Pilots of the airwaves still

A record is readied for play.  Photo by Gregor Richardson.
A record is readied for play. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
That was the Wellington Ukelele Orchestra with their cover of the reggae classic Israelites.

It's 5.15 on the One.

Plenty of good music still to come - be sure to tune in to Eclectro for the best in techno from nine this evening."

The voice, a million miles from the polished hype of commercial radio, emanates from a booth in offices opposite the Otago Museum in Cumberland St.

The space is the home of Radio One, which this month reaches the stately age of 25.

Radio One went to air in early 1984, the country's fifth student radio station, after a campaign by students and musicians.

Among them were members of several top Dunedin bands.

Initial conditions were rudimentary, and broadcasts were often seat-of-the pants productions.

A University Union office was partitioned into two work spaces, two cupboard-sized announcers' booths, and a tiny record library.

With no recording studio, advertisements were recorded on portable equipment in the University's Clubs and Societies Building.

The entire space was only slightly larger than the station's current main office in the Union's archway annex.

What the station lacked in sophistication, it made up for in enthusiasm, and the music made it unique in Dunedin.

In the year Radio One went to air, other local stations were playing hits by Phil Collins and Lionel Ritchie.

The Prime Minister was Robert Muldoon, who had famously stated four years earlier that New Zealand rock music was "not culture".

Against this backdrop, Radio One unashamedly included a high proportion of local content, much of it too rough or non-commercial for other stations.

Even in pre-quota days the station prided itself on playing 30% New Zealand music.

There was a degree of self-interest in the support from local musicians, and Radio One was involved in promoting the '80s burgeoning "Dunedin Sound".

Over the years, many local music luminaries have worked at the station, among them Shayne Carter and Jan Hellriegel, and members of countless bands from The Verlaines to Delgirl.

Current manager Lesley Paris - a former member of all-girl band Look Blue Go Purple - continues the tradition.

Simon Vare, station manager in 1990, remembers the early days fondly.

"We tried to cater for what other radio didn't do or play, and simultaneously develop the station.

''We were trying to take the best ideas from the more established outfits and embellish them with everything that they wouldn't or couldn't do.

"We were the only alternative in many ways, and the only FM station in town in the '80s, so there was an attitude of wanting to push the boundaries - not just in the music but in presentation both on air and off.

"My favourite memories include the many wacky promotions we got involved with, things like the `Birdman' contests."

Announcers had considerable leeway in what they played and said, and early broadcasts alternated between shambolically amateur and fresh.

At times this steered the station close to trouble, especially as easy-going conditions and student enthusiasm encouraged inappropriate behaviour.

On one occasion a prominent local personality was insulted on air, and it took swift action to avert possible litigation.

Another time, an announcer lost his show after the sound of him urinating in the studio was broadcast across the city.

Lack of security was also a problem, and measures employed to safeguard the station weren't always successful - on one occasion staff turned up to find that the new sensor system installed to prevent record theft had been ripped out and thrown over the office balcony during the night.

Radio One initially operated restricted hours for only a few months of the year, and could rarely be heard further away than the outer suburbs, as coverage was limited to line-of-sight transmission from the roof of the campus' Hocken (now Richardson) building.

This changed after only a few years, with a transmitter on Mount Cargill enabling the station to broadcast to much of North and South Otago.

Radio One is now run by Planet Media, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Otago University Students' Association which is also responsible for the campus newspaper, Critic.

Funding is contributed by the OUSA, but this now accounts for well under half of the station's budget. Advertising, NZ On Air funding and Onecard membership cover much of the rest.

Staff turnover is consistently high, with many announcers only working at the station for one year.

There is, however, a strong community spirit.

Most of the 70-strong staff are unpaid volunteers, with paid remuneration for a handful of administrative staff and a few key on-air positions.

Several former staff have continued to work in broadcasting, notably Nightline's Samantha Hayes, former TVNZ reporter Charlotte Glennie, Radio New Zealand's Richard Wain, and former Kiwi FM breakfast host and current TVNZ7 presenter Wallace Chapman.

Chapman, who worked at the station in the late 1990s, believes that it gave him a good grounding for life in broadcasting.

"[It] allowed you freedom to make mistakes and develop a bit of a personal style.

''I think many people who come out of student radio have their own distinct styles, as opposed to developing a jock mentality."

Vare, now a CD distributor, also found the experience beneficial.

"It gave me an insight into what the music industry was.

''We had a couple of gatherings with major label reps which showed the sort of business opportunities the industry presented."

With maturity, the station has gained in professionalism.

As a result it may perhaps have lost a measure of its zaniness, but it has done so without compromising too much on its initial aesthetic.

Musical trends have changed over times, with post-punk new wave and indie guitar rock giving way increasingly to urban pasifika and electronica, but the station's eclecticism has remained, and many of the shows are aimed at specialist tastes ranging from jazz to industrial rock.

The impulsive "go for it" approach also remains, and Chapman acknowledges this as an advantage.

"The great thing about Radio One is how quickly they can make a decision.

''That's what comes with being a small, punchy station with a strong local and cultural presence."

Radio One holds a substantial niche position in Dunedin radio.

Operating 24 hours a day year-round, and with its Mount Cargill transmitter supplemented by live Internet streaming, it has many fans around Otago and further afield.

Several announcers have gained "world famous at Otago" status, including former breakfast show hosts such as Andy "Flyboy" Dickson and Emma "Dish" Smith, both of whom now work professionally in broadcasting.

The station houses a music library (though announcers still play a lot of music from their own collections), several offices, a spacious on-air booth and a production studio which has been the birthplace of many local CDs.

Radio One also hosts frequent live concerts and events, culminating in its annual "One Fest", making it an integral part of the local music scene in ways that other stations often cannot be.

As Wallace Chapman says: "Hamilton lost something with the demise of their student station and the same thing would happen to Dunedin if Radio One suffered a similar fate.

"Radio One has been a consistently important cultural voice in the makeup of Dunedin city.

''And I don't think that's always been appreciated by the wider community."

- James Dignan 

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