“Tired of the usual commercial radio stations? Sick of sycophantic announcers promoting avarice? Annoyed by nasal drawl? Really desire better music and fewer interruptions? Then Radio U on 1422 kHz at the University of Canterbury Students’ Association may be for you.”
- The Press, July 22, 1982
Like all beings reaching the age of 30, RDU has enjoyed a full, unpredictable, and very rich life. It has had angst, sex, bloody good times, name changes and amazing achievements. Hitting 30 means some of the early years get a bit hazy and the old memory is patchy on some of the details. However, certain things endure: the passion and energy of RDU has always been an intrinsic trait of Christchurch’s longest running independent radio station, and will continue to be as long as we have a transmitter and someone to fix it.
Back in the late 1970s before Sunday drinking, weekend shopping, and New Zealand music on the airwaves, the government of the time generously granted a licence that allowed Radio U to broadcast during the two-week orientation and enrolment period between the hours of 8am-9am, 12noon-1pm, and 5pm-7pm. The idea of a student radio station had been kicking around since early 60s as a scheme of the Electronics Society. Such was the foresight and vim of the University of Canterbury Students’ Association (“UCSA”), that the station was formed as a sub-committee of Orientation. However, “such a situation meant that those involved with Radio U tended to be chummy with the Orientation controller” – or so Wayne Codlin wrote in a 1982 issue of Canta. A few years later, Wayne was fired from RDU for an on-air sexual discussion.
The first transmitter was generously provided by the Auckland University Students’ Association for the admirable sum of $800 and on 23 February 1976, Radio U transmitted its inaugural broadcast to an unknown broadcast range that was reported to have been picked up in Invercargill, but never in Sumner. The non-commercial station was only licensed ‘to deal with matters related to students’, and nothing of any political nature could be broadcast at the time. Later that year, the Minister of Broadcasting warned that a warrant would be served to the station after a debate about the All Black tour of South Africa was aired.
The station has always enjoyed a pool of electronics geeks and engineering boffins keen to adopt the latest broadcasting developments and technologies. Thus, technical aspects of RDU’s early years were enthusiastically met. This is how long-time RDU technical fix-it guy and saviour, Andrew Glennie first got involved, and we salute him and the soldering rod that has kept the station on the airwaves throughout the years. As the technical aspects appealed to some, the on-air and programming responsibilities appealed to drama and music club members. 1977 Drive Time Host, Brent Hansen, now head of MTV Europe, describes his show with co-host Paul “Governor” Gourlay as “method acting” where they’d “take over the airwaves and go mad”. Governor Gourlay, a former President of the Otago University Students’ Association, used to sport a fighter pilot crash helmet and run around as some bizarre Biggles-type character – and that was off-air. On Drive-Time, their “Dogfight” segment often descended into a battle over who could play a better track than the other.
The physical location of the station during these times was at best described as “temporary”. Having no permanent home, Radio U began in the Reading Room, then moved to what was called “The Ripoff Centre” – at one stage Radio U broadcast from the make-up rooms of the Ngaio Marsh Theatre, complete with egg carton-on-the-wall sound proofing. The broadcast was transmitted via an antenna strung between two trees and based on a table in the Avon River, which reportedly proved “to be an optimal site: an extremely good watered earth undertable enhanced wave transmission.” In the early years of the station, former Station Manager Katy Yiakmus recalled that “the aerial could be traced along bits of copper wire and rope from the river to the top of Ngaio Marsh Theatre.” The antenna has always been of RDU’s Achilles heel. Over the last 30 years of broadcast it has been chopped down, blown over, misplaced, frozen, and simply turned off.
After a few successful and uncontroversial seasons during orientation, Radio U was permitted to broadcast the Students Arts Festival in 1979. In 1981 the station was licensed to broadcast between the hours of 7am and 11pm, and in May 1982 the first commercial broadcast took place. Further expansion of broadcast hours and periods led to more unique programming, such as Channel 6, the radio programme for children which began over the mid-term break of the early 80s. The commitment to childrens’ broadacasting still endures – listen to RDU on Sunday mornings and you’ll still hear RFK (Radio for Kids).
