RADIO, NORTHERN TERRITORY
5DR Darwin was established by the Australian Army to entertain thousands of Allied troops passing through the Top End during World War II. Army personnel broadcast an eclectic mix of local talent, popular music, live plays, and BBC and ABC news.
Closed in 1946, 5DR was relocated and reopened as a ‘national’ service by the ABC in 1947. Local programs included a weekly news round-up hosted by the Northern Standard, Mrs Richardson’s Diet Talks and Sunday religious services. City programs were flown to Darwin on disc or relayed via short-wave transmitters. Locals complained that detailed news reports from Melbourne were of little relevance, while others observed that Port Moresby had local radio before Darwin. Outside Darwin, Territorians struggled to listen to Radio Australia on short-wave radio sets.
In 1948, 5DR became a ‘regional’ station when it was connected via one of the longest landlines in the world to ABC Adelaide. The new cable, which followed the route of the Overland Telegraph Line (1872), enabled the ABC to open the Territory’s second radio station, 5AL Alice Springs. Government officials noted that the history of radio in the Territory was closely associated with the work of Alf Traeger OBE, the radio engineer whose wireless experiments established the world’s first aerial ambulance service. The role of radio in overcoming the isolation of the outback through entertainment and education was praised. Why the Territory’s first broadcast stations were given South Australian call-signs of ‘5’, even though Traeger had used Territory call-signs designated by the numeral ‘8’ during his famous experiments in Central Australia in the 1920s, was not recorded.
The ‘8’ returned to Territory call-signs in 1960 when 5DR was renamed 8DR, the ABC reached Tennant Creek (8TC) and Katherine (8KN), and 8DN, Darwin’s first commercial radio station, opened. Eleven years later, the Territory’s second commercial station, 8HA (Heart of Australia), was established in Alice Springs by a consortium of businessmen who considered the ABC’s reporting ‘negative and slanted’. One of those involved was Paul Everingham, the Territory’s first chief minister.
When Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Day 1974, the ABC and then 8DN were cut off. It was impossible to communicate with residents for 34 hours, until the ABC transmitter was repaired, and 8HA lent 8DN an emergency transmitter. Two thousand transistor radios were flown in.
In 1978, when the Northern Territory attained self-government, one-quarter of its 100,000 citizens had no access to telephone or radio services. In 1979, the ABC’s Education Broadcasting Advisory Committee called the extension of radio services to the Territory’s remote communities a matter of the ‘highest priority’, describing radio as essential to the education of Indigenous adults and their children. But the extension of broadcasting in the Territory was beset by ‘special problems’: the Territory’s size, its small and scattered population and its remoteness from Australia’s other cities. While acknowledging the ‘special needs’ of Australians who had ‘few if any alternative forms of entertainment or sources of information’, the ABC was concerned about the effect of diverting ‘scarce’ resources away from the majority of the Australian population.
In Alice Springs, newly established Aboriginal organisations were concerned about the impact of television—which had begun to spread to remote communities when Australia’s first satellite was launched in 1985—on those Indigenous languages and cultures thriving in media isolation. Freda Glynn, a founder of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), compared the media’s potentially destructive effects with the devastation of alcohol. The solution, agreed academics and Aboriginal activists, was Aboriginal control of the media itself—a perspective consistent with the federal government’s policy of self-determination.
The result was the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS), a Department of Aboriginal Affairs project that, with assistance from the ABC, delivered community, government and commercial radio and television, plus the capacity to produce local content, to the Territory’s most remote Indigenous communities. Although some academics have criticised BRACS for disrupting traditional culture, the idea that radio was an essential tool in cultural and linguistic maintenance spread. After the advent of CAAMA in 1989, the Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association provided tertiary training in radio broadcasting for Indigenous announcers. In 1998, Radio Larrakia (8KNB), which promotes Larrakia language and culture to Darwin, was established; since 2006, it has also broadcast in Greek, Timorese and Filipino. PAW Media (established in 2001) broadcasts from Yuendumu in four languages while Yolgnu Radio (2006) promotes Yolgnu language and culture throughout the Top End. Most of these broadcasters also collect oral histories and produce language-based educational resources.
Since 1980, geographically focused community radio stations like 8TOPFM Darwin (established in 1981), 8KTR Katherine (1982), 8CCC Alice Springs (1982) and Tennant Creek (1986–2010, relaunched in 2013), and 8EAR Gove (1992) have opened in the Territory’s economic hubs. A locally based non-denominational Christian radio station, Rhema, opened in Darwin in 1993. Since 1999, the Vision Radio Network, a Queensland-based narrowcast Christian service, has established 17 relay stations in Territory towns, with nine in remote Top End communities. Meanwhile, in 1997 the 50th anniversary of the ABC in the Territory was marked by the performance and broadcast of ‘Let’s Celebrate’, a musical by Peter Forrest.
Economies of scale have hindered the spread of the Territory’s commercial radio networks. While 8DN reached Katherine in 1981 and 8HA reached Uluru in 1987, it was not until the 2000s that commercial radio was heard in places like Tennant Creek (Flow FM). The 8DN licence was surrendered in 1992 when its owners launched 8HOT-FM and found themselves in breach of laws prohibiting the ownership of more than one station in any geographical area. A few months later, the laws were changed, enabling 8HA to open SUN-FM in Alice Springs. The Tops End’s commercial stations are now owned by the Grant family, which started digital radio trials in 2010.
Though a diversity of radio stations are now heard in most Territory settlements, conventional car radios still cannot pick up radio signals on the majority of Territory roads.
REFs: Northern Territory Background Briefing Paper on ABC Operations, July 1979 (courtesy ABC); http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/indigenous/ broadcasting/; http://radio.adelaide.edu.au/aboutus/ history_OZ-radio.pdf.