Many people are surprised to discover the sheer size and scope of Rhema Media's ministry. But more amazing still is the humble beginnings from which this nationwide organisation - with worldwide effects - sprang.
Sharing the Vision
Successes & Setbacks
The Fight for a Permanent Broadcasting Licence
Airwaves in Wellington
A Cracker of a Christmas
The Vision is Realised
Reaching Out to Every New Zealander
The Ministry Expands
A New President
God Gave the Increase
Keeping Abreast of Technology
Rhema - One into Three
This is Just the Beginning
Twenty-year-old Richard Berry was trying to install an aerial to get a better signal from the short-wave Christian radio station HCJB. As he began hoisting the aerial, a slipped disk put Richard flat on his back and in great pain. The doctor said he'd be confined to bed for six months an eternity for this energetic young man.
Earlier in 1961 Richard had heard about HCJB, a station that, faced with insurmountable odds, had survived to become a worldwide broadcaster from its small transmitter in Ecuador. This had just given more fuel to Richard's keen interest in radio. Since giving his life to Jesus Christ at age 16, the idea of a Christian radio station had intrigued him. The government didn't allow private radio stations, but perhaps one day.
Now all Richard's ideas of a Christian radio station lay in tatters. He was newly married, with lots of bills, and now bedfast for six months. Bored, Richard borrowed a preaching tape. The subject was divine healing.
As he heard the message that God is able to perform miracles in this day and age, Richard's faith grew. He was completely healed, and later that day he was working with pick and shovel on his driveway. Filled with gratitude, he said Lord, if there's anything you'd like me to do for You, please just tell me what it is, and I'll do it.
Richard received clear direction from God to establish Christian radio in New Zealand. God gave him three Scriptures which, for Richard, sealed the deal. Firstly, Matthew 7:7, "Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Richard knew that this was going to have to be wholly a work of God, and that he was only to be an instrument God would use.
Secondly, Matthew 19:26, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." What often seemed an impossible task for just one man, God was going to accomplish.
Finally, John 14:12, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." Richard remembered the time when Jesus stood on the shore and spoke to five thousand people with no amplification system - a miracle in itself. But now the way was opening to speak to hundreds of thousands of people at one time.
Broadcasting to New Zealand from his backyard was no small vision. Private radio didn't exist; there was no way to get a broadcasting licence, nor even the remote possibility of it happening one day. But when God births something, it survives, despite the challenges.
As Richard shared his vision, he met astonishment and sometimes scepticism. The initial reaction of people when he shared the vision God had given him was one of astonishment, and perhaps some thought that he would grow out of it. Very few were able to share either the vision or Richard's enthusiasm and excitement for it. But God led him to a Salvation Army friend who had wanted to build Christian studios, and they agreed to build them in Richard's garage in Banbury Street, Christchurch. They appropriately called the studio Banbury Recordings Incorporated. Later, Gospel Radio Fellowship was formed in its place.
The Banbury Street studios became central to the tiny developing ministry, and Richard and others often retreated there to pray and seek God. Their commitment to prayer established a firm foundation of dependence on God which would carry them through many lean years.
In the mid-60s the arrival of pirate radio forced the government to rethink its position on private broadcasting. This boded well for the growing group of Gospel Radio Fellowship supporters, and in 1968 they set up studios and a transmitter in an old church building in Glenfield Crescent, Christchurch.
Three years later, Richard felt God challenging him to live on faith and to devote all of his time to establishing Christian radio. Initially hesitant, Richard wrote: "I began to lose my joy as I failed to put my trust in the Lord, and I was left defenceless as He began to show me my 'reasons' were in fact excuses... The following three weeks proved the Lord a greater provider than I could ever have been within the limits of my income." With a wife, three small children and a mortgage, Richard resigned from his job and stepped out in faith. It was a major turning point, and by 1974 the ministry had twenty-one full-time staff living on faith.
Staff discovered time and time again that God answered their prayers in amazing, very specific ways. Anita Wilkinson, first breakfast announcer for Radio Rhema, tells of how as a typist for Radio Rhema in 1972, she asked God for an electric typewriter. That very afternoon a caller rang to say they had an electric typewriter to donate to Radio Rhema.
However there were discouraging times as well. Perhaps one of the greatest disappointments at this early stage was in 1971, when the Broadcasting Authority of New Zealand declined Gospel Radio Fellowship a broadcasting licence. They felt the group had failed to prove that such a station was either necessary or desirable in the public's interest, that it had failed to prove that it could finance such a venture, and failed to prove that they could provide professional people to operate such a station.
Still pressing on, the management of Gospel Radio Fellowship changed their name in 1972 to Radio Rhema. The Greek word rhema, used in the Bible to mean an inspired spoken word of God, portrayed exactly what the radio station aspired to be - a voice for God to the nation.
Around this time God had given Richard his own personal "rhema". He told Richard that the ministry would become so big that it would be impossible to contain. This wonderful promise was miraculously reinforced when Richard was invited to USA and introduced to Pat Robertson, President of CBM, one of the largest Christian TV and radio networks in the world. Pat Robertson, prompted by God, repeated the same message to Richard.
Excitement built as the 1974 Commonwealth Games approached. Radio Rhema built a mobile studio in the hope that a temporary licence would be granted. Unfortunately, once again the application was rejected.
Persistence paid off, though. Later that year, in November, Radio Rhema was granted a one day licence. Richard saw that day as one of the most significant and memorable in his life. When the staff heard the news, they gathered in Richard's office and praised God.
Given very little notice, the staff scrambled to be ready in time. Equipment was scarce, and everyone had to pull together. Frank Salisbury designed and built a transmitter especially for the day's broadcast. The night before the on-air date during a test run, it blew up! He and two other technicians spent the night repairing it, finishing minutes before the on-air time of 6am. A crane was brought in to hold up a piece of wire for an aerial. Despite the few tense moments, the day went smoothly, even though the volunteers involved had never worked together as a team before. Amidst music and teaching, phone calls poured in, encouraging Radio Rhema. Then, after just eleven hours, the announcer had to say good-night, and the air waves were silent once again.
The one-day licence granted for November 23rd 1974, caused a lot of excitement, and the response was extremely encouraging. A survey revealed that in the Christchurch area alone there were over 10,700 listeners, 72% of whom rated the station positively.
Nearly one year later, on October 10th 1975, Radio Rhema again had cause for celebration when they were granted another one-day licence, this time in Petone, Wellington. The broadcast was fraught with problems, but God worked miracle upon miracle to make the whole venture possible.
To make the broadcast, Radio Rhema had to shift its mobile studio and transmitter from Christchurch to Wellington - the move making broadcasting history in New Zealand.
Driving north to Wellington, just past Cheviot, the gearbox of the mobile studio ground to a halt. In answer to prayer a replacement was quickly found, and technicians spent two hours on their backs in wind and rain changing it on the roadside. As a result, the bus crested the last hills above Picton only to see the Cook Strait ferry chugging out of the harbour. But God was looking after them. Despite it being a busy time of year with school holidays, the bus was allowed on the next ferry. Then the boat's loading door jammed, and it was delayed in harbour for some time whilst ferry workers tried to force it into place with heavy weights. Radio Rhema workers prayed, then one of them went and simply stood on the door, and immediately it fell into place with a 'click'.
The entourage finally made it to Wellington, and still the miracles kept happening. Radio Rhema had to import from the U.S. a special very high frequency (VHF) link to run between the broadcast site and the transmitter. It did not arrive until two days before the broadcasting date, and was cleared through customs in two and a half hours. An importer later said it could have taken up to a month!
Accommodation over the road from the broadcast site was offered free of charge for staff use, for which they were most grateful.
Telescopic sections of the aerial jammed when it was being erected the day before the broadcasting date, and two riggers had to spend several hours in difficult conditions a hundred feet up freeing guy wires. But the hand of God was upon them, protecting them.
It rained solidly for three weeks before the broadcast, giving the aerial good contact with the ground in an area normally poor for radio transmission.
Regardless of all that had happened, Radio Rhema came on air in Wellington at 6am, and all difficulties ceased. Transmission was loud and clear in most parts of Wellington until close-down at 11pm. Despite the fact that Radio Rhema was unable to advertise widely beforehand, several thousand people turned out to visit the broadcasting site, and the telephone staff logged over 400 calls during the day.
Support continued to grow for the Ministry, with increasing numbers of members and full and part-time staff.
For Christmas 1976, Radio Rhema workers could not have wished for a better surprise. They were granted a licence to broadcast from 6am to midnight in Christchurch - this time for ten days. Transmitting over the Canterbury area from 24 December 1976 to 2 January 1977, the programme largely targeted non-Christians of all age groups.
Staff commitment to the Christmas broadcast was astonishing. One man was sent to hospital as a result of injuries sustained when a transmission aerial toppled over, but insisted on hurrying back the same day in case he was needed. Another worked for the last week before broadcasting with a metal splinter in his eye, refusing to have surgery as he knew that would mean the tower would not be finished in time. Still another member was admitted to hospital with severe influenza, but doggedly returned to his position at the control desk two days later.
At this time Richard Berry wrote, "Eighteen years ago there was little hope of Rhema broadcasting for more than 18 hours per year. All glory and honour must go to God, for He alone is able to change the unchangeable, and to bring to pass His seemingly impossible promises."
The final build-up to Radio Rhema's achievement in gaining a permanent broadcasting licence was a tense period. The hearing of Radio Rhema's application before the Broadcasting Tribunal lasted a marathon four weeks. Radio Rhema presented eight witnesses, who spoke of the need for Radio Rhema, the sound financial prospects of a station based on trust in God, the ability to maintain high technical and programme standards and the growing support of churches and community.
Bruce Bornholdt, Rhema's counsel, told the tribunal, "Today, Rhema is competing with big business. It is competing not only with that virtual monopoly, the Broadcasting Corporation, but also with private enterprise, whose catchwords are 'profit', 'audience ratings', and 'advertising rates'.
Radio Rhema presented evidence that it had a membership of 7,235, signatures of a further 48,433 people, letters of support from most churches, and letters from many individuals and community organisations.
Finally, after eighteen long years of prayer and hard work, New Zealand's first Christian radio station was given a permanent licence to broadcast the good news of Christ. The warrant was granted provided that certain constitutional changes were made, and this meant that a special AGM had to be held the day before broadcasting was to commence. Members packed the Christchurch Town Hall, and as the peace of the Holy Spirit fell on the crowd, the vote for the proposed changes was unanimous. The broadcasting licence was presented to Radio Rhema by legal counsellor Bruce Bornholt.
A ceremony was held on the front lawn of Radio Rhema's studios in Glenfield Crescent, Christchurch, on November 11th 1978, at 11:11am.
The station was 'switched on' by the then Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Robert Muldoon. Mr. Muldoon told listeners, "I have seldom opened something which has given me more joy." He traced the history of Radio Rhema, and paid tribute to the faith sustained by Radio Rhema members who had withstood many setbacks and disappointments over the years. He ended saying, "This is a faith that moves mountains."
Richard Berry gave all the credit to God. "All glory for this day must go to God who has blessed His people from Kaitaia to the Bluff with sufficient faith to pray, finance and give moral support to a vision which, until recently, was considered very unlikely to ever get off the ground."
Radio Rhema was the first Christian radio station not only in New Zealand, but in the whole of the British Commonwealth. Although proud of this, and thankful to God, it meant that Radio Rhema was very much at the frontier of Christian broadcasting as we now know it.
Establishing the style of the programme format under these circumstances was extremely difficult. John McNeil, Radio Rhema's first Station Manager, spent a lot of time looking for appropriate broadcasting models to emulate. He wrote to people all over the world, listened to demonstration tapes, and read magazines, only to draw a blank. In retrospect John said, "We had some very clear ideas of what we didn't want to do. We didn't want to be Bible-bashing, and making appeals every fifteen seconds for money. Many tapes that we heard turned us off completely. We wanted something that was going to fit the New Zealand way of life, the New Zealand approach to broadcasting, and trying to get this across to people was very hard. We wanted to sound good, to sound professional; but we wanted to sound 'homely' at the same time."
Initially, Radio Rhema was only allowed on air from 6am to noon on weekdays, and from 6am to midnight in the weekend. However in November 1980, Radio Rhema was allowed to extend its broadcasts to eighteen hours a day as a result of changing its frequency. The ministry had now grown to thirty five full-time and ten part-time workers.
As plans to expand were laid, Auckland was initially perceived as being too large to tackle, and Hamilton seemed a better choice, but God directed His workers very definitely towards Auckland. When representatives arrived in Auckland to assess the situation, they found to their surprise and delight that Radio Rhema was wanted and expected. In October 1980, a three and a half month temporary broadcast commenced. It was exciting to have the gospel being broadcast to 1.5 million potential listeners, but unfortunately it was not to last (a permanent licence was not granted until ten years later). By February 1981, Auckland had six full-time workers, and a building was purchased on Upper Queen Street in 1982.
During the 1980's the Ministry blossomed slowly but surely. Nelson was granted a temporary licence for one month in 1981, and a permanent one two years later. In 1982, Radio Rhema's first permanent relay began in Wellington. Mr. Templeton MP (then Minister of Trade, former Minister of Broadcasting) officially opened the station. In his address he said, "Can we listen, and sense what they [Radio Rhema] have done, because we have a very clear demonstration of the power of God, and His work in our community. Radio Rhema has very great responsibilities... and represents in the community a radio lifeguard."
Temporary licences valid for one month were granted to Auckland and Palmerston North in December 1985.
With the coming on air of Wellington and Nelson, it seemed as if the trials and tribulations of the past were now behind Richard Berry. He had worked hard to see so much accomplished, but he had yet another obstacle to face. In January 1985, at the age of 44, he was diagnosed as having terminal cancer. The courage, determination, and faith, which had played such a vital role in the establishment of Radio Rhema, was now turned to confront this new challenge. Despite gradually deteriorating health, Richard continued as energetically as ever in his post as President of Radio Rhema, and maintained a vital interest in the Ministry right up to the time of his passing in 1988. As with Moses, God graciously allowed Richard a glimpse of the future before calling him home. In his last months he was overjoyed to see Waikato come on air permanently, and broadcasting licences granted for Bay of Plenty, Taupo, Invercargill and Timaru.
During Easter 1987, Radio Rhema moved its headquarters in Christchurch from the small Glenfield Crescent studios, to a more spacious property in Birmingham Drive. Radio Rhema received thousands of letters, with an astonishing 95% fully supporting the move. Having paid the deposit, a further $2 million was needed to pay the balance. Richard Berry wrote, "This challenge is beyond us, humanly speaking, but that doesn't mean to say it's impossible. Jesus fed the five thousand when all the disciples had to offer was five loaves and two fish. In the same way, as we all contribute in the way He directs, let us believe that God will bring the increase and meet this seemingly insurmountable need." Again God was faithful, and the final payment was paid just five months later.
Vice President, Hal Short (centre ,right), was made President of Radio Rhema after Richard died. In 1974, Hal had just returned to New Zealand from overseas and was listening to a new Wellington radio station. Without having thought about it before, he prayed, "Lord, if only there were a Christian radio station in New Zealand."
Within 48 hours he was invited to a Radio Rhema meeting. Unknown to Hal, the local Radio Rhema committee had been praying for God to send someone to head the Wellington operations, and they saw Hal as their answer to prayer. Hal shared, "I felt an extremely clear call of God to make Radio Rhema known throughout the country." He went on to pioneer the work in Wellington for six years, becoming full-time in 1978. Having prepared the way for a licence to be granted, Hal then moved up to Auckland and began the process all over again. In 1990, He and his family moved to Christchurch.