The early 80s saw the emergence of a stronger local music scene infused and inspired by punk attitude, which infected the Radio U airwaves. During this time Radio U was among the very few radio stations playing contemporary NZ music and artists that no mainstream station would dare play, such as the Screaming Mee Mees, Sneaky Feelings, Dry Horrors, the clean, Blam Blam Blam, Soft Cell and (gasp!) Human League. Of course, it was only a matter of months before some of Radio U’s playlist appeared on commercial radio, and thirty years later, nothing changes. The impact of these musical choices was well-known to Roger Shepherd of Flying Nun Records, “Sales of our records plummet when student radio goes off air. When they are broadcasting? Well, I’d say we sell three times as many records.”
In 1981 Radio U finally found its first permanent home through the support of the UCSA. Students’ Association President Katrina Amos approved a loan to purchase necessary broadcasting equipment and studio space. Previously Radio U had broadcast from any spare meeting room or corner of the student union building, but now the station inherited the former headquarters of the anti-apartheid movement. Always first to try new forms of broadcast, RDU could have been the first and only station in Christchurch to have been bugged. At least government intelligence heard some quality punk music as the plot to get The Clash to play in Christchurch was hatched. As the major event of 1981, The Clash NZ tour had dates in most main centres, except Christchurch. Having promised that no city in New Zealand would miss seeing ‘The People’s Band’, The Clash had neglected the people of the flatland, and in the tradition of incensed RDU station managers, something was going to be done. Radio U Station Manager of the time, and well-known “wise man of student radio” Michael Higgins began a petition to get The Clash to play a Christchurch date. The petition attracted a lot of media attention, and the band did make it to the flat city.
In 1984 Radio U became an affiliated club and was thus able to apply for grants from the student association to purchase new equipment. The maverick attitude of the station was no more obvious then in 1986, when Radio U became the first radio station in Christchurch to broadcast on the FM frequency, despite the fact that in 1986 FM radios were difficult to buy, and weren’t even installed in car stereos. To do this, RDU needed a new 100-watt transmitter, but this was not feasible for a club and so the newly named Ufm became an official department of the UCSA.
THE PEOPLE BRINGING THE MUSIC
Most, if not all, people attest to their love of music being the motivator for their involvement with the station. Throughout the last 30 years RDU has been run on the blood, sweat and ears of many passionate volunteers and a few very dedicated and hard working staff. This combination of personnel provides RDU with one of the most diverse, forward-looking radio formats in Christchurch, if not NZ. The mainstay of RDU’s talent has been voluntary (they’re technically known as “vollies), making for genuinely interesting, spontaneous and passionate radio, and some of the many characters to come through the RDU studio have gone onto be fame or infamy in their own right. Some of these include DJs who have abseiled their way out of the studio through to breakfast host Colin Weir who took disciplinary suspension too literally and suspended himself off the James Hight Library in a climbing harness. Colin was adamant he would remain suspended until he was allowed back to the studio, and even had his breakfast host rival Cfm’s Alison Jones hanging off the side of a building with him. (Colin went on to start a stilt dancing troupe and was reputed to have played Mr Henry Brown in the Canterbury Children’s Theatre production of Paddington Bear, all of which were obvious choices in hindsight.) And as with all of the b-net stations, RDU is the breeding ground for the musical and broadcasting talent of the future. Some of the characters affiliated with RDU may be familiar, so here’s a list, in no particular order, of folks we say “Cheers!” to… Dave Yetton, MC Antsman, Simon Morton, Epsilon Blue, Scribe, Darcy Waldergrave, Miriama Kamo, Brent Hanson, Greg Churchill, Mark Tierney, Bruce Earwalker, Natasha Utting, Sasha McNeill, Ladi6…
At RDU we’ve always managed to disturb the balance of Christchurch conservatism. In 1982 the station was accused of sabotaging the Miss Canterbury pageant, when the militant women’s group threw eggs, tomatoes, leaflets and mice at the contestants. The organisers of the pageant were creative enough to assume that Radio U “allegedly broadcast invitations for people throw eggs at the contestants” when it was merely an item on the student notices. Thankfully the Canterbury beauties continued, despite having mice hurled at them. The mice were okay too, as children in the crowd caught them and took them home as pets, but SPCA were pretty unimpressed of the wilful endangerment of animals. A spokeswoman said “mice have feelings too – they would have been terrified…and could have died in the fall or been trampled.”
