Book Review: The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940, by Peter Hoar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_worlds_dinPeter Hoar provides us with a very worthwhile insight into the world of sound that emerged for New Zealanders as radio, musical record, and film sound was imported and adapted to local needs. This is nonetheless a partial insight, as it tries to convey in text, and illustrations, mostly a lost world of sound and entertainment forms. While it may only be a glimpse of what our forebears listened to, it remains a fascinating one.

The World’s Din is organised into three parts, based on: recorded technology and musical recordings; then radio technology, and the emergence of radio stations in between the wars; and finally a look at the musical accompaniment to the booming film and cinema industry. Hoar provides some context where necessary, and most of the text is placed within New Zealand social history, the key point being the way locals received the new technology from overseas, and adapted it in a cultural sense. This raises other cultural questions, such as with early commercial recordings of Maori singers. This was helpful to the performers, but they remained very much ‘cover’ versions.

Perhaps it is the chapters on the development of radio which include the most obvious evidence of local expertise, and perhaps of an enduring legacy. Interestingly, Hoar includes a chapter on ‘military radio’ and its influence on the later development of commercial radio after World War One. Not only does he remind us of characters such as Eric Battershill and Clive Drummond, who went from ham radio enthusiasts through the military, and then became commercial radio figures. But he also examines in detail how the early radio operators found life in remote places, whether that be on top of Tinakori Hill (in Wellington), or in the garrison captured from Germans in Samoa, in 1914. These chapters also have interesting archival photographs, including the raising of a large aerial radio mast on the Chatham Islands, and the operator of a radio set in the desert of Mesopotamia, who was enduring over 40 degrees of heat.

Back home, and after the war, there were also forgotten female pioneers in radio, such as Gwen Shepherd in Wellington. Her wedding was apparently broadcast live on 2YA in 1930, with a large crowd also in attendance at Old St. Pauls. Aunty Gwen, as she was known, was just as popular as the avuncular men who got into broadcasting between the wars, though none may have been as well known as Maud Basham (Aunt Daisy) in the post-war era. Hoar not only looks at the content ‘on’ the radio, and debates over musical styles, but also the role of the actual radio in interior design.

Towards the end there is more consideration of the broader cultural context. Although films became very popular over time, there is a sense in which some of the local flavour was lost, as accompanying music was supplanted by the ‘talkies’. And with the talkies came a particularly American form of entertainment, in a period in which the British influence was officially still predominant. It is always difficult to gauge the role of popular culture in historical events, in general, but this book indicates how the local and indigenous cultural forms are present and then perhaps quickly forgotten.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940 by Peter Hoar
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531199