In 1989 a major breakthrough took place in the Pacific. United Christian Broadcasting Pacific Ltd., an organisation established by Radio Rhema, was awarded a licence to broadcast Christian programming to Tonga. UCB Pacific (later known as Pacific Partners) was financed and managed separately from Radio Rhema, although a close relationship remainsed between them. Broadcasting commenced in 1991. Other autonomous UCB's were established in Australia and England in the 80's. Even after twenty years, the "rhema" that God gave to Richard Berry, that the ministry would become too big to contain, was still being fulfilled.
Obtaining a permanent licence for Radio Rhema in Auckland was a major breakthrough, as workers could now perceive the long dreamed-of nationwide network as becoming a reality. The Auckland station came on air on January 8th, 1990. By September it was on air 24 hours a day, and the rest of New Zealand followed suit in December.
February 1991 brought with it an exciting opportunity when Radio Rhema was able to buy 30 radio frequencies scattered throughout New Zealand in just one day. Hal Short was asked what Richard Berry would say if he'd been there that day. Hal said, "He would just say, It's God. And it is. We struggled in the early days to get a licence, we struggled to get two licences, three, four and then all of sudden we got 30 in one day."
The thirty new frequencies paved the way for Radio Rhema to become a truly nationwide radio network, with Gisborne and Taranaki coming on air in 1991, and Palmerston North in 1992.
In January 1994, the decision was made to move head office to Auckland, and the huge undertaking began. 30 staff relocated from Christchurch to Auckland. By May, Radio Rhema was broadcasting from the Auckland studios to all sixteen of its stations around New Zealand.
In May 1994, Radio Rhema became New Zealand's first radio network to link its stations by satellite. This move was a major breakthrough in two ways. Firstly, it reduced overhead costs significantly. Not only was linking by satellite less costly than by land links, but maintenance costs were also reduced. Secondly, it made future extension of the network considerably easier, especially to the more remote areas of New Zealand.
Radio Rhema also installed a computer system that allowed local breakouts for items such as local advertising and community notices.
Over Christmas 1994, major changes were made in the structure of Radio Rhema. God strongly told management to get back to the basics of spreading His good news. Consequently, management decided to redirect resources into expanding Radio Rhema's network throughout New Zealand. This included the decision to sell all properties apart from head office, and reinvest the money in equipment needed to reach people in the areas of New Zealand that didn't yet receive the broadcast.
In October 1997 one radio network grew into three distinctly individual radio networks with Life fm and Southern Star Network joining Radio Rhema on air. This diversification realised a long held dream to have a Christian station specifically targeting a youth audience - Life fm. The third network, Southern Star, was tailor-made for people with a mature taste in music. This expansion required a name change for the organisation to the Rhema Broadcasting Group This name change was voted in by postal ballot by our members in November, 1997.
Life FM started with a bang, hitting the ears of young listeners in Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. Almost a third of New Zealand's youth live in these three main centres, and it was a miracle that Rhema Media was able to purchase FM frequencies to reach these highly coveted areas.
In 1997 TRN, one of New Zealand's largest radio networks, was looking to launch a sports radio network on AM radio. Rhema Broadcasting Group still had many frequencies left over from its scoop of 30 licences in 1991 and was able to sign a deal with TRN, giving it a highly sought-after FM licence to reach Auckland.
Life FM took inspiration from 99Life FM, a mixed format (50/50 mix of Christian and secular music) station established in Christchurch by Les Fell and Dave Wright, operated by the Life Broadcasting Company Ltd (a wholly owned subsidiary of Radio Rhema Inc, subsequently RBG and now Rhema Media), between March 1993 and early 1997, until retaining the leased frequency it broadcast on became untenable. At the time RBG still had a desire to broadcast a radio network to reach young people and in 1997 work began on launching a new network. This would be a young adult focused network. In planning for the new young adult network the model of 99Life FM in Christchurch was closely scrutinised and many of the lessons learned were applied to the new network, but it was a totally new operation and format. One of the very different aspects was that the new network was to be 100% Christian in its music format. Its operating structure, personnel, mission objectives and programming were also totally new.
Various names were considered for this new network but after focus group research and prayer it was felt that the name Life FM was the best. The Life FM name was the only common element between 99Life FM and the new Life FM Network which launched in October 1997. Having said that RBG were grateful for all the work and the vision that Les, Dave and the team in Christchurch put in for the period of 99Life FM’s Christchurch broadcast. The station was an important part of RBG’s history and played a significant role in Christian broadcasting in our nation.
Life FM couldn't sound more different from those early days of the Gospel Radio Fellowship, but the heart is still the same to reach people for Christ. Programme director at the time, Paul Burnett, saw Life FM's job "as providing an environment that Christians can encourage their non-Christian friends to listen to. We want to be the bridge in that pre-evangelism so that the church uses us to introduce Christ to their non-Christian friends."
Since its launch in 1997, Life FM has expanded to cover much of the country, and partnered to huge events such as the Parachute Music Festival and in more recent years, Festival One. In a crowded marketplace where its hard to achieve promotional cut-through, Life FM has built a loyal following that has ensured its continued success.
Life FM also follows the lead of its predecessors in not preaching to people. Rather, the Life FM announcers are like best friends to their listeners, letting the music bring the message and, through talkback shows like The Forum, giving listeners a voice to air their questions and feelings about life.
At the extreme other end of the musical spectrum is Southern Star, which fills a unique position in radio for listeners with mature tastes.
Early in 1997 Rhema Broadcasting Group management identified the trend towards an aging population, and anticipated what those people wanted to hear. Most other radio offerings for the older age group at the time were talkback; so Southern Star introduced a valuable niche of gentle sounds that provide a restful background for each day.
Southern Star began life using some of the many frequencies left from the 1991 licence purchase, but was about to lose its leased frequencies in Auckland and Christchurch just one year after starting.
In a last-minute strike of genius, Rhema Broadcasting Group staff member Nick Lawrence suggested Southern Star buy the approximately 90% of unused air time on the Government's parliamentary broadcast channel.
After being considered with several other applicants, Southern Star won and in a single day became a nationwide network. Southern Star programme director Brian Fergusson appreciates the irony parliament, which stood in the way of so many of Rhema's early attempts to broadcast, now shares the airwaves with Southern Star.
From that first meeting with Pat Robertson, Richard Berry knew that television would be part of the vision for Christian broadcasting in New Zealand. That vision came to fruition when Rhema Broadcasting Group took Shine TV under its wing in 2002.
Shine TV had been formed in 1999 by a coming together of Freedom TV, United Christian Broadcasters, Alpha Video Trust, and Dove Ministries. Since its nationwide launch through pay TV in 2002, Shine has brought life-changing television to many.
"The aim of the channel is to shine not compare, not judge just shine," said Shine TV Chief Executive of the day Denis Delaney. Shine TV desires to be salt and light in the New Zealand community. Shine sees itself as just one of many light stands in the community with programmes transmitting the light of good deed and thought to the nation.
Renamed Rhema Media in 2014 to better reflect the digital environment in which it now operates, the ministry has come a long way since the early 1960s. Now a multimedia organisation, it reaches the nation and, in fact, the world through four radio networks, one television station, publications, mobile apps and the internet.
The ministry has much to be thankful for; its members who support it both financially and in prayer, the many faithful and talented staff members, and the wisdom and discernment of management. But most importantly, all praise must go to God, who has never let His ministry down.
Richard Berry once said that this organisation"...is God reaching people through people. His love, once born in our hearts, reaches out to others... its the desire for people who have found Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord, reaching out to other people in this land to tell them the Good News that Jesus saves."