This approach to broadcasting continued to the early nineties, whenTim Baird and Fraser (current host of The Joint) were taken off-air for an impersonation of – in Fraser’s words “a local fuckwit celebrity” who they claimed was selling stolen bikes for charity at the railway station. Tim and Fraser were hauled into the RDU office and read the riot act for endangering the station with libel and slander lawsuits. During the year Fraser was off air, the local celebrity actually was implicated in a selling-stolen-bicycles scandal. Fraser reckons “You cannot make this shit up. Truth is stranger than fiction.” But somehow, things like these seem to pop up as perfectly acceptable mainstream radio-jock antics several years later.
What epitomises the RDU spirit is our ability to make radio with slim resources and really big ideas. Undoubtedly this fuelled – and still fuels – the creative and innovative approaches taken by the station. In the 80’s Radio U discos ensured the station remained on-air. DJs of those times are still spinning their records and making selections – house DJ Greg Churchill was a regular Radio U disco DJ, although back then he was “obsessed with anything early REM and indie”. In the late 80s Churchill was Programme Director of the station, and was frequently ridiculed for his interest in dance music – but that story comes later.
Like the rest of the vibe around NZ in the late 80s, Ufm also felt the financial blues of the post-1987 stockmarket crash. By 1989 it appeared that the station’s future was in jeopardy, as the fiscal burden of the radio station upon the student association was proving too costly. Some have said that the station turned too goth and some of the DJs were too arrogant, but it was actually a much more mundane story: the station needed to sell more ads and come up with better promotions. Oh, and something to do with incorrect accounting. It is believed that at its most financially troubled point, Ufm made most of its money by going through the accounts and correcting billing inaccuracies. So, at the ripe old age of 13, Ufm had its first brush with death, evading doom with creative and madly dedicated fervour. Its closedown even made national television when Mark Tierney – former RDU character and of Strawpeople – who once fronted a show called TVFM, did a story about the actual moments when the station was closed down. It was this unwavering love of good music and independent radio that saved Ufm, when in 1990, long time Mr Fix-it and rd-unit Andrew Glennie, Carl Hooper and Dave McKee submitted a proposal to student executive to keep the station running. The proposal impressed the executive enough that it approved a loan for the station to resume broadcast.
WHAT DOES “RDU” STAND FOR?
After Ufm was saved, the station had 3 weeks to hire staff and find volunteers. The most difficult decision was what to name it. After several hours of arguing on the front lawn their predecessors had dug up in order to earth the transmission wires, the discussion moved onto the stuffy broadcast regulations that required an hourly broadcast of the radio call sign: 3 RDU. This led Jon Pheloung, legendary Lothario and gifted Programme Director to exclaim “For fuck’s sake – call it 98 RDU!” A reception of stunned silence and awe gave the station the name it goes by to this day. Thanks Jon, you saved us from being called “U-boat”. To coincide with the re-launch of the station, the same group of creative minds came up with the infamous “feeding the natives” slogan. In hindsight, it was incredibly memorable, but perhaps for the wrong reasons – as banners and posters were “bright, orange day-glo, so it was like we were advertising a Wham! album rather than a radio station.” But the marketing worked. Everyone still remembers it, just like the provocative “kill your television” campaign. Unortunately, not all great promotional ideas attained successful lift-off, such as the weather balloons attached to the giant polystyrene letters R, D and U floating over the station – something to do with our close proximity to an international airport and using hydrogen instead of helium.
The early 90s marked an energetic, almost manic dedication to ensuring the station remained on-air. This era of RDU saw a more commercial, polished programme, supported by a few committed (read: obsessed) staff who lived and breathed RDU. So much so that when the station moved into its current premises, the crew performed a DIY rescue far more epic than anything seen on TV these days, transforming a student pool room into a fully functioning studio and workspace. In the summer of 1992, they built something comparable to the Radio NZ studio but for only a fifth of price. Given that we’re still there, [earthquake update - not any more!] it’s a credit to their foresight and insistence in making sure they made RDU as good as they could. A couple of years ago it was in that very production studio that Scribe demo’d his first single.
