Radio in Victoria began on 26 January 1924, when 3AR went to air in Melbourne. Along with 3LO, which was launched later that year, 3AR was part of the ‘sealed set scheme’, whereby stations were funded by fee-paying subscribers whose sets were sealed to the station’s frequency by the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG). However, the system held limited appeal for consumers, and by July 1924 the federal government had agreed upon a two-tier system of licences.
A-class licences were essentially financed by listeners’ licence fees, which were imposed and collected by the government. The first of these licences were granted to 3AR and 3LO. Following the Australian government’s Royal Commission on Wireless in 1927, A-class licensees were encouraged to amalgamate in order to maximise efficiencies and maintain standards.
By 1929, the government had nationalised the transmission facilities and contracted the provision of programming to the Australian Broadcasting Company, a consortium of entertainment interests. This company was nationalised by the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932, with funding coming exclusively from radio listeners’ licences, a system that would continue until the 1970s. 3AR became part of what would become ABC Radio National, and 3LO part of ABC Local Radio.
B-class licences were offered to anyone else who wanted to broadcast and could generate their own revenue through advertising. Melbourne’s first B-class licences were awarded to 3UZ (1925) and 3DB (1927), followed by a labour station, 3KZ (1930), 3AK (1931), 3AW (1932) and 3XY (1935), which was aligned with conservative political interests. Victoria’s first regional commercial stations, in 1930, were 3BA Ballarat, 3TR (later 3GV) Sale and 3GL Geelong.
The government had initially planned to issue a number of C-class licences to station owners wishing to exclusively advertise their company’s products. The PMG and the Akron Tyre Co. engaged in discussions relating to the issuance of a C-class licence to the Akron-owned station 3AK; however, the station was ultimately granted a B-class licence, making it Melbourne’s fourth commercial station.
Special conditions imposed on 3AK meant it was only permitted to broadcast for limited hours when other Melbourne stations were off the air to avoid creating interference. The station lobbied relentlessly for this key restriction to be overturned until, in 1944, the PMG restated a refusal to allow other Melbourne stations to broadcast from midnight-to-dawn to compete with 3AK. A decade later, 3AK was finally allowed to broadcast during the day and 3DB, followed by other Melbourne stations, entered the midnight-to-dawn market.
Melbourne press owners were initially threatened by radio; however, while voicing public opposition to the ABC establishing an independent news service, print media groups moved quickly to establish their own radio holdings. (Sir) Keith Murdoch’s Herald and Weekly Times (HWT) (which had launched Victoria’s leading radio magazine, the Listener In, in 1925), acquired 3DB in 1929. The press also attempted to protect its privileged access to sports coverage, and from 1930 to 1936 there was a ban on the broadcasting of all football and horse racing in Melbourne.
By the 1940s, the radio broadcasting environment had changed completely, with live coverage of cricket Tests and the Melbourne Cup widely available. This ushered in the ‘golden age’ of radio, under which the two-tiered system was well established in the media landscape. On the one hand, the ABC had developed a commitment to news, education and culture, and from 1947, also broadcast federal parliament. On the other hand, the commercial sector was focused on local issues and business, as well as more popular entertainment. Unlike in Sydney, religious interests did not obtain their own licences in Melbourne. Stars included ‘Nicky’ (Clifford Nicholls Whitta) and ‘Nancy Lee’ (Kathleen Lindgren) on Chatterbox Corner (3AW), and the versatile Norman Banks, one of the pioneers of a natural conversation style of commercial radio.
The introduction of television in 1956 brought vast changes to the radio industry, with many of radio’s mainstays—such as serial dramas and variety and game shows—proving to have less appeal to listeners when they could watch similar formats on television. Some Melbourne radio stars, most notably Graham Kennedy (3UZ), also moved to television. Bert Newton, who had joined 3XY in 1954, would return to radio as the manager of 3DB in the 1980s. Commercial radio licensees invested in the new medium themselves, with 3XY and 3UZ aligned with GTV9 and the HWT with HSV7.
While there were the inevitable predictions that television would be the death of radio, the established medium found two areas where it could effectively compete with television: music and news. In 1967, a third niche emerged in the form of talkback radio. Stations including 3AK tested the regulatory unease with this form of radio by introducing a device called the ‘beep-a-phone’ to their programming to record calls in 1964. The talk radio formula presented a number of advantages, including broad audience appeal, cheap production costs and a format that was not easily transferable to television. 3DB was one of the first stations to embrace talkback when it was legalised in April 1967, with programs hosted by Barry Jones and Pat Jarrett (whose listeners called in to talk to Premier Sir Henry Bolte).
Some 50 years after the first talkback shows on Victorian radio, talk radio continues to be a popular and influential part of radio programming in Victoria. Unlike in Sydney, where John Laws and Alan Jones came to rule, the leading talkback radio personality to emerge in Melbourne in the 1980s was a journalist, Neil Mitchell (1951– ). Still at 3AW, he remains an influential figure.
During the 1970s, two other important developments impacted the Australian radio industry: the establishment of community radio and