Some of Australia’s earliest radio magazines were targeted at amateur experimenters—participants in the ‘science’ of radio. But by the 1930s, most addressed listeners primarily as consumers of radio, publishing radio schedules, poetry, cartoons and articles about personalities and programs. In a 1931 editorial entitled ‘Intelligent Listening’, Wireless Weekly instructed listeners to consult the schedules (‘pick what you want and use the tuning dial’), while a delegate to a 1934 conference of the Australian Federation of University Women spoke of the ‘necessity for educating people in how to listen’.
In 1930, the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) set licence fees at £25 a year. ‘Listening posts’ were established in shops, pubs and homes for communal listening. The staged ‘synthetic’ Test cricket coverage of ABC and commercial radio in the early 1930s promised an almost cinematic experience, with stations publishing ‘pocket guides’ to the broadcasts and radio periodicals publishing score cards and field diagrams. Radio manufacturers sought to sell their sets through images of domestic life, with families sitting around ornate wooden cabinets. As smaller, cheaper sets began to emerge, Australia’s 500,000th listeners’ licence was issued in 1933.
In letters to radio periodicals, listeners passionately debated the programming merits of the two broadcasting sectors. Radio Advertising in Australia, the 1936 opus of the research manager of J. Walter Thompson’s Australian branch, W.A. McNair, was based on surveys of 3000 adults and 2500 children regarding their listening habits and preferences. A survey undertaken by his former assistant, Sylvia Ashby, a decade later attempted to account for why and when housewives didn’t listen to radio, as they juggled the demands of washing (Mondays), ironing (Tuesdays, with the iron often plugged in to the radio’s powerpoint or causing interference), the butcher (Wednesday mornings), cleaning and collecting welfare payments (Thursdays) and shopping (Fridays).
Since the 1920s, radio stations and affiliated newspapers had been conducting ‘ballots’ to identify listeners’ program preferences. This was also a way to be seen to engage with listeners, a strategy that was extended through excursions, competitions, community singing, quiz and game shows, birthday calls to children and sponsoring community events. Social clubs attached to commercial radio stations blossomed across Australia, with the most ambitious probably the 2GB Happiness Club (est. 1929).
In an unguarded moment in 1936, the station manager of Sydney’s 2UW told a PMG inspector that ‘he regarded his listeners as morons and treated them as such, hence the popularity of 2UW’. Evidence of a paternalistic view of listeners emerged during World War II. Under the Broadcasting Act 1942, all advertisements relating to medicine had to be approved by the Director-General of Health in order to avoid the exploitation of the ‘credulity of the sick and suffering’. Meanwhile, the Minister for Information, Sir Henry Gullett, concurred with leading industrialists that radio war news should not be allowed to ‘upset the public’, especially workers.
In the late 1930s, the ABC formed Listening Groups, a well-tried BBC device, in collaboration with adult education authorities to discuss particular programs. The ABC established a Listener Research section in 1943, renaming it Research and Statistics in 1954 and Audience Research in 1969.
For decades, the industry fretted that each summer, radio was supplanted by ‘beach umbrellas, cameras and fishing rods’. Some cars had had radios since the 1930s, but by the 1950s there were still only found in expensive models. With the introduction of television in 1956, the radio industry aggressively promoted the sale of car and transistor radios as a highly individualised medium, dismantling the image of radio as a force for family togetherness. By 1962, nearly 55 per cent of all new cars were equipped with radios. Of the 451,000 radios produced in Australia in 1961, more than half were transistors; there was now more than one radio for every adult Australian. Top 40 music drifted over the sands of Australian beaches all weekend long, solving the problem of ‘summer radio’.
While radio periodicals ran gleeful articles about the phenomenon of fan mail, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and its successors kept voluminous files of complaints from listeners. The legalisation of talkback in 1967 meant that radio could pick up on ‘real-life’ events and listener opinions, and transmit them in ‘real time’. ‘What’s on your mind, Australia?’ asked John Laws at the beginning of each show.
Licence fees were abolished by the Whitlam Labor government. The introduction of community (also known as public) radio in the 1970s gave listeners from a broad range of sectors, including ethnic communities, music enthusiasts and students, more diverse programming, as well as the potential to contribute both on and off air. A 2002 study found that 20,000 Australians were involved as community radio volunteers. The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 provided for narrowcasting, which enabled the provision of services to targeted special-interest (such as religious or sporting) and geographical groups.
In 1981, shortly after the introduction of commercial FM radio, McNair Anderson ratings showed that television viewing by adult Australians had dropped for the first time since the advent of television, and that all age groups were spending more time listening to radio than watching television.
Sandy McCutcheon’s Australia Talks Back was heard nationally on ABC Radio from 1997 to 2008. For decades, Ian Macnamara has been drawing on anecdotes, poetry and music from around the country for his Sunday-morning ABC program, Australia All Over.
The rise of the internet facilitated more forms of listener interaction. Stations and networks established websites to provide program and personality information and conduct competitions. Many programs are now live-streamed, and web-cams are installed so that listeners can watch what is happening in the studio.
REFs: S. Forde, M. Meadows and K. Foxwell, Culture, Commitment, Community (2002); B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009); K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983).