Around the time of RDU’s launch, the first form of RDUnited emerged. Called the COD card – only Colin Weir knows why – an impressive 10 or 20 were sold. Proof, once again that sales and promotions talent was just as essential as on-air personalities. Again, RDU proved to be ahead of its time, but in 1992 Promotions Manager Simon Telfer produced the most kick-ass U-card. Nowadays, loyalty cards, points accruals, and discount cards are a ubiquitous marketing activity, but in 1992, having a plastic, credit card style card with ridiculous discounts was about as hot as a pair of Reebok pumps – and Reebok pumps were hot at that point. Former Station Manager Carl Hooper recalls tens of thousands of U-cards being sold, even attracting people who did not listen to RDU. Sales of this magnitude, of course, bring tears of envy to our current Station Manager.
In 1992, with the threat of closure just behind them, the RDUnits managed another feat of local broadcasting history. In 1992 RDU was granted a 24/7 licence, including summer holidays. Up until then television and radio closed down at night – remember Goodnight Kiwi? Well, he was made redundant around this time, and in his place we have the pleasure of infomercials.
During the 90’s RDU cemented itself as the only truly independent source of music and news on Christchurch radio. The station boasted strong news teams sourced from the University of Canterbury’s Journalism department, and the quality investigative reporting was even utilised by national news stations. The list of former newseditors and readers include National Radio newsreader Nicola Wright, TV3 and former mediawatch reporter Natasha Utting, to namedrop a few. We at RDU take pride in knowing our former journalists and news hounds were trained to the highest professional standards. It was well-known that newsreaders often had their bulletins set on fire as they were reading live-to-air – with that experience, those who hailed from RDU had qualities far and above the rest of the pack.
It’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes we just got it plain wrong. The passion and driving desire to place the freshest tunes has led to some regrettable, but emphatically delivered statements. When the musical connoisseurs we admire today were fresh-faced little vollies, a certain Programme Director, whose identity has remained shrouded in secrecy, delivered a stern outburst – “dance music has no place on RDU!” and that “no track should exceed 4 minutes!” Given that this was when dance music and hip hop were the newest things around, and most tracks were around the 6 – 7 minute mark, this was an invitation for any half-decent DJ to slap those long and totally mind-bending tracks over and over again. Now, when you tune into RDU, not only do you hear specialist dance/electronic music and hip hop shows, but you’ll also hear it as part of our regular playlist: constantly exceeding 4 minutes of aural pleasure.
In 1996, the early adopters around RDU brought the ruckus once again, when the station became the first to have a live streaming broadcast via the internet. Even though someone could listen to RDU on the other side of the world via their computer, it was only in 2002 that Sumner could receive RDU on their radio, thanks to a bigger, more powerful transmitter that gave all of Christchurch 98.5FM in beautiful surround sound stereo.
Throughout its 30 years RDU has never been afraid to spin the progressive tunes and has always been quick to embrace new broadcasting technology. But while we’re always looking forward, bringing the freshest tunes and crazy ideas, some things have remained the same. RDU’s commitment to local music, talent and events has been constant and unwavering over the last three decades and of decades to come. The transmission may sometime crackle and fuzz out, there might be dead air, or some obscure track, but we’ll always be a “bastion of true radio”. As that 1982 Canta article continued… “now in the present the need is still apparent, tune in to Radio U…the only true alternative.”
HAPPY 30TH BIRTHDAY, RDU!
“The last radio station to cling with incredible tenacity to the ideal of what radio is.”
- Canta, July 20, 1982
THREE YEARS LATER
Since RDU’s 30th birthday 3 years ago, a lot has gone down. But the most important fact is, we’re still here! That pesky recession didn’t help, but unlike 1987, our doors remained open and the music kept playing. We didn’t escape unscathed of course, emerging a leaner, meaner machine and maintaining our most important asset of all – the specialist show hosts. It seemed to be more important than ever that the tunes be played, and so they were.
So RDU is now 33, we’ve survived (are continuing to survive) a major disaster and consequent aftershocks and, like a lot of people, we’re feeling more than a little discombobulated by the situation. Cast out from our home in the UCSA, we’ve had to adapt – but no matter what happens, RDU shall stay strong. So, we’re going mobile. We’re embracing a new technological model, re-evaluating what it means to be a local station, tackling local issues and engaging with the community, and driving round in our sweet mobile broadcasting truck. At the forefront of our diverse programming is still the music and always will be, but now RDU needs to bring some light to the post-quake darkness. Like a phoenix and a bad cliche we have risen from the ashes, and we’re ready to start rebuilding our beloved Christchurch. Stay tuned…