BFM - The Pirates
By Russell Brown
The noisy library of New Zealand music
28 Aug 2016
The story of Radio B’s pirate broadcasts in the 1970s has been all
but lost until now – in part because the pirate adventures were
officially nothing to do with B at the time – but they played a
remarkable role in the culture of New Zealand radio, and in the changing
culture of the country itself. They also had a lot to do with Radio B
itself finally getting to air.
Radio Bosom QSL Card for 950 kHz in the 1970s.
© Radio Heritage Foundation, Chris Mackerell Collection
After its debut, broadcasting from a boat as a capping stunt in 1969,
Radio Bosom settled down and contented itself with delivering “radio”
via a network of speakers installed in the quad and around the campus.
AUSA submitted several applications to broadcast a low-powered signal to
the nearby halls of residence, but regulators didn’t budge.
And so, one day in May 1972 during capping, a new signal lit up. An
announcer calling himself Jonathan Schwartz declared that Radio U was
broadcasting on 1380AM “from Bean Rock lighthouse in the Hauraki Gulf,
in accordance with most regulations of the NZBC.”
Cartoon by Darryl Kirby, May 1972
But, says the New Zealand Herald report of the day, “four Post
Office radio inspectors were not fooled for a second. Their radio
direction finder was getting suspicious signals from the Student Union
Discovering a door with an on-air light above it, the inspectors
entered to find a room full of turntables, microphones and records. The
student there explained that he was merely running the university’s
internal broadcast system (aka Radio Bosom), which was in no way
associated with the pirate broadcasters. The inspectors rightly had
their suspicions, but were obliged to leave after they were unable to
detect a radio signal.
AUSA’s capping controller also professed no knowledge of a pirate radio station, but the NZ Herald reporter was later led to “a locked door somewhere on campus.”
“The door opened,” reads the Herald’s report. “People filed out, people filed in. In the background, a track from Easy Rider
belted out a hard rock sound. It subsided and a student with headphones
began his patter. ‘Here we are on 1380 kilohertz for 72 hours only, so
make the most of it’.”
All the while, the crack Post Office team was searching the Student
Union building. When they go too close, the transmitter would go silent
and the “small black box” they were carrying lost the signal. The
inspectors came three times in 12 hours, but could not find the
Post Office hits university radio - Sunday Times 1 October 1972
The inspectors declared that any subsequent visit would be from the
police, alarming the station’s “board of directors”. Jonathan Schwartz,
who was said to fancy a legitimate broadcasting career, went on air to
declare that, after receiving a call from Wellington from someone who
addressed him by his real name, he was pulling out.
But the decision was swiftly reversed and Radio U went back to air.
Not long after, the studio telephone, which had received hundreds of
calls from well-wishers, rang again. It was the Minister of
Broadcasting, Bert Walker.
Mr Walker congratulated the students on the quality of their
programme – but warned that they were risking their chances of obtaining
a temporary licence in future.
And so it was, after 45 hours on air, that DJ Sunshine Superman
thanked Aucklanders for their support and Radio U signed off. The last
song played was ‘God Defend New Zealand’.
A radio transmitter in the
process of being assembled for Radio Bosom by the radio club in 1973.
The chassis is thought to be from the transmitter used for the original
Radio Bosom sea-going broadcast and may have been used for early Radio
Active broadcasts in Wellington.
Encouraged by the friendly call from the minister, students set about
applying to the Broadcasting Authority for a 10-day broadcast warrant
to publicise a festival organised by the universities’ arts council for
August. The New Zealand DX Times, the journal of the country’s
radio hobbyists since 1948, was supportive and believed the students had
an excellent chance of approval.
But there was notably little support for Radio U from the former pirates at Radio Hauraki.
As part of the Federation of Independent Commercial Broadcasters –
Radio i was the other member – Hauraki opposed Radio U’s application,
warning that were it approved, “the Broadcasting Authority could get a
flood of applicants for temporary warrants.”
'Bombs faced PO Men, Court Told' (21 July 1973)
The students’ application was declined. It was not the last time
commercial broadcasters, founded in the name of radio freedom, would
line up against the B.
