RADIO, AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY
At 8 p.m. on 14 November 1931, P.E. Deane, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, addressed the fledgling national capital through 2CA, its brand new station. A.J. (Jack) Ryan (1897–1984), an astute engineer, had cobbled together a transmitter from disposal stores, defunct receivers, T-model Ford parts and a specimen jar from the Institute of Anatomy. The entire 2CA operation was crammed into a small room behind Ryan’s radio and electrical store in suburban Kingston.
The famous, the powerful and the quirky gravitated to the only broadcast microphone in Canberra. Charles Kingsford Smith flew down in June 1932 to receive his knighthood, and 2CA listeners were delighted to be told ‘Just call me Smithy’. Ryan juggled store and station precariously for a little over a year before taking on a 16-year-old farm lad as a broadcast cadet.
George Barlin (1916– ) was an unexpected success, and together they built a following. Ryan broadcast from inside the lion’s cage of Wirth’s Circus and relayed the Melbourne Cup down an illegal landline. The teenage Barlin scripted Ben and Sam, one of radio’s very early serials, performed most of the voices and wrote 2CA’s daily horoscope. Their versions of Dad and Dave and The Hospital Hour pre-dated better known clones on the ABC and Sydney’s 2GB.
With a tenfold power increase to 500 watts in 1933, the station was moved to Molonglo (now Fyshwick). In its tiny building on a knoll soon called Radio Hill, Barlin grew in confidence and competence. When Denison Estates Ltd bought out Jack Ryan’s controlling interest in late 1936, Barlin and Ryan remained. The station’s power would increase again to 2000 watts in 1938, and it would become a showpiece for Denison’s Macquarie Network.
On 23 December 1938, the ABC opened its new regional station, 2CY, in Canberra. At the same time, Macquarie was making a major splash—and major losses—on 2CA, and a disheartened Ryan left in 1941. 2CA chairman Clive Ogilvy took a punt and invited the 25-year-old Barlin to manage his Canberra flagship. It paid off. Through the war years and beyond, George Barlin built 2CA into a thriving enterprise, as well as rescuing other struggling regionals for Macquarie.
The ABC Commissioners had long sought funding for a second network, but in vain— until an exception was made for Canberra, where the ABC opened 2CN (now 666 ABC) in January 1953. Parliamentary broadcasting had begun in 1946, so Canberrans could now join the public gallery without leaving home. And so the capital airwaves remained until 31 October 1975, when a second commercial station, 2CC, went to air.
The new energy of the Whitlam Labor government catalysed change. Community radio was opening up, and students at the Australian National University were quick to extend their on-campus station. 2XX went to air on 2 July 1976, a heady mix of experimental music and student opinion. In 2000 it converted to FM.
Community radio would be first to benefit from the new FM band. Canberra’s ArtSound 92.7 began broadcasting in the early 1980s as Canberra Stereo Public Radio. Other community stations followed early in the new millennium, including the multilingual service CMS 91.1, which had used 2XX and ArtSound until being granted its own full licence in 2001. Valley FM 89.5 serves the Tuggeranong Valley, while 1WAY FM Christian community station first went to air 15 July 2000. A stayer on the old AM band was 1RPH (Radio for the Print Handicapped), broadcasting from 5 October 1992.
The commercial radio landscape had also tilted in the meantime. The Supplementary Licence scheme, announced with a bang in 1980, had ended in a whimper. The plan was to offer supplementary FM licences to existing AM stations. In the end, the winners were few, but included both 2CA and 2CC. Each opened their new FM stations at 8 a.m. on 27 February 1988, adding excitement and colour to Canberra’s airwaves during the Bicentennial year. 2CA’s new station, FM104 (now 104.7), specialised in recent and contemporary hits. Along with 2CA, it was taken over by Austereo in April that year.
2CC’s supplementary licence resulted in a new FM station, KIX106, identified since 1995as MIX106.3. Its playlist was designed for a similar demographic to FM104’s, and the two have long enjoyed a ratings battle with 666 ABC. The Australian Radio Network, owners of 2CC and MIX106.3, joined forces with Austereo in the mid-1990s to blend the two successful FM stations into a joint venture ownership, while selling off 2CC and 2CA to the Capital Radio Network.
Meanwhile, choice continues to grow on both bands. ABC Classic FM, Triple J and News- Radio have been added to the original ABC services (now Canberra 846AM and 666 ABC Canberra). SBS’s Radio One and Radio Two can also be heard on the AM and FM bands respectively. And finally, if these options do not satisfy, the internet and digital radio bring many simulcast and new program options to the avid listener today.
Wireless in the Australian Capital Territory has come a long way from Jack Ryan’s anatomy jar.
REFs: G. Barlin, A Quirk of Fate (2002); B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009); K. Inglis, This is The ABC (1983); W. Mac, Don’t Touch That Dial (2005).