Dunedin’s Radio Church – 80 years on air
On April 9th Dunedin Methodism celebrated 80 years of Radio Church – probably the longest running radio programme of any sort in this country.
That’s quite a record, and the story is worth retelling. To do so, however, we have to go north to Auckland, and make the acquaintance of Colin Graham Scrimgeour, a Methodist Home Missionary stationed at the Airedale Street Mission in the heart of the city, the forerunner of the Auckland Central Mission.
It would not be too far from the truth to call CG Scrimgeour, or Uncle Scrim as he came to be known, a maverick. Like Robert Muldoon he liked things done his way – and he had a way of taking initiatives without necessarily first asking for the Church’s approval.
That meant he had to be handled with care. He had come to appreciate the possibilities in new-fangled radio by being associated with Uncle Tom Garland’s children’s programme in 1927. But with the onset of the Depression years he felt he had to move faster than the Church would allow. With the same Tom Garland, in 1932, Scrim founded the ecumenical Fellowship of the Friendly Road – the first radio church in the country.
The rest, as they say, is history. Scrim’s mastery of this new medium gave him the platform he needed to attack Government social and economic policy as it increasingly failed to deal with the appalling growth of poverty in this country. He was the ‘Man in the Street’, and such was his following that this programme was jammed by the coalition government prior to the 1935 Election.
That was a hollow victory - the electoral landslide brought in a Labour Government prepared to acknowledge Colin Scrimgeour’s significant role – and they made him the Controller of Commercial Broadcasting.
Whether or not Leslie Neale, the Superintendent of the Dunedin Central Mission personally knew Scrimgeour, he was equally alive to the possibilities for a radio church in this city.
There were people out there hurting badly, and, as he said, he wanted ‘to reach the people directly and intimately.’ The local station 4ZM had already introduced an ecumenical religious programme – religious music on a Sunday afternoon – and Robert Walls, the owner of 4ZM, knew enough about Neale to know that he was the man for a larger endeavour.
It was a demanding task from the beginning. ‘Uncle Leslie was on air Monday to Friday mornings – each session including music, poems, prayers and a short talk. The signature tune might change a little but the character of the daily talk was consistent – contemporary images, everyday language, personal experiences from his ministry, or from his war service.
Leah Taylor, whose wonderful biography of Leslie Neale is the source for much of this article, describes the point and purpose of his daily talks in terms of ‘the brevity of life’ - as might be expected of a former military chaplain.
For the casualties of the Depression he would admonish them to ‘see it through’ or ‘don’t quit.’ Those who didn’t have sufficiently tidy clothing to attend church could still hear the message at home through their radio or their crystal set.
Radio Church listeners were not expected to be passive receivers of an encouraging word. They were invited to become members of the Radio Church of the Helping Hand. About 2500 joined in the first year, and when the first anniversary was held in April 1935 more than 3000 attended a special birthday service in the Town Hall. Membership peaked in 1937 at 4000.
Small brown cardboard collection boxes went with the membership. Into these spare pennies were put, and in that first year Neale reported to Conference that he had received £1250. By 1938 members had contributed £25,000 to the Central Mission’s Company Bay building project – initially for the Health Camp but then for the care of the elderly.
The saga of Radio Church, as it turned out to be, is too large for this brief outline. Suffice to say that political manoeuvrings led to the closure of 4ZM and the programme was off the air for nearly a year in 1938-1939.
Leslie Neale was not just unhappy with the lack of bureaucratic transparency but when he was allowed to resume his radio work through station 4ZD he was frustrated by increasing Government insensitivity and suspicion.
The need for greater security during the 1939-1945 war made things even more difficult. But the show went on, and Uncle Leslie remained a significant leader and opinion-maker throughout his long ministry in Dunedin.
Successive Mission Superintendents and other ministerial staff kept the flag flying. By the time this writer came to the Mission in 1982, Radio Church was simply a weekly programme at 8.30am. The numbers had dwindled but that was not the point.
If there were only 300 listeners, they were important, and there was that feeling, when speaking through the microphone, that one was really in touch with nameless friends ’out there.’ Shirley Ungemuth had as long an association as any with Radio Church, and the feeling that there is a real person listening in their own home, or in care, is something we both share.
Radio Church goes on. It is now the responsibility of the Dunedin Central Ministers’ Association, and Otago University chaplain Rev Greg Hughson, is the coordinator. Despite the inroads of TV, the more familiar and less frenetic world of the radio still has a very important role to play.
Long may Radio Church continue to reach those with ears to hear.
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