On 20 August, Radio U began broadcasting illegally again. The Post
Office inspectors returned – and this time they were more successful.
After following a wire down from the roof of the student union building
the inspectors located a transmitter behind a brick wall in a tunnel
underneath it. But as they prepared to seize the equipment, three borer
bombs were thrown into the tunnel, filling it with smoke.
“While a mass of students held the inspectors at arms reach, other students came from the other end of the tunnel,” the Auckland Star reported. “They grabbed the transmitter, loaded it into a truck, then whipped it off.”
“The inspectors took it all rather well, considering,” a student spokesman told the Star.
Actually, not that well. The Post Office divisional engineer
in Auckland, Mr A.D. Gifkins, was determined that charges be laid over
what he called “a serious transgression of the law.”
Meanwhile, minister Walker was questioned in Parliament by Labour MP
Bob Tizard. Had he in fact given the students an undertaking in May that
they would get a temporary licence? No, the minister insisted, he had
merely advised them of the penalties they faced for broadcasting
illegally and told them to apply in the proper manner.
In July 1973, the case came to court and the AUSA was in the dock,
charged with illegal use of a radio transmitter. Post Office radio
inspector Robert Shimmin told the court that he and his colleagues had
located an aerial on the roof of the student union building, but the Star
reported, “he and the other inspectors had difficulty getting off the
roof because someone had locked the door to the roof behind them.”
'Transmitter discovered in Student Union Building'
Worse, when they went to pursue the students with the transmitter,
they discovered that the tyres of their Post office van had been let
Eventually, the argument of AUSA’s lawyer – that the student union
building was substantially under the control of NZUSA, not AUSA, at the
time of the pirate broadcasts – prevailed and the prosecution failed.
In all this time, the identities of the student pirates were never revealed. What was their story? How had they pulled it off?
“Jonathan Schwartz” was actually Glenn Smith, the manager of the
officially unconnected Radio Bosom. A radio obsessive since childhood
(while at school, he won a competition that gave him an afternoon show
on 1ZB, where he chose his own music, an unprecedented half of which
came from New Zealand artists), Smith did indeed go on to a professional
radio career – all of which has been at the steadfastly independent 1XX
Smith recalls that Walker was quite cordial when he called the
station, but admits to being “kind of freaked out” by the mysterious
caller from Wellington who knew his name. “It was almost like they had
the SIS on us.”
There was another tricky conversation: with his mum.
“I did an interview with Town and Around and I was blanked
out. We did it at Chris Cotton’s house in Herne Bay, where we were
recording. And then I was sitting watching TV with my mother and she
said ‘Is that you?’ and I had to say, ‘Yeah, it is actually’. She was
Another of those involved was Robert Gordon, who recalls that the
pirates installed a switch in the Radio Bosom studio, allowing them to
turn off the source of the source of the broadcasts – a tape player down
in the basement locker room, which was in turn connected to the
transmitter. They also did their best to disguise the connecting wires
and the aerial on the roof.
The final Radio U broadcasts were, Gordon confirms, a matter of
frustration: “When we didn't get the licence, we’d got our transmitter
already and we thought bugger it, we’ll go on air anyway.”
Gordon says the inspectors initially tried to park their van in the
basement carpark next to the student union building – but were refused
entry because they lacked the correct sticker. They then summoned some
plainclothes policemen – who promptly got lost. The inspectors sought
out a map of the building.
“But the Student Union custodian made himself scarce. They eventually
found someone in the chemistry building who gave them plans and that’s
how they found the tunnel.”
The service tunnel was accessible from the former café on the ground
floor of the building and from the carpark. Again, considerable effort –
including the bricking up of the tunnel – went into concealing of the
It was a stroke of luck that the night before there had been a gig in
the café. The pirates, realising that that the inspectors had found the
transmitter and were breaking down the brickwork, asked the driver of a
hired van loading out gear from the café to help.
The Collier & Beale radio
transmitter that was removed by Post Office radio inspectors from the
services tunnel during a pirate AM broadcast. The Post Office eventually
returned the transmitter and it was used it for all subsequent Radio B
AM broadcasts. Technicians had to tap the valves with a ballpoint pen
for them to work properly when the transmitter was switched on. If an
arc formed, the technician received a shock.
The intervention of the crowd of students – like the letting down of
the tyres – was wholly spontaneous. And as the inspectors were preparing
to seize it, “they took the transmitter off them and threw it into our
van, which went screaming off into the distance.”
News reports at the time said the transmitter – a big piece of marine
kit, all of six feet high – was “returned” to the Post Office several
days later. The reality was a little more complex, says Gordon. It was
successfully hidden at the Herne Bay home of Chris Cotton, which had
been the location for pre-recording of programmes.
'Hauraki and Radio i oppose Radio U'
“Ultimately, the police started putting a bit of pressure on the guy
who had rented the van – they’d stop him in the street and search him
for marijuana – so he came to us and asked whether we could do anything
about it. So we agreed to hand over the transmitter.
“We left it under the harbour bridge for them – with a can of beer
and six straws, for some reason. And a little ribbon around it.”
Less than a year after the court case, everything changed. The Kirk
Labour government had scrapped the existing Broadcasting Act and
abolished the Authority and in February 1974, Radio Bosom was granted a
licence to broadcast for three weeks in March. It was the first licence
to non-commercial pirate radio, the first to a university and the first
Walker, by then in Opposition, subsequently lamented that the licence
had gone to the students and not to the would-be Christian broadcaster
Radio Rhema. But it may be that it was his friendly phone call to the
pirates that set it all in motion.
It was not, however, the end of the pirate adventure. While happy to
finally be legally on air on the AM band, the students turned their
attention to FM – which the government was steadfastly refusing to
“We were more concerned about FM,” says Gordon, “because there was no
FM in the country back then and the sort of music we were playing was
alternative music, which was more suited to FM.”
FM broadcasts were made as Capping Radio from the Radio B studio via
an aerial on top of the Chemistry building. More regular broadcasts as
Radio Auckland were pre-recorded and delivered on Friday nights from the
top of the former ASB building in Queen Street. The pirates had a
campaigning agenda and in 1977 they even set up an FM transmitter and
broadcast in Wellington to bring the protest closer to the politicians.
While Radio Hauraki’s management was doing its best to prevent Radio B
getting on air, some of its announcers took quite a different view.
“We had Kevin Black and Fred Botica from Radio Hauraki doing spots,”
says Gordon. “And Merv Smith was going to do it as well, but he decided
it was too risky for his career. So there was a lot of push from the
actual broadcasters to try and more of a range of music on the air. They
themselves were very concerned about the limited options that were
available on radio.”
The broadcasts ended as the pirates moved on into the world, but
there was a pirate “reunion” in 1980. By this time, the pirates were
slick. On the Thursday before Easter, they donned overalls and posed as
maintenance workers to plant an aerial and transmitter on the roof of
the university’s chemistry building. A second transmitter was placed in a
van to deliver to the North Shore. Friends acted as operators on six
phone lines and took more than $1,000 in pledges for several charities.
And, finally, a mixing desk was set up in the bedroom of a flat in
Newton, disguised so it could be passed off as a sophisticated home
stereo. Jocks from both the NZBC and the private stations came to take
turns on the midday-to-midnight FM broadcasts.
“We all thought it was ludicrous that New Zealand was still one of
the few countries in the world without FM,” one of the pirates later
told the Woman’s Weekly. “We were prepared to break the law to prove a point.”
It took until Easter Monday for police and Post Office inspectors to
find the transmitter – and as they did, the pirates, who had been
watching them all along, shut down their studio by remote control. The
$250 transmitter was surrendered but the pirates were never caught. They
So did the pirate FM campaign eventually force the government to
move? “Yes,” says Gordon. “I think both the AM and FM broadcasts
did have an impact. It became political.”
But this was not the end of Radio B’s role in the FM radio story. In
the 1980s, the station would again take a role that upset the
Original article by Russell Brown on the AudioCulture website www.audioculture.co.nz published in 2016.
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