John Bilton – radio pioneer

I knew my childhood neighbour John Bilton was interviewed last century (just before he died in 1993). I tried to find it online a few years ago but it was inaccessible due to the Christchurch earthquake.

I tried again a few weeks ago and found it catalogued online (description only) at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision archives . I requested access to the the audio, and today they made it publicly available permanently online.

This is of personal interest but it also has some interesting accounts of how broadcasting and politics clashed in the 1930s, with the Government eventually buying all private stations out as they didn’t want private broadcasting with war being imminent.



John Bilton, an Otago radio pioneer is interviewed by Jim Sullivan. He recalls his interest and life in the radio sales business and also how he set up and ran his own radio station, 4ZC in Cromwell in the 1930’s.


John Bilton in his Cromwell shop with Cath McFelin

He sold radios for about 40 years and because of his own interest, he saw a need in the late 1920’s and decided to start his own business and shop. He describes his sales technique with local farmers. He chose what he considered to be better brands of radios and would install them for people in Central Otago, including an aerial so that they would get a better daytime reception.

As there were some days when there was very little business, he decided to to set up his own station, which he ran from the lounge room of the family home in Cromwell.

He broadcast for three hours a day and played gramophone records, advertised his business and would report on important local events, including local sports results and news from The Cromwell Argus newspaper.

He describes how the owners of the ‘B’ stations petitioned the government to be allowed to advertise but newspapers opposed it. They went to Parliament and met Prime Minister George Forbes, but Forbes couldn’t help because of the newspapers’ opposition.

He says Colin Scrimgeour warned the government the B stations would oppose it, if it did not help them advertise. Eventually the change of government came in 1935, but they decided to nationalise the stations.

He explains how hard it was to keep the B stations on the air without advertising. They also were threatened by record companies demanding payment for playing their products.
He was finally bought out by the Government in March 1937. He says Cromwell people petitioned Parliament to keep the station going but the government didn’t want any broadcasting to remain in private hands.

He did an outside broadcast for the opening of the Loburn Bridge, with relay equipment from Dunedin.

“Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” sung by Richard Crooks was his station’s closedown theme. A listener thought it was him singing it himself and remarked on how good his voice was. [An excerpt of this is played,]

[John Bilton died late 1993.]

I grew up next door to John. He had quite an influence on me as a child – I walked through his place on the way to the school bus, he was probably the first in the district to have television (and we seemed to be the last) so he let us go and watch it, and I did a lot of work for him on his orchard over the years and later in his Cromwell fruit stall.

I’m sure he initiated my technical interest which came to dominate my working life.

He had the best cherries around and we were allowed to help ourselves. We were supposed to scare birds away but often our mouths were too full.

In the above photo there’s a reddish record player with a dark lid – that looks a lot like one my brother bought off John through his labour.

In a Bilton cherry tree one day my brother talked my sister and I into helping him buy a record  because he couldn’t afford it. So I became quarter owner of the Beatles Revolver, but I doubt I got proportionate use.

This recording has brought back a lot of old memories.

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  1. Corky

     /  18th November 2016

    Interesting account , Pete. As you get older such memories become more precious as such times have slipped into eternity along with those people associated with it. From your account even back in the 30’s bureaucracy was rearing its ugly head. The photo of Johns store brings back memories of how stores used to be. I was in a Bunnings store recently that, believe it or not, looks exactly like the above. They are waiting on new premises. It was cool cruising between cramped isle with products crammed into every recess. No shiny bs, security guards or advertising. Just the way things used to be.

    • A friend of my father had a bookshop in Oamaru. It couldn’t have been more haphazard, with dishevelled piles of magazines and barely a book stacked straight. And a bag of chook food I think it was on the floor just inside the front door.


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