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"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 N352, November 22, 2015

Railway Radio in New Zealand

The beautiful, independent South Pacific nation of New Zealand is made up of two major islands that are known locally and quite simply as the North Island and the South Island. This colorful country extends for a total of nearly 1,000 miles from its almost semi-tropical northern tip to the almost frigid southern tip, and at its maximum width it extends for some 250 miles. The two islands are separated by the 14 mile wide Cook Strait.

This South Pacific nation, known by the original Maori settlers as the Land of the Long White Cloud, is home to five million people. Their largest city is Auckland towards the top of the North Island, and their capital city is Wellington, at the bottom edge of the same North Island.

New Zealand was one of the last major land masses settled by humans. Maori history tells us that the first settlers arrived in New Zealand from eastern Polynesia around the year 1250, and by the time the first Europeans arrived, the total Maori population in New Zealand is estimated at around 100,000.

The first European traveler to sight New Zealand was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman in 1642. In a hostile encounter, four of his seamen and one Maori were killed. The next European to visit the islands was Captain James Cook, more than one hundred years later. The first European settlement in New Zealand was a Christian mission from England which was established at Hohi on the Bay of Islands way up north in December 1814.

There was extensive British settlement throughout the rest of the century, and in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British crown an various tribal chiefs, thus bringing New Zealand into the British Empire and giving the Maoris equal rights with the British citizens.

On July 1, 1841, New Zealand was declared a separate colony from New South Wales in Australia; in 1907 New Zealand was declared a dominion within the British Empire; and in 1947 the country was granted its own rights to self-government, though still within the Empire.

In the very early part of the year 1939, work began on the conversion of an eight year old luxury railway carriage numbered AA1710 for use as a mobile radio broadcasting station. Living quarters for the staff of three were installed in a compartment at one end of the carriage; an on air studio with a piano was installed in a compartment at the other end; and in between was the office and the radio broadcasting transmitter.

Artistically, the entire exterior of the cabin was painted a gleaming ivory white, emblazoned upon which was a scarlet sash and the station identification with the wording, Railway Studio 5ZB. The transmitter was a 250 watt unit tuned to 1360 kHz, and on the roof of the van was a collapsible antenna system that was 35 feet high when raised into position. While in stationary operation, the radio masts were affixed to each end of the carriage, with the aerial wire stretched in between.

At the time, all commercial broadcasting in New Zealand was managed by NCBS, the National Commercial Broadcasting Service, and the major land based stations were each identified according to location with consecutive callsigns. These stations were 1ZB Auckland and 2ZB Wellington in the North Island, and 3ZB Christchurch and 4ZB Dunedin in the South Island. Thus the mobile railway radio station, a commercial venture, was identified consecutively as 5ZB.

Daily live broadcasts were on the air, generally in two separate sessions; one in the morning from 7:00 am to 9:00 am, and another in the evening from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm. On special occasions, there was also a midday session running from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm.

The three man staff was made up of the manager/announcer Ian McKay (who went on to further fame in the international radio scene), an engineer/announcer and a salesman/copywriter. The salesman went ahead of the mobile radio station to secure advertising and to make arrangements for a civic welcome and other significant local events.

This mobile radio broadcasting station was welcomed with a flourish in each locality it visited. Mayors, local dignitaries, senior business personnel and school parties all took part in the welcoming ceremonies, and during its more than three month tour of service in the North Island, more than 15,000 people visited this unique radio station.

Radio station 5ZB set out from Auckland at the beginning of its tour on March 20, 1939, and its first location was at the town of Rotorua, a major cultural center for the Maoris 140 miles south. This complete mobile radio broadcasting station zigged and zagged across the railway system in the North Island and radio magazines in New Zealand and Australia back at that era informed its readers of its progressive itinerary.

The total distance covered during this 1939 odyssey was more than 2,000 miles of railway track, hither and yon, as it ventured to more than a dozen regional cities and towns in the North Island. The last city to receive a visit was Masterton, a regional town 60 miles north of the capital city Wellington. A stay of three days at this location during the first full week in June brought an end to the mobile operation of the railway radio station 5ZB, though not an end to its usefulness.

The three operators at 5ZB saw the value of this form of radio service in rural areas, and they wanted to continue with subsequent itineraries. However, the purpose for this traveling radio service was to assess the potential for commercial radio in rural towns and cities, and 5ZB had performed well. However, instead of a continuing mobile radio service, plans were laid for the installation of local mediumwave stations throughout New Zealand.

Five months later, radio station 5ZB entered its second phase of radio broadcasting activity. The railway carriage AA1710 was installed at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition at Rongotai, a south eastern suburb of the capital city, Wellington.

The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition was a six month long international event that celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of British sovereignty over New Zealand. A total of 2.6 million people from all over New Zealand and all over the world visited the international exhibition, a number considerably more than the entire population of New Zealand at the time.

This huge exhibition was officially opened on November 8, 1939, even though World War 2 had already begun in Europe two months earlier, and it ended on May 4, 1940. It has been described as one of the greatest events ever staged by this fledgling dominion in the South Seas.

Radio station 5ZB, still located within its stately radio carriage, returned to the air on the opening day of the exhibition, and it remained in service throughout its entire duration, much to the admiration of the huge crowds that thronged to see it. More about this next time.