‘My memories listening to the radio in the ’50s before television in the ’60s’

Sep 12, 2019
Cedric recalls watching 'Dr Kildare' on television as a child. Source: Warner Brothers/YouTube

I often think about how things have changed in my lifetime. Changes I have seen, especially when it comes to recorded music and its reproduction.

I was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, and compared to children these days, my life was rather primitive. I am not from a musical family, so it wasn’t a case of make our own music. Even so we had a piano in the house, but it was never in tune, though that hardly made a difference as it didn’t matter how well in tune it was, music never came from it. My mother attempted to teach me how to play the piano and the only thing I can still remember is where to find middle C.

My grandmother had an autoharp and an Edison Phonograph. She used to sit with the autoharp on her knee singing and strumming at the same time with words something like ‘a little old man runs round the room’. But it is the phonograph that took my interest. Most of the time it sat on the shelf with its wooden top on, but just occasionally it would be brought down, the horn placed on the front of it and the round bakelite cylinder slipped onto its inner cylinder. A new needle would be brought out of the small tin HMV box with a picture of a dog looking at a gramaphone. Needles came in two types — single use and long play, which would last several recordings.

An Edison Phonograph similar to the one that used to be in Cedric’s grandmother’s house. Source: Getty Images

If I was very lucky, I would be allowed to turn the handle, then Grandma would tilt the needle holder onto the cylinder and some sort of singing would come out of the horn. I always wondered how the sound came from on the cylinder and out that horn.

The gramaphone, which my father had, was a lot different to the phonograph in so much as the recorded disk was flat and made of the hard bakelite. They were brittle and could be broken easily. There were many expressions in those days referring to this technology. One such expression was directed at the child who would continually keep talking, he or she would be asked if they’d been injected with a gramaphone needle at birth. Or someone who kept repeating themselves was said to ‘keep going on like a cracked record’ (sometimes would jump the track and continue repeating itself).

I remember the records would turn at 78 revs per minute (RPM). Some would have a recording on one side only with advertising on the opposite side. One song per record. The gramaphone was wound up by a large crank handle and would last one play. There were large furniture items or smaller portable units.

When I first started school. Each classroom had one speaker mounted above the blackboard. It was connected back to the headmaster’s office and broadcasts to school in the afternoon could be heard via the one speaker. One story I recall was based in Antarctica, and was of two men climbing down a glacier when they got sun burnt due to the sun reflecting off the ice. Black and white slides projected onto an old sheet in the end of the corridor was as good as it got.

Stories like Chicken Little were shown. The idea of having a television in a classroom was something for the future, right up there with flying cars.

My father had taken me and two other siblings for a ride in the car one weekend (our family was too big to ever go somewhere together). We went to a small town in the country called Browns. He had a friend who had just bought one of the new type of records, it was made so you could bend it. He proceeded to demonstrate by placing it on his head and pulling down on both sides. Crack! Turns out the record didn’t bend that much.

It was the first 45 I had seen. More to my amazement was that the sound somehow came through skinny wires instead of a tube. The LP (long play) records also became available and ran at 33RPM. They had six tracks on each side!

In the evening we’d listen to the ‘serials’ on the wireless. I remember The Archers, Night Beat, Doctor Paul, Life with Dexter and a story that was eventually made into a movie called No Highway In The Sky.

If you had a good wireless you could pick up shortwave and hear voices from around the world, including Big Ben from London. Who remembers setting their clock to the strike of Big Ben?

I remember the only radio station at the time in Invercargill was 4YZ. Radio never aired until 6am and would go off the air at midnight. There was no linking between the stations, as happens these days. We’d all listen to the news bulletins that came in every 25 minutes and back then we had our own journalists who were responsible for the news.

‘Bertie Budgie’ was a radio identity that could be heard at breakfast time and was a huge hit with kids. I also remember ‘Shopping with Erin’ that would come on the air around 10am.

My father bought a transister radio in the early-1960s. While it wasn’t of large physical dimensions, it weighed about 2 kilograms and was only AM (there was no FM service in New Zealand in those days anyway).

I remember listening to Murray Forgie, John O’Connor and Robyn Lilley. It seemed to me every radio station in NZ had a ‘Robyn Lilley’, having heard him when I lived in the Bay of Islands and then again when I moved to the West Coast. I know him quite well now, he even married a woman who lived over our back fence when we lived in Riverton.

It wouldn’t be until 1963 that my sister would buy a portable 45 record player, allowing us to catch up with the times. One of the big problems with 45s and LPs was they were of little use in a car unless you were stopped, but then technology came into play again in the early 1970s in the form of cassette tapes, which were pre-recorded.

We didn’t have television in Otago and Southland until ’64. The first time I ever saw a television was at a church camp. Someone brought along a television and built an aerial using four sticks of bamboo both formed into crosses, then wire wound around the tips of the bamboo, similar to a box kite. It worked, and the program that was running was about Heathrow airport and how all the planes coming in, came into a holding pattern and circled at lower altitudes each circuit till they came in on finals.

In Riverton, there was an electrical shop which also sold TVs. It had one set-up in the window with a speaker out to the foot path, so anyone could watch black and white television in the comfort of the foot path and verandah covering. Doctor Kildare was one serial everyone watched.

Television did not start broadcasting each day until 5pm and would shut down at midnight. Colour television didn’t come until 1973, in time for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Christchurch. Wow, Coronation Street never looked the same again!

From radios to television, times have certainly changed!

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