Cruisin' with the Cows at Radio Norfolk
By David Ricquish
It's 'drivetime' on Radio Norfolk, and down the road at the Burnt Pine
shopping center, there's a potential traffic jam when wandering cows
block one of the exits from the Norfolk Mall. On this laid back little
island, cows have the right of way. It's especially distracting at the
local golf club. More so when the perfect drive is found in a warm cowpat.
The DJ puts yet another purple coded album on the turntable, and the
svelte sounds of a Jim Reeves ballad soothe the jangled nerves of the
homeward bound commuters. All half-a-dozen of them.
Settled by the British in 1788, Norfolk Island later became a brutal
penal colony for a 30 year period lasting until 1855. Remains of the
Georgian style prison buildings are well preserved at Kingston, on Bounty
Bay. A year later, the Pitcairn Island descendents of the famous HMS
Bounty mutineers found themselves in a new home.
Listener confirmation card (QSL) issued for special broadcast to
New Zealand listeners in 1977. (Paul Ormandy Collection)
They brought with them their own dialect, drawing on Georgian
era English and Tahitian, and many phrases have found their way into
the local version of the English language. Radio Norfolk is the only
radio station in the world to broadcast in this centuries old dialect.
Although governed as an Australian Territory, it's not technically part
of Australia. It flies it's own flag, issues its own postage stamps, and
is closer to Auckland, New Zealand (1100 km to the south-east) than Brisbane,
Queensland (1500 km to the west). The official callsign for Radio Norfolk
The permanent population is about 2000 people, boosted by several hundred
visitors at any given time from Australia and New Zealand. It's popular
as a holiday destination for 'the newly wed and the nearly dead' which is
rather unfortunate, as it's a relaxing and charming subtropical island with
a unique mid-Tasman lifestyle.
Officially On Air In 1952
Radio Norfolk serves them all with an eclectic mix of music and local talk
that meets local needs. In various guises, Radio Norfolk has been broadcasting
since 1952. It now operates more or less independently of Australian broadcasting
laws. It's licence forbids any advertising, any increase in power of the
transmitter, and all night transmission except in local emergencies.
In 1962, the callsign VL2NI was granted, although on-air ID is usually given
as 'Radio Norfolk' or, more simply '2NI'. Originally, broadcasts were on
AM only, using a 50 watt transmitter on 1570 kHz. A change was made to 1566
kHz in 1978 as part of a Pacific wide frequency move.
Listener confirmation letter for Civil Aviation transmitter.
1957. (Merv Branks Collection, NZRDXL Archives, Hocken Library)
Fire and old age of the transmitter have twice put VL2NI off the air. Now,
it has a brand new AM transmitter, and a second one for FM simulcasts on
93.9 mHz. Both pump out the colossal power of 50 watts, which doesn't really
drain the local power generators.
The studios are in a modern building on New Cascade Road,
a few minutes walk from beautiful downtown Burnt Pine, the commercial
heart with duty free stores, malls and offices. The DJ looks out across
a field containing, you guessed it, cows. In the distance is mighty Mt.Pitt,
highest point on the island. Out the other window is the Public Works
The building is shared with the Public Library. Hibiscus
flowers cling to the walls, and the door is wide open. In the backyard
is the AM tower, standing against a clear blue sky, and surrounded by
the FM loop antenna, and the latest acquisition, a parabolic satellite
dish donated by the Norfolk Island Rotary Club.
VL2NI studio entrance sign and building. 1983.
(David Ricquish Collection)
Inside, untidy noticeboards list programs currently available
for broadcast, boxes of tapes clutter the floor, rock music posters cover
the walls, and there's all the other paraphenalia which make a radio studio
feel like home. And it is, to the 14 part-time volunteers, who put out
some 116.5 hours of programing weekly, 71% being live local broadcasts.
Other programs come from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Voice
of Germany, BBC and Radio Netherlands. The satellite dish has opened up
new program options as well.
During weekday afternoons, the programs of the ABC's
2BL-AM Sydney are now rebroadcast on both AM and FM. On Saturday and Sunday
afternoons, the AM outlet relays 2BL-AM New South Wales Sports, and the
FM outlet carries the main Pacific service of Radio Australia from Melbourne.
Late at night, the rock music programs from the ABC's
2JJJ-FM youth network from Sydney are relayed, and other program choices
include the ABC's Fine Music FM Network and Radio National.
Local DJs choose their own music, and each has a popular
following for their particular choice. Country & Western ballads are the
most popular, and the Breakfast Show features listener requests, birthday
or other celebration calls, local notices and weather forecasts.
