FM (or Frequency Modulation) was created in the United States in the early 1930s by Edwin Armstrong. Despite initial reluctance, the popularity of the medium grew. In Australia, the VHF band is used within the range of 88–108MHz (with some narrowcast stations sitting outside this band).
FM radio in Australia developed slowly. Radio technician Raymond Allsop was instrumental in its commencement, and while the concept was put on hold during World War II, it was pursued enthusiastically following the war. Yet the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) was slow to act on implementing the new technology. Experimental services were set up in 1948 as a forerunner to a full introduction of FM services. The test broadcasts were introduced into major capital cities, and were a simulcast of existing ABC services. The general public did not have access to FM receivers, so the services ran largely unnoticed for over a decade.
The other major reason for the slow implementation of FM radio in Australia was the reluctance of existing AM commercial broadcasters to allow access to the FM band, largely to protect their own interests. This was supported by manufacturers, looking ahead to the advent of television in Australia in 1956.
Television’s arrival and growth forced existing radio operators to adapt. Dramas and serials were on the decline, and Top 40 music formats were popular. The Federation of Commercial Radio Broadcasters expressed its opposition to the concept of FM to protect existing operators and not allowing new operators into the market.
￼It was Raymond Allsop, together with a number of lobby groups, who led the push for the introduction of FM broadcasting in the late 1960s. Prominent in this push was the Fine Music Society (MBS). The reason for this was simple: classical music sounded better in stereo. The Whitlam Labor government provided the catalyst for FM radio’s introduction into Australia. The 1972 report by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board found that there was enough interest from broadcasting groups to open up the band. Once television broadcasters were moved from the FM VHF band to the UHF band, stations were ready to broadcast, and the first was 2MBS FM in late 1974, followed by 3MBS FM soon after. As well as fine music stations, there were a number of educational or ‘E’ category licences issued to stations like 4ZZZ in Brisbane (1975), 3RMT (renamed 3RRR) in Melbourne (1976) and 2SER FM in Sydney (1979).
The ABC was also able to establish an FM station in 1976. This was part of an opening up of both AM and FM frequencies to increase ABC services. ABC-FM (now ABC Classic FM) broadcast classical music as well as arts programs. Initially broadcasting in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, the service is now national. In many regional areas across Australia (and also Darwin), some of the other ABC radio networks broadcast on the FM band, including youth station Triple J, which broadcasts nationally.
Commercial radio gradually warmed to the idea of FM broadcasting; however, during the early to mid-1970s, the government decided to keep the FM band free of commercial interests. This decision was overturned in 1976, when the newly established Australian Broadcasting Tribunal paved the way for up to two FM licences in each of the capital cities. It would be a further four years before the first services commenced full-time broadcasting.
The first commercial service to commence broadcasting was Melbourne FM Radio Pty Ltd, which operated under the call-sign EON- FM (now Triple M Melbourne) from 1980. The format was almost anti-Top 40, with disc jockeys permitted to select the music during their shifts. Innovation was encouraged, with announcers given the opportunity to experiment with stereo sound. EON featured a solo female announcer in the breakfast shift and even provided the soundtrack for aerobics sessions.
FOX-FM in Melbourne plus two stations in Sydney, 2Day-FM and 2MMM, followed EON-FM. Perth had 96fm, Brisbane FM104 and Adelaide SA-FM. All stations took some time to pick up audience share, due to the gradual take-up of new FM receivers, but also changes (particularly in the case of Melbourne) in format to more popular styles, including Top 40 and rock formats.
Throughout the 1980s, the commercial FM broadcasters continued to build in popularity at the expense of AM music formats. Stations such as 3XY in Melbourne gradually faded from existence, and a clear delineation of bands occurred, with FM the domain of music and community radio stations, and AM used for talk stations and easy listening formats. The existing AM operators tried to compete with their new stereo counterparts in a number of different ways. AM stereo was introduced in 1985, but was unpopular with the public as it was an inferior sound compared with the crisp FM sound, and required listeners to purchase a radio equipped to receive the signal.
Under the National Radio Plan, the Hawke Labor government allowed a limited number of capital city licences to be auctioned off so existing AM operators could convert their services to FM. The competition was fierce among AM commercial broadcasters, which felt that converting was the last opportunity to make their stations viable. Some paid over-inflated prices for licences and struggled financially in the years that followed. Stations that converted include 2UW (KIIS 1065 Sydney), 3DB (now Mix 101.1 Melbourne), 4BK (B105 Brisbane), 5KA (Triple M Adelaide) and 6PM (92.9 Perth).
Towards the end of the 1980s, the FM band was also being opened up to a growing number of community broadcasters (including sub-metro broadcasters), as well as additional SBS language stations. By the 1990s the radio spectrum was overflowing with broadcasters of many styles and formats, with both community and commercial broadcasting growing and expanding.
Regional areas were slow to receive commercial FM radio services, with Canberra gaining service in 1988, the Gold Coast and Newcastle in 1989 and the rest of the country gradually acquiring FM throughout the 1990s. These regional stations by and large are now part of big networks, with a few independent exceptions. Many FM radio stations receive networked and syndicated programming.
In the late 1990s, the Australian Broadcasting Authority opened up spectrum space in the capital cities for a new commercial service. This was picked up by DMG (owned by the London Daily Mail Group) across the country for a new Nova network. In 2005, in Sydney and Melbourne, DMG purchased another licence for the Vega network (now smoothfm 95.3 in Sydney and smoothfm 91.5 in Melbourne). Spectrum space during this time was at a premium in the capital cities; however, some community radio licences were allocated in Sydney and Melbourne.
With the FM spectrum in Australia now full in the capital cities, attention is on the take-up of digital radio services across the country.
REFs: B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009); P. Marcato, ‘In Exquisite Stereo’ (BA Hons thesis, 2004).