An older woman is sitting in front of an old fashioned radio microphone.

Happy Birthday NZ Commercial Radio!

28 Oct 2016
This Saturday is the 80th anniversary of national commercial radio in New Zealand, which started with station 1ZB Auckland on 29 October 1936.

By Sarah Johnston

Radio had been operating in New Zealand since the 1920s, but advertising was generally not allowed and stations were mostly financed via a licence fee paid by listeners, or via sponsorship from a related business, such as a music retailer. 1ZB had been broadcasting in Auckland for several years already as a private station, owned by Methodist minister Reverend Colin Scrimgeour.

In 1936 the first Labour government under Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage bought 1ZB and re-opened it as the first station of the government-owned National Commercial Broadcasting Service. 2ZB, 3ZB and 4ZB followed in quick succession, bringing commercial broadcasting to Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Former 1ZB owner, Rev. Scrimgeour – or “Uncle Scrim” – was appointed as head of the new service.

Announcers such as Maud Basham, the legendary “Aunt Daisy,” became firm listener favourites on the commercial network, with her chatty programme of infomercials, recipes and household hints, along with new features such as sponsored radio serials, quiz shows, hit parades, sports commentary and talent quests – all paid for by advertising. The commercial network also hired Māori broadcasters in each centre: Uramo Paora “Lou Paul” in Auckland, Kingi Tahiwi in Wellington, Te Ari Pitama and Airini Grenell in Christchurch and Dunedin.

The government soon discovered commercial radio was a great income earner. In the first year of operation, the four commercial stations made a profit of 10,000 pounds.  After World War II, income from the commercial network was used to establish the National Orchestra – later the NZSO.

The commercial network grew to include regional and provincial stations and ran side by side with the non-commercial network as part of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (and various later incarnations such as the N.Z.B.C. and Radio New Zealand), until it was sold off by the government in 1996. The ZB stations became part of The Radio Network – and are better known today as NewstalkZB.

You can hear what 1930s commercial radio sounded like in this 1961 documentary.

Hero image: Aunt Daisy (Maud Ruby Basham), a darling of NZ commercial radio (image: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision Documentation Collection).