Everyone is self-taught at the station, the hard way, by simply going
on air live. The volunteers have organised their own filing system for the
paperwork that even this small station generates, and are planning to computerise
the music collection details. The station engineer manages the 'Jack and
Jill' store, selling children's clothes to islanders. He handwrites his
correspondence, and his wife types for the station.
Only the Broadcasting Officer gets paid, for just some of the work at Radio
Norfolk. Kathy Le Cren comes from New Zealand, her daughter, Sally is 'volunteered'
to become an unpaid DJ. Some of the announcers receive a small honorarium
for maintaining core broadcasting hours, but mostly, and for most, it's
a labor of love and island community spirit.
The Unofficial Story
Radio Norfolk has come a long way from the early days
in the late 1940's when fortnightly flights by RNZAF military aircraft
staging from New Zealand to Japan landed at the local airstrip and brief
announcements were made over the Civil Aviation transmitter for flight
arrivals. Shipping arrivals were similarly greeted, and somehow, music
was soon played just before an aircraft or ship was scheduled to arrive.
A record player was placed alongside the microphone in the Civil Aviation
VL2NI studio buildings, satellite dish and tower base. 1983.
(David Ricquish Collection)
During the mid to late 1950's, broadcasts originated
from the local telephone exchange. There were only 20 subscribers, and
the exchange opened at 10am. With not much else to do, the operator moved
into the next room and broadcast her choice of music, aircraft arrival
information, and some 'educational' talks. These carried on until midday,
and evolved into a Monday-Friday service. On weekends, the Officer in
Charge carried on with several hours of music each day.
'Hot' Radio......Or 'Burning Down the Station'
In 1960, the telephone exchange moved from the airport
to the administration quarters at Kingston. Radio Norfolk was now broadcasting
with a second hand transmitter of 8-12 watts power. In 1967, there was
a further move to the Public Library and Museum building also in Kingston.
This building was totally destroyed by fire in 1970, and the station remained
silent until 1971 when it moved to its current location in the center
of the island.
In the late 1960's there was a 'nine day wonder' on the
island. The local owner of a duty free store found he wasn't selling as
many radios as he wanted, so decided to start his own pirate radio station.
Broadcasting on AM, the station carried music and local 'cheerios' or
greetings to listeners. On such a tiny island, the radio inspector soon
found the transmitter, and closed it down.
An attempt to establish a local commercial radio station
on the island foundered at the same time. Partly on commercial grounds,
but more importantly, because of a battle between bureaucrats in Canberra
and Norfolk Island who each claimed the sole right to licence radio stations
on the island.
(Almost) The 'Sounds of Silence'
The isolation of Norfolk Island reduces daytime listening options
considerably. Apart from VL2NI AM and FM, the only other signal heard with
excellent levels is Radio Noumea on 666 kHz from New Caledonia, some 800
km to the northwest. As programs are entirely in French, it's not a popular
option. New Zealand's National Radio 100kW transmitter 2YA Wellington on
567 kHz is a weak alternative.<
Norfolk Island writer Mervyl Hoare was interviewed on the island
for this article.
(David Ricquish Collection)
At night-time, signals flood the AM dial from the western coast of New Zealand,
the eastern seaboard of New South Wales and Queensland and Fiji.
Satellite Heralds Change
The advent of satellite radio brings mixed blessings to Radio Norfolk. On
the one hand, it provides more program options, such as those already being
enjoyed from the various ABC Radio networks. On the other, it signals that
the days of pure local radio may soon be numbered.
In the meantime, a strong community spirit keeps VL2NI Radio Norfolk Island
on air to keep the locals, and the visitors in the motels, hotels and duty
free stores entertained and informed. After 37 years of broadcasting, Radio
Norfolk maintains a quiet Pacific tradition of local service that's a pleasure
to listen to, especially in FM stereo.
A relaxing little 50 watt station on an island that has given the world
the famous Norfolk Island pine tree, and one which serves the best cup of
coffee this visitor has ever enjoyed. If only for the coffee, Radio
Norfolk deserves a special mention in the history of Pacific radio. It must
be something in the milk from those darned cows munching away at the grass
near that AM tower.
Special thanks to Kathy Le Cren, Broadcasting Officer, Radio Norfolk (maker
of great coffee); and Mrs Merval Hoare (widow of Ray Hoare VK9RH, officer
in charge of the Civil Aviation Department and first broadcaster on Norfolk
Island). This story was written in 1989.
For more information check out the official Norfolk Island web site.