Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holders - NZ Historic Places Trust

Radio Waves
by Michael Lawrence

"Sowewhere between pigeons and satellites, there was the Quartz Hill Receiving Station."

Quartz Hill: once in the forefront of technology.Photo: Michael Lawrence
(Note that this is a view of the building before the car port was erected. The building in the foreground has long gone and the building to the right was demolished in 2005.)

In the south-west of the North Island is 300-metre high Quartz Hill. From its summit, it is possible to see the snow-capped Kaikoura mountains and the Marlborough Sounds to the south. To the north, 220 kilometres away, is Mount Taranaki, and closer are Mana and Kapiti Islands. It's a magnificent view on a fine day but, frequently, low cloud reduces visibility to a few hundred metres and the area is buffeted by strong winds.

Just below the summit, for 52 years from 1944, stood the Quartz Hill Shortwave Receiving Station, operated by the National Broadcasting Service, which became the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and, finally, Radio New Zealand.

For many years, Quartz Hill was the gateway for nearly all of broadcasting's overseas news, sports commentaries and BBC programmes. They were relayed by underground telephone lines through Karori to the broadcasting centre in Wellington for rebroadcasting, recording or monitoring. This was before the advent of sophisticated communication by international submarine cables and satellites.

The receiving station was staffed around the clock by a team of eight technicians who shared a nearby housing settlement and hostel with staff at the Post Office receiving station, Makara Radio. Although staff were paid an isolation allowance, they were closer to the centre of Wellington than many folk living in the Hutt Valley and the Kapiti coast.The station was equipped with more than 15 shortwave communication receivers that could use any one of 17 antennae for best reception. The directional antennae were wires stretched horizontally between wooden poles dotted over the undulating land surrounding Quartz Hill. They were positioned to give optimal reception from around the world, particularly from Britain, Europe, Asia, Australia, Pacific islands and the USA.

The broadcasting receiving station was originally at Titahi Bay but, because of interference from high-powered transmitters there, this proved to be an unsatisfactory location. Makara had a low population and, therefore, less
chance of man-made interference, yet it was close enough to the broadcasting headquarters in Wellington for the seven telecommunication lines linking the two not to be prohibitively expensive.

Before New Zealand broadcasting developed its own news service, news bulletins were mainly relays of BBC shortwave news, broadcast over the YA stations.

Because of the vagaries of shortwave reception, it was necessary for Quartz Hill Receiving Station to record every hourly BBC broadcast so that the latest good recording could be played if reception deteriorated. When a local radio news service was developed, Quartz Hill was required to supply the newsroom in Wellington with feeds of the BBC, Radio Australia, Voice of America and many other overseas shortwave radio stations. Quartz Hill staff were also vigilant for any news flashes.

Sometimes they were expected, such as the birth of a royal baby, when the Quartz Hill duty technician was required to phone the broadcasting Director General, day or night, who would then phone the Prime Minister, who in turn would advise the Governor General!

At other times, though, newsflashes would come out of the blue, as with the assassination of President Kennedy. On 23 November 1963, the duty technician was nearing the end of his otherwise uneventful shift. He was tuning into an American shortwave frequency for the Wellington newsroom shortly before 7am when he heard the announcement that the President of the United States had been shot.

He advised the newsroom, and then it was full on to try to get as much information as possible from any source. Soon after, news was received that the President had died. A few days later, the National Programme rebroadcast President Kennedy's funeral service from the Voice of America shortwave.

As well as receiving overseas programme material for use by New Zealand radio stations, Quartz Hill also carried out some scientific work. Because of the correlation between shortwave reception and solar activity, the station worked closely with Wellington's Carter Observatory, supplying information on the quality of shortwave reception.

In 1962, United States high-altitude nuclear explosions over Johnston Island in the Pacific caused severe disruption of shortwave signals. The effectsof the explosions and the recovery of the ionosphere over the next few days were closely monitored at Quartz Hill.

In 1958, a purpose-built building was constructed for the receiving station but, before that, the station was crammed in a small concrete hut with a timber-framed annexe. This had been in service since 1944.It still stands as a memory to a form of communication that has now been superseded by satellite, fibre optic cables and interference-free data communication.

The need for a shortwave receiving station ended in October 1996. Since then, radio amateurs have been using the building and the associated antennae farm.The Historic Places Trust hopes that this use for the building can continue despite the proposed construction of the Project Westwind windfarm in the area

Posted by ZL2AOH on March 18, 2006