In 1925, Albert Willis, the president of the NSW ALP and chairman of the Labor Daily, predicted: ‘Eventually, H.G. Wells’ prophecy of news and propaganda being freely poured out at the people from great speaking machines must be realised … LABOR MUST GET IN FIRST.’ Visiting the United States in 1923–24, Emil Voigt, who headed the research bureau and wireless committee of the NSW Trades and Labour Council (TLC), had been impressed by Calvin Coolidge’s ability to address two million people at once during the presidential campaign. The TLC opened 2KY, housed in the Trades Hall attic, in October 1925. The station presented lunchtime talks on politics and economics, with trade union offices and some factories installing radio sets for workers. It was always available, without charge, for broadcasts by state and federal Labor.
Although Labor plans for a NSW wireless service with six relay stations did not eventuate, the involvement of Sydney political interests in broadcasting seems to have inspired activity south of the border. In 1931, the Industrial Printing & Publicity Co. Ltd, which was owned by the Victorian ALP and the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, launched 3KZ. The station was managed by the 3KZ Broadcasting Company of Victoria Ltd, which provided for a Labour Hour program on Sunday nights, 30 minutes for the labour movement on weeknights and a daytime labour session for women.
It soon became apparent that responsibility for political broadcasts could be complicated by leasing arrangements. In 1931–32, the 3KZ Broadcasting Company was dismayed by complaints about a talk advocating the value of strikes and a Labour Hour talk by a ‘young lady’ said to verge on ‘sedition’. The company vowed to monitor talks more carefully.
There were examples of both internal and external censorship. The most spectacular case of the latter was in December 1938, when the Postmaster-General in the Lyons Coalition government briefly revoked 2KY’s licence after objecting to the remarks of one of its news commentators.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) bought airtime on commercial stations. For instance, during a 1938 miners’ strike in Cessnock, the party helped to fund 15-minute broadcasts on 2HR Newcastle to explain the miners’ case. Throughout the 1940s, the CPA also provided ‘talent’ for The Heckle Hour on 3DB Melbourne. Due to the Nazi–Soviet pact, 2KY skated on thin ice. In 1940, the federal government prevented the station’s broadcast of Rupert Lockwood’s play, No Conscription. During the two-and-a-half years the party was banned, 2KY allowed the CPA a voice—partly through various front organisations. But in 1948, in an era of mounting anti-communism and as the TLC moved to the right, at least one ‘red’ news commentator appears to have been dismissed from 2KY.
During World War II, labour broadcasting had spread interstate. In 1941, the Australian Workers’ Union obtained a licence for a new station, 6KY Perth. Labour interests seized the opportunity to invest in three religious broadcasting stations controlled by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose licences were revoked in 1941 due to security concerns. Eighty per cent of the shares in 5KA Adelaide and 5AU Port Augusta were bought by the Central Methodist Mission in 1943, with the balance held by the ALP. The TLC and the ALP bought 2HD Newcastle, resuming transmission in 1945.
Although the metropolitan commercial radio market remained remarkably static after the war, the ALP was awarded a licence for 4KQ in Brisbane in 1947. (The first station in Queensland, 4QG, was established by the Theodore Labor government in July 1925; 4QG became part of the ABC in 1932.)
In around 1950, someone prepared, apparently for the Labor Minister for Information, Arthur Calwell, a depressing assessment of labour stations: 2KY, 4KQ and 6KY were listened to by just 1–2 per cent of the available audience; 3KZ and 5KA were only nominally in labour hands and had ‘sacrificed propaganda value to money and success’. 2HD alone had achieved outstanding success without its labour backers losing control of the lease, and this was partly due to the highly unionised population of Newcastle. Most of the author’s proposals for improvement were not implemented because of the labour movement’s decentralised nature, 235 labour press with ALP state branches and left- and rightwing unions.
Labour stations tended to stick with what they knew. 3KZ’s Labour Hour remained reasonably popular, and gave a voice to women activists such as Gwen Noad. By the early 1950s, the Victorian ALP’s assistant secretary, Frank McManus, had been recruited to present a nightly commentary on 3KZ. His anti-communist activities helped to get him sacked from the station, and he went on to help found the breakaway Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
Always keen on sport, 2KY moved increasingly into covering horse and greyhound racing from the late 1940s. Sydney’s lowest-rating commercial station moved to new studios, introduced modern equipment and overhauled its music format in 1978; it removed Italian-language broadcasting from its line-up in 1980. Hosts included John Singleton, Ron Casey and a future premier and federal Cabinet minister, Bob Carr. In 2001, the station was sold to the NSW TAB.
In 1973, STW9 purchased Perth’s loss-making 6KY. However, in the late 1970s, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal refused to consent to 2HD’s sale to the owners of NBN3. Labor was prepared to offload the radio station for $1.4 million as it ran a poor third to its rivals, even though the sale was vehemently opposed by sections of the labour movement. The transaction would have created the highest degree of electronic media ownership within one city in the history of Australian broadcasting. In 1999, the station was sold to Bill Caralis’s Super Radio Network.
Mounting debts saw the ALP sell 48.5 per cent of 4KQ to Kevin Jacobsen Enterprises in 1980. The station, which was at the heart of a bitter factional dispute in Queensland in the early 1980s, was sold to Wesgo for some $16.5 million in 1986. The same year, Wesgo entered into a shareholding relationship with 3KZ, strengthening its east coast network of radio interests.
By the dawn of the 21st century, the Australian labour movement had abandoned its radio stations, selling them off to growing media chains. Labour dreams had become capitalist assets.
REF: B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009).