Home | Back to Wavescan Index

"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan N332, July 5, 2015

Focus on the South Pacific: Alphabet Soup in New Zealand ZLA

Historians who are interested in the origins of various foodstuffs tell us that alphabet soup became popular in the United States soon after the Civil War. Previous to that, the housewife could buy dry macaroni that was cut into small star shaped pieces at the corner family operated store, and these could be incorporated into some form of soup in the home kitchen.

Soon after this disastrous, and we might add very "uncivil" war, an ingenious entrepreneur began cutting the dry macaroni into small letters in the English alphabet. These new shapes in the soup mixture appealed to growing families, and particularly to children who liked to play with their food.

We are told that several newspaper items featured alphabet soup in the 1880s, though the ingredient was still dry cut macaroni that the housewife made into soup in her own kitchen. These days though, alphabet soup is made by several manufacturers of ready-to-eat food products, and it is sold in metal cans.

In Australia, the alphabetic sequence of wireless station callsigns running from VLA to VLZ was established more than 100 years ago. Likewise in New Zealand, they followed their own style of "alphabet soup" for wireless station callsigns, running from ZLA to ZLZ.

In this edition of Wavescan, we begin to focus on the whole range of 26 callsigns in New Zealand, with, rather appropriately, the story of the first station in this list, ZLA. Back more than one hundred years ago, work began simultaneously on the country's first two high powered wireless stations, ZLA way up north and ZLB way down south.

Tenders for these two coastal stations were called in 1910, and the successful bidder was the Australasian Wireless Company in Sydney, New South Wales. The electrical equipment for these two wireless stations was manufactured by the Telefunken company in Germany, and German technicians were performing the installation procedures under the auspices of the Australasian Wireless Company in Sydney.

The first of these two wireless stations, at least in alphabetic order, was located up towards the very tip of the North Island of New Zealand, at the base of the northernmost peninsula. It was installed on flat farmland almost half way between what were the small settlements of Awanui and Kaitaia, about 4 miles from the west coast at Ahipara Bay and a dozen miles from the east coast at Doubtless Bay. This new wireless station was constructed for the primary purpose of communication in Morse Code between New Zealand and Fiji, though subsequently it was in use for communicating with Sydney in Australia and with ships plying the South Pacific.

This new northern wireless station was installed on a 100 acre site of flat farming country, 60 acres of which were needed for the tall tower with its antenna and counterpoise systems. The triangular mild steel tower weighed 60 tons, and it stood at 400 ft. high, resting on a ball and socket joint on a glass insulator. An access ladder ran inside the triangular steel tower right up to the very top.

The top sections of the double stranded guy wires acted as an umbrella style radiator, and the insulated ends of the guy wires were fastened into three huge concrete anchors weighing 150 tons each. The counterpoise earthing system was suspended on wooden poles 15 feet high and it covered a circle 600 yards wide.

Two additional and considerably smaller antennas were in use, sometimes at night and occasionally for emergency occasions. One of the earliest observations that operators soon discovered regarding the propagation of wireless signals was that the coverage area was enhanced during the hours of night time darkness and also during an eclipse.

The main building for the Awanui Wireless Station housed the operating equipment, a 30 kW quenched spark system manufactured by Telefunken. The receiver, just a simple crystal set receiver, was operated in an adjoining room. Electric power was generated by a 70 horse power motor in a separate small building.

This new wireless station was activated on March 27, 1913 under the original callsign, NZA, standing for New Zealand station A at Awanui,and perhaps to a lesser extent Auckland. It was taken into regular service at the end of the same year, December 18, and by that time the callsign had been modified from NZA to VLA, due to new international wireless regulations.

During the tragic days of World War I in continental Europe, a detachment of 65 soldiers guarded the Awanui wireless station in New Zealand as a precaution against possible sabotage. This station served as a vital communication link on behalf of the British Empire for South Pacific operations.

In 1924, the electrical equipment at station VLA was changed from the Telefunken spark gap operation to electronic valve or tube operation.

Then in 1927 the callsign was again amended, this time from VLA to ZLA, due again to a change in international radio regulations. The old callsign VLA in New Zealand was taken over for a small communication set on Bruny Island off the coast of Tasmania, and subsequently for a 100 kW Australian-made STC-AWA transmitter at Radio Australia in Shepparton in Victoria.

However, after only 17 years of on air service, the venerable wireless/radio communication station that had served on air under three consecutive callsigns, NZA-VLA-ZLA was closed. It went silent on February 10, 1930, forever, its communication service no longer needed.

The station was dismantled by its two last employees, Superintendent Les Elliston (ZL1GR) and Engineer Bill Walker. The tall tower was felled at the end of the same year, December 1930. Then four years later, the Lisle family bought the property from the government, buildings included.

Well, that was indeed the end of the station, but not the end of the callsign. A group of amateur radio operators in New Zealand remembered the importance of their northernmost major wireless station, and they requested a license for an amateur station to operate in the same location, under a similar callsign. The commemorative date was February 10, 1980, the 50th anniversary of the closure of the station.

The requested callsign ZL1VLA was granted, and farmer Ricky Lisle cleared the now farm operated building so that a cluster of five amateur radio transmitters could operate in the same original operating position as the former wireless station. Museum artifacts were on display at three different nearby locations to honor the historic occasion.

Also present was the now-elderly last Superintendent during the wireless era, Les Elliston. The entire amateur radio event was staged in memory of the historic German wireless station that was constructed in North New Zealand in the era just before the commencement of World War I.

But again, that was not the end of the callsign either. Comes the year 1995, and the American communication conglomerate Globe Wireless constructed its own shortwave communication radio station in the same building at the exact same location on Wireless Road (as it is still known), Awanui, under the same old callsign ZLA.

Globe wireless installed eight Henry transmitters at 2 kW each in the same transmitter building for their electronic SITOR service for communication with shipping in South Pacific waters. There was an individual omni directional vertical array for each marine shortwave band.

Their receiver site was 10 miles distant, with a bevy of TCI 8074 receivers together with an omni directional discone antenna for all bands. Even though this station was located in New Zealand, yet it was controlled from the Global Wireless headquarters in California in the United States.

This new ZLA communication station, one of 24 similar stations strategically located around the world, was in use for nearly 20 years, closing somewhere around the year 2014, when Globe Wireless closed its shortwave stations and sold off to Imarsat. For the third time, the Awanui wireless/radio station was closed. This time, forever? Who knows, but in the meantime, New Zealand sheep can now safely and quietly graze, over this historic radio location.