From the early days in country districts, news was passed on by word of mouth whenever people gathered at churches, country halls, sports clubs, stockyards or A & P (agricultural and pastoral) association meetings. Small towns were important places to meet and exchange information.
The telegraph encouraged the growth of small local newspapers, because it allowed them to quickly get news from distant places, and compete with metropolitan papers. By the 1890s, many country towns had newspaper publishers. As railways spread, making it possible to deliver city newspapers to outlying areas, numbers of local papers fell. City newspapers, often dropped off by the rural delivery post, remain an important source of information for rural people.
Many country dwellers had limited access to books or libraries until the 1930s. Some wealthy sheep farmers had private libraries, and societies and clubs in small towns sometimes had collections of books. For many farming people, however, books were a luxury. Even if people could join a town public library, most charged subscription fees until the Second World War.
In 1927 the Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union began a book club for country people, which ran during the 1930s from a base at Marton. Subscribers received a regular parcel containing two books, magazines and children’s books – carried free by New Zealand Railways. After Geoffrey Alley ran experimental mobile library services in rural Canterbury and Taranaki, a Country Library Service was set up in 1937. This service sent book vans to country areas, and made regular bulk loans of books to rural libraries. From 1942 the Country Library Service had a schools section which eventually extended to all New Zealand schools.
Keeping in touch
For many rural people, radio was a means of contact with the rest of New Zealand. Veteran broadcaster Jim Henderson recalled his mother saying, as she first switched on the radio in their home on Tākaka hill, ‘We’ll never be isolated again.’ 1
Radio broadcasts were an important source of news and entertainment for people in the backblocks – serials and song request programmes were particularly popular. However, there were often problems in receiving a signal. From the 1930s, the New Zealand Broadcasting Board attempted to improve the service for country listeners. Transmitters were replaced or moved to different sites, and small local radio stations were subsidised.
When television was introduced in 1960, rural reception again became an issue. Television signals had to travel along a line of sight, and areas surrounded by mountains could not receive broadcasts. At first seven transmitters were built the length of the country, with plans to erect more regional transmitters as resources became available. People in affected areas, irritated by the delay, set up low-powered translators to relay transmitter signals to television sets in the district. Parts of Central Otago, the West Coast and the central North Island did not have TV reception until 1972.
The introduction of a second television channel in 1975, and FM radio and pay television in the 1980s, required new transmitters. The question of access for rural people arose again. Deregulation of broadcasting in 1989 led to the establishment of the Broadcasting Commission, which was responsible for extending coverage to low-population areas that were not considered commercially viable. In 2008 this was still an issue for commercial radio, but Radio New Zealand and the two main television channels were available to all of New Zealand via the Sky Digital satellite platform. In future, free-to-air digital television transmitted through a hybrid satellite and terrestrial platform may provide more choices for rural viewers.
Using the internet was common by the mid-1990s, and by 2007 over 65% of rural households had a connection. Fast internet was seen as a tool for improving farm productivity. Many rural customers wanted broadband internet services, but the infrastructure cost was an obstacle. Although wireless and fibre technologies were becoming available, the Telecom fixed-access network was the main way of providing broadband to most rural areas, and it required upgrading. The government was considering extending the Telecommunications Service Obligations – which require Telecom to service rural areas – to include broadband internet access.