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Election Days

Page 6 – Radio and TV

Radio days

Live election-night results were first broadcast on radio in 1922, but the immediate impact of the new medium was limited: in the mid 1920s only about one in 60 New Zealand households had a radio set. The popularity of radio exploded in the 1930s, however, and by 1940 four out of five New Zealand households were tuning in.

Broadcasting rules prohibited the airing of programmes concerning 'politics or any other controversial matters'. In 1935 the Broadcasting Board banned all election candidates from the airwaves. The first Labour government, though, was keen to take advantage of radio's potential to reach ordinary New Zealanders − especially as almost all newspapers supported their conservative opponents. In 1936 New Zealand became the first country in the world to begin regular radio broadcasts of its Parliament.

During the 1938 election campaign politicians were allowed to broadcast election messages for the first time, under strict controls. The state-owned National Broadcasting Service aired six speeches by Labour MPs, four by National members and two by independents. Private stations were only allowed to broadcast brief announcements of election meetings.

Radio's role in election campaigns expanded in the 1940s, and it soon surpassed public meetings and newspapers as the single most important election medium. But political parties still used radio in fairly unimaginative ways, simply recording public meetings or broadcasting one-person studio lectures. Listeners needed plenty of stamina too: in 1960, for example, 10 of the 35 party broadcasts were two hours long.

On the box 

Television arrived on the New Zealand electoral scene in 1963 but had little impact during that dull campaign. Two hours of pre-recorded speeches were broadcast on each of the four regional television stations (compared to 24 hours of radio time). But most politicians appeared stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera, and the telecasts were described as 'animated waxworks'.

During the 1969 and 1972 campaigns the style of election advertisements began to change. The airtime allocated to parties increased, and the minimum time slots became smaller. The old style of 'talking heads' explaining detailed policy proposals gave way to short, snappy advertisements that were simpler and more emotional in their appeal.

These trends were even more noticeable in 1975 − the first election held after the introduction of colour television and a second channel. The National Party's leader, Robert Muldoon, was one of the first politicians to appear comfortable on television. That year National also caused a stir with colourful cartoon adverts featuring Russian Cossacks dancing across the screen − intended to suggest that their Labour opponents supported Soviet-style nationalisation.

By the 1980s television was firmly established as the most important electioneering medium. For a new generation of politicians, effective communication on the small screen has become one of the most vital political skills. The 21st century has brought a new front line to election campaigns, with parties using the Internet in an attempt to reach out to younger people as well as eligible voters living outside New Zealand.

How to cite this page

Radio and TV, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated