24 October 2012

A conservatorium unique in the world's institutions

In the past few weekends I've explored the northern end of the Titahi Bay peninsula a couple of times, and on my first visit I came across the old Transmission Station atop the hill. Normally I'd provide a historical backgrounder on a building like this, but the Porirua City Council have done an excellent job of that on their website, which reveals the building was completed in 1937. Initially the facility and its adjacent transmission tower (see below) were designed to replace an older building on Mt Victoria and broadcast just to the Wellington region, but went on to become the designated site for broadcasting to the whole country in the event of a national emergency.

The opening ceremony for the 60kw 2YA transmitter on 25 January 1937 was attended by the Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, who also held the portfolio of Minister of Broadcasting. The first Director of Broadcasting, Prof James Shelley, took the opportunity of the opening to announce plans to construct a new national centre for broadcasting in Wellington. The Evening Post reported his speech in the following day's edition

The Government has ... decided to replace the present inadequate and temporary headquarters and studios in Wellington by a great broadcasting centre, which shall embody in it a national conservatorium for music and the spoken arts. It is anticipated that this institution will become the cultural centre of the Dominion for these arts, working in intimate relation with the artists in other centres, coordinating and organising whatever talent the Dominion may possess... We are not content with a poor standard on the football field and we should not be content with a poor standard in music and drama. We are assured by famous visitors from overseas that the talent is here, it needs stimulation, higher teaching, and organisation. Only broadcasting has the power to do this for New Zealand, and this the Government has recognised, hence the decision to establish this great broadcasting centre and conservatorium, which will be unique in the world's institutions... The congested conditions of the premises at headquarters at present make such developments impossible; the building of this broadcasting centre will therefore be proceeded with immediately, for it will probably take eighteen months to two years to build. It is of little use having such a powerful instrument as the new 60-kilowatt station at our disposal unless we ensure the necessary development of talent to be transmitted by it.

The Transmission Station, estd. 1937
Twin masts crest
The National Broadcasting Service operated from 1936-62,
when it was renamed the NZ Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC)

The adjacent 212 metre tall Titahi Bay Transmitter is visible across much of the Wellington region. It's the second highest structure in New Zealand after the Sky Tower in Auckland. The original mast was replaced in 1979 and refurbished again in 2004. It now broadcasts AM feeds for Radio New Zealand, Parliamentary broadcasts, Newstalk ZB, an iwi radio station, and Access Radio. 

Support wires on the transmitter mast
The current transmitter mast

James Shelley in 1931 (via DNZB)
The main change brought about by the opening of the Titahi Bay installation in 1937 was that radio broadcasts of Parliamentary proceedings, which had commenced the previous year (1936), were now able to be heard over much of New Zealand. After many delays, Professor Shelley's plans for a national conservatorium were scaled back drastically: according to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography 'Shelley laboured for years to see new headquarters constructed for the National Broadcasting Service; they would contain a conservatorium to train musicians and actors. Foundations were dug but the project was then abandoned'. Shelley would have more success in other areas: he founded the New Zealand Listener magazine and was a key instigator of what later became the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; he was also heavily involved in the planning for the 1940 Centennial celebrations

A remnant of Shelley's grand scheme eventually saw the light two years after his death in 1961: the unassuming but much-loved Broadcasting House in Bowen Street, which was finally completed in 1963 and (in)famously demolished in 1997 to make way for grand refurbishments in the Parliamentary precinct that never got off the ground.
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