. Radio New Zealand’s two antiquated, under powered transmitters have been little of a lifeline for the beleaguered citizens of Fiji as they sought the news and views of other nations about their military takeover. (Steam Radio, 1987)

The paper also said that by 1987, New Zealand had the “unenviable position of operating the lowest powered international broadcast station in the world. Even Bangladesh has two 50 kilowatt transmitters for international broadcasting. Equally poor Nigeria has eight ranging up to 500 kilowatts.” The Times went on to quote from the annual report from the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand which said,

There is no substitute for a sustained and strong voice for New Zealand in the Pacific. In view of the ideological battle being fought for our influence in the region, it is of concern that yet another year has gone by without a clear indication of Government policy and without a level of financial commitment being established to upgrade this vital presentation of New Zealand to the rest of the world. (Steam Radio, 1987)

Several months after the coup, the Southland Times reported that the Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fran Wilde, had toured some Pacific Islands and was “disappointed that New Zealand shortwave makes little impact in the Pacific.” The paper reported that it was hardly surprising as “the Pacific is highly competitive. Russia, the United States, Australia, China and Japan all have high powered transmitters operating. The United States and the BBC broadcast to the Pacific via satellite.” (Pacific radio, 1987)

Despite the seeming urgent situation, the new Zealand government still took its time getting the service operational. Linden Clark said,

In August 1988 the government decided to upgrade New Zealand’s shortwave service because of the countries long-standing interests and responsibilities in the Pacific region, the growing importance of the Pacific Rim, and because New Zealand now had a greater regional focus and therefore a New Zealand voice in the Pacific was seen as essential. Shortwave was seen as an inexpensive way to do it. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was to fund it, and all editorial control would rest with Radio New Zealand. (L. Clark, personal correspondence, 1998)

By May 1989 the Evening Post was reporting that the old transmitters were to be replaced by a new 100 kilowatt transmitter. It would cost (NZ)$3.2 million to set up and (NZ) $1 million a year to run. The paper said,

While New Zealand is unquestionably a major member of the South Pacific community, there have been times in the past 15 years when island governments, vulnerable economic entities in the best of times, have understandably asked how committed to its Pacific role this country is. (The airwaves’ subtle signal, 1989)

It also noted, “This new, low-budget service delivers an important message. It not only reminds the island nations we accept our responsibilities, but also gives this country a chance to lift its profile and reinforce its influence in the area.” (The airwaves’ subtle signal, 1989)

In 1990 Radio New Zealand International officially became the international broadcast station of New Zealand. Linden Clark believes that “this allows New Zealand’s views to be expressed without interpretation by another nation or its media.” Clark says the initial cost of setting up the service was NZ$2.6 million. Funding declined in the ensuing years, with the service receiving NZ$2.1 million in 1993/94, and NZ$1.8 million in 1994/95.

Clark also states that:

RNZI was expected to achieve a strong regional voice in the South Pacific with minimum resources and maximum coverage. Its impact is extended through agreements with Pacific radio stations to relay Radio New Zealand International programs and news. (L. Clark, personal correspondence, 1998)

It would seem that things after years of turmoil New Zealand finally had an international broadcasting service that could be effective and provide much needed services to people in the Pacific Islands. The station uses its 100 kilowatt transmitter to broadcast programming mainly in English, but also “carries news and programs in ten Pacific languages.” The RNZI web site says, listeners can not only listen via shortwave but also “over local stations in Western Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Niue, Cook Islands and Kirbati who choose to put RNZI news, sports and programs direct to air each day.” (RNZI web page, 1998)

One of the most important things for any broadcast outlet, but particularly for a service that has had such an unstable history is a clear mission statement. There needs to be a sense among the staff, the government which provides the funding, and the listeners that the station has a clear objective in mind. This is particularly important when the service provides programming that are development oriented. The listeners need to know that the service will attempt to cater to their needs. RNZI’s mission statement says:

Radio New Zealand International will be a friendly, trusted voice talking with listeners in neighboring South Pacific countries about life in our country and region, the things we can offer and the parts we can play in Pacific and world affairs.

It goes on to say that Radio New Zealand International will maintain program and editorial policies which follow the traditions of public broadcasting and ensure honest and impartial treatment to listeners and contributors. [It will also] provide accurate and objective news and information programming, concentrating on matters of relevance to Pacific listeners, and setting in context domestic and regional reports.

Finally, the statement pledges to “encourage and expand links and understanding between New Zealand her South Pacific neighbors, and the world community and feature wherever possible the words, songs and music of New Zealand.” (RNZI Mission Statement, 1998) This statement appears to make a solid commitment to not only further the interests of the New Zealand government in the region, but to offer programming that will meet the needs and be of value to those in the Pacific Islands. But such a commitment has been made before and it has amounted to little more than hollow words. Obviously the staff of RNZI are committed to their mission statement, but the government seems less enthusiastic.

Despite the new transmitter and programming, RNZI is once more in jeopardy following recommendations by the New Zealand treasury that the service be axed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Treasury conducted a review of Radio New Zealand International which they completed in December, 1997. The opposition member of Parliament for Pacific Affairs, Taito Phillip Clark, leaked information that suggested the recommendation would be the closing of the service. (Guyon, E., 1998, January 8) RNZI manager Linden Clark in an interview for the program Media Network on Radio Netherlands said more capital investment was needed for the service and thought that this may have contributed to the findings. RNZI needs a second shortwave transmitter because of the large area the service was trying to cover. She said “Two transmitters would give [RNZI] the flexibility to broadcast on two different frequencies at the same time.” In other words, the service could reach French Polynesia and the Cook Islands on one frequency, and Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu at the same time on another frequency. Clark also maintains RNZI needed capacity to reach relaying Pacific stations by satellite. (Radio Netherlands, 1998)

Taito Phillip Field believes that if RNZI was axed, Pacific Island communities in New Zealand would feel deceived. He said that in 1994 when Pacific Island language programs were canned, there was a promise RNZI would not only be maintained but boosted. “This current proposal flatly breeches that pledge.” (Black, J., 1998) A ray of hope may have emerged from the leader of an opposition party, Richard Prebble, who said, “It’s not actually a Treasury decision. Radio New Zealand International is funded by Foreign Affairs and I think when you look at the Foreign Affairs vote, they get very good value for money from Radio New Zealand International.” (CBA Online, 1998) The opposition Labor Foreign Affairs spokesman, Mike Moore, said that if RNZI pulled out of the region it would leave a vacuum. “Who fills that vacuum? Maybe it’s Australia, maybe it’s America, who knows?…to withdraw would be extremely dumb.” (“Opposition spokesman praises role of RNZI,” 1998)

Consternation over the possible closure has been expressed by individuals from the islands, and from around the world. Elizabeth Smith, Secretary-General for the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, is another person who has expressed concern over the possible demise of Radio New Zealand International. In a letter sent to the New Zealand government she wrote,

No other international broadcaster focuses on the Pacific in the way RNZI does. A survey on the main island in Fiji in 1992 found RNZI with a 4 percent weekly audience among all adults (15+) while in the Solomon Islands in 1993, RNZI had a weekly audience of 9 percent. (CBA press release, 1998)

Smith notes that “these are significant audiences for shortwave broadcasting” and she anticipated equal or higher numbers for those islands with an even stronger connection to New Zealand. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu said cuts to Radio New Zealand International would be a great loss to Pacific nations. The Prime Minister said RNZI provided a “life-saving service” with the broadcast of cyclone warnings, a major factor in reducing casualties and damage from the Ron, Susan and Katrina cyclones which struck the region. He also said that RNZI was a vital news source for the Solomon Islands, which could not afford to subscribe to other overseas news agencies. (Guyon, E., 1998, January 19)

At least eight or nine Pacific radio stations relay broadcasts of Radio New Zealand International news and because most of these islands only have one radio station, these newscasts reach the majority of the islanders. That means that 30 bulletins of news a day broadcast in English as well as Pacific Island languages. There are some Pacific Islands like the Northern Cook Islands that can’t hear their local radio station, so they rely on RNZI for everything. This was illustrated when RNZI broadcast Cyclone warnings last year, and saved many lives in this region. (Radio Netherlands, 1998) Tom Newenham, the founder of a group called Save Radio New Zealand International, gave a personal example of the necessity of RNZI in the region. His brother lives in Rarotonga and after he heard the warnings via RNZI, he phoned his daughter in Manihiki (in the Cook Islands) just before the cyclone struck. Newenham says, “at that time they had no other warning.” (Newenham, T., personal correspondence, 1998)

A station like RNZI can also play a role in fostering the development of democracy in many of these nations. In fact, a parallel can be drawn between the function of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Europe, and RNZI. Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic talking about the need for RFE/RL to continue providing services in Europe noted:

These radio stations are significant even after the end of the Cold War… not only because human rights are not fully respected (and) democracy has not yet fully matured, but also because they set a goal for the new independent media, creating a healthy competitive environment. (Radio Free Europe, 1998)

In the same way, Radio New Zealand International is needed in the Pacific region. In some of the Pacific Island nations, democracy is not the preferred ideology and human rights are not respected. This was illustrated during the coup in Fiji, where Indian Fijians gained power democratically, but had it taken away from them. In situations like this, the government controls the media leaving those in dissent with no voice. In countries where democracy is espoused, the media are often still heavily influenced by governmental interference and need a model as outlined by Havel.

RNZI can and does present such a model, a level to which the media in these Island nations can strive to emulate. An island like Samoa is an example of a country where equal access to information is not shared, and where Radio New Zealand International could serve as a model for the press to follow. The commonwealth Broadcasting Association reported recently that, “Samoa’s opposition leader said that he would sue the government to force the state-run media to give coverage to the opposition. The government owned Televise Samoa and Radio 2AP currently have an official policy of not covering opposition activities. ” The government of Samoa claims there are other outlets through which the opposition party can air its views, but maybe these are not credible, powerful, or effective. In this case RNZI is vital because it is in a position to provide unbiased coverage as to what is going on. RNZI can give the opposition a powerful voice to express their views. (CBA Online, 1997)

RNZI is also needed to provide information to islands that have no other coverage. The only FM radio station in the Solomon Islands is due to close …because of continuing heavy losses incurred by its owner. Meanwhile the Solomon Islands government has canceled a television license it issued to an Australian company, Unitel. Unitel had been given a licence to establish the islands first television service, but Unitel found the service would not be commercially viable. (BBC Monitoring, 1997) Even if they do get a service, it is likely to be a commercial satellite fed FM style broadcast that cannot meet the needs of the population in the way that RNZI can. This does not mean one or the other, rather the services are able to complement each other. A station on the island of Tuvalu went off the air in 1997 when equipment failed at a transmitter site. The station was receiving FM transmission via satellite, but “a power supply module in the broadcast receiver overheated in the tropical conditions.” (Sanderson, 1997) Due to lack of communication with the company in Australia which supplies and maintains the equipment, the problem has continued for months. This is where RNZI is needed. It can’t replace the programming offered by an FM service, but it is constantly there, at least for the time being.

If RNZI were to fold, the only major regional international broadcast would come from Radio Australia. An examination of the station’s history is essential in evaluating whether Radio Australia would be able to fill the programming void should RNZI close down.

Radio Australia began shortwave broadcasting in 1939 with the goal of providing a service for those Australians involved in the war effort overseas. By 1950 the focus had changed and the administration of the service had shifted from the ministry of information to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. By virtue of its strong signal, Radio Australia established a strong presence in the Asian and Pacific regions. Radio Australia’s language services include Indonesian, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Khmer (Cambodian) and Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea). Radio Australia reaches into the French Pacific, with many local stations relaying portions of its programming. The service remained strong until 1997 when it became the victim of government cut-backs. These cut-backs at the international level reduced the number of services from nine to six, and the amount of staff from 144 to 66. The reduction in services was not so much an indication that the government was unhappy with international broadcasting, but was indicative of the pressure that public service broadcasting in Australia and around the world is facing. (Radio Australia, 1998)

From this brief historical background, it is obvious that Radio Australia has a completely different focus from that of RNZI. Radio New Zealand International focuses its programming on the Pacific region; however, Radio Australia doesn’t have a dedicated Pacific Island language service; therefore, the needs of the Islanders are incidental. Radio Australia also does not have the impetus to provide specific developmental programming to the island nations that RNZI has. Radio Australia’s strength has been and continues to be the Asia service. This doesn’t mean that the station couldn’t, or wouldn’t, attempt to focus on the Pacific Islands if RNZI was taken off the air, but with the budget cuts that Radio Australia has faced, it is never going to be a priority. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a public service broadcaster, and their terrestrial service is finding it hard it enough to survive amidst deregulation and increased competition. This would suggest that the funds available to the international arm of the corporation are not going to increase in the foreseeable future.

Thus the onus is on RNZI to continue to provide programming that will promote New Zealand to the region, and the world, and meet the needs of the station’s constituents. This is something that it seems no other broadcaster is as uniquely qualified to do. Many Pacific Islands can probably pick up Radio Australia, and if New Zealand doesn’t have a presence, then Australia will be seen as the dominant force in this region. This is an important matter as far as foreign affairs is concerned. New Zealand needs to continue to be seen as a strong reliable partner to the nations in this region, and RNZI is able to complement that goal.

What is needed is a willingness by the government to continue to fund the service. The immediate tangible benefits like revenue from advertising will never be there. International broadcasters operate under the public service model of broadcasting where the bottom line is of less concern than the need to provide programming that serves the public interest. Programming offered by these broadcasters will never get the highest ratings compared to a commercial broadcaster, but that is because their programming is different. Cyclone warnings are hardly ratings getters but in this area of the world they are necessary because they save lives and enable people to take measures that save property from destruction. English language lessons are not rating getters, but they enable people to function in a global society where English is the dominant language. Skills such as a knowledge of the English language are necessary if the islanders are to interact with the outside world, particularly in a region where tourism may be the life-blood of the economy. News and information is likewise important because it brings these people in remote areas into contact with the events of today, events that may directly affect them and their future.

The prognosis for the survival of Radio New Zealand International is still uncertain. The government has not followed through with any action to cut the service, which must be seen as good news. What must happen is for some sort of agreement to be drawn up assuring the future of RNZI. No organization can continue to operate effectively under conditions of such uncertainty. It does not cost a fortune to run the organization, and the staff and the listeners deserve more than a half hearted show of support every few years. It is time the government stopped the incessant on again off again cycle of indecision that has plagued the service, and allow Radio New Zealand International to fulfill its vital role in the Pacific region.


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