COMMERCIAL RADIO AUSTRALIA
In 1929, an association of B-class radio stations was formed under the chairmanship of 2KY’s Emil Voigt. At a meeting in Sydney in November 1930, around 33 B-class stations formally constituted the Australian Federation of Broadcasting Stations. 3KY’s M.B. Duffy was elected president, and offices were established in Sydney and Melbourne. At a time when A-class stations were being taken over by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the federation agitated for higher transmitter power and against government censorship, and took a lead role in negotiations with the Australasian Performing Right Association.
Although there were occasional fractures, the federation succeeded in representing nearly all B-class (commercial) stations. A good part of its success lay in its federal structure, with executives formed in each state. Office-holders conducted early US study trips and buying missions. As commercial radio expanded, along with its political clout, federation annual conventions became increasingly grand affairs. The Postmaster-General (PMG) usually opened the convention; the speeches of politicians and regulators required tact when prickly issues such as Australian content quotas and advertising limits were raised. Journalists found it essential to be briefed on the different blocs: the network rajahs, the independent metropolitan delegates, and country station representatives.
The federation consistently called for a statutory broadcasting authority separate from the political whims of the PMG, and advocated self-regulation. In 1936 it tackled disquiet about ‘over-commercialisation’ by agreeing to a flat agency commission on advertisements and recommending time limits on advertising. It also developed a Code of Ethics, centred on the need to prevent broadcasts of offensive or deceptive material. Although networks were generally responsible for organising relay broadcasts, the federation was sometimes deputed to do so, as during the 1938 Sesquicentenary celebrations.
During World War II, the federation was preoccupied with censorship regulations; the shortage of overseas transcription discs, due to currency restrictions; and the provision of news services by members, the ABC and Australian Associated Press. Anxious to demonstrate its social utility, the federation formed the Radio War Service Committee.
With broadcasting a hot political issue after the war, the federation again took the initiative, issuing its own Standards of Broadcasting Practice covering children’s programs, medical and Sunday advertising, and political broadcasts. Anxious to protect the interests of incumbent broadcasters,it warned the government against ‘premature decisions’ about FM radio in 1945. Initially sceptical about audience research, it established a Listener Survey Committee in 1949. The federation published a radio magazine, Broadcasting Business (renamed Commercial Broadcasting), and, more briefly, the Broadcast Bulletin.
When the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) was established in 1949, the federation created a liaison committee. By 1955 meetings were reducing in frequency due to what the ABCB apologetically described as ‘other urgent business’—television. Over the next few years, the federation launched Radio Week, established the Australian Radio Advertising Bureau, promoted the sale of car and transistor radios, and established the Australian Record Awards (superseded by the ARIA Awards).
After E. Lloyd Sommerlad was elected federal director of the re-named Federation of Australian Commercial Broadcasters in 1962, he noted that it enjoyed an ‘unusually favourable relationship’ with the Menzies Coalition government. Things were less cosy under the Whitlam Labor government’s media reforms. In response, the federation established a government relations committee, and introduced a somewhat anodyne Fairness Code for Broadcasters. In October 1975, the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters, as it was now, sought legal advice on how the Department of the Media had licensed experimental community stations.
FARB’s wily federal director, Des Foster, was relieved by the election of a Coalition government in December 1975. However, over the next few years the introduction of community radio, the Special Broadcasting Service and commercial FM radio, and a restriction denying many AM operators more than 15 per cent ownership in an FM licence, led to complaints about short-term planning. There were also some histrionic warnings about the dismantling of ‘free enter- prise’ broadcasting. In 1977, FARB opened a Canberra office. The organisation sought greater co-operation with the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations (now Free TV Australia) and commercial broadcasters overseas and, in 1982, became an associate member of the National Association of Broadcasters in the United States.
FARB worked with the Public Broadcasting Association of Australia and the ABCB’s successor, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, to define the parameters of fundraising and sponsorship for community stations, and periodically accused community stations of engaging in advertising. In 1986, seven FM members dissented from FARB’s submission to a government inquiry advocating the right for AM operators to convert to FM licences. As plans for the expansion of radio services were considered, FARB sarcastically declared that it was doubtful the ABT ‘could justify the renewal of its [own] metaphorical licence’. With massive industry upheaval and ownership changes as a result of the 1987 stockmarket crash, an advertising slump and the costs entailed in converting to FM, FARB threatened to run an on-air campaign before the 1990 election unless the Hawke Labor government introduced ‘rational planning’ for broadcasting.
Under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, industry groups were to be responsible for program content. FARB registered six codes of practice and was obliged to provide quarterly reports to the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) on how complaints had been handled. FARB disagreed with the ABA’s critical 2001 report into cash for comment. To FARB’s chagrin, the ABA imposed three new standards on commercial radio licences relating to commercial agreements.
Commercial Radio Australia (CRA), as FARB was known from 2002, persisted with the old listener diary method when soliciting tenders for ratings contracts because it wanted to see new electronic methods proven overseas. CRA successfully argued that incumbent broadcasters should be protected from new entrants to the digital radio market in return for industry investment in the technology. The Howard Coalition government chose CRA to conduct some digital trials from 2004, and in 2009 the CRA appointed the SMART agency to promote the digital rollout.
In 1988, the Commercial Radio Awards (‘RAWARDS’) had been introduced; in 2002 came a Hall of Fame. The annual awards ceremony and National Commercial Radio Conference were increasingly flashy affairs, with celebrity imports such as Clive James and Buzz Aldrin.
Janet Cameron was FARB’s first female president in 1985–86. Joan Warner has been CEO since 2001.
REFs: B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (1999); FARB Papers (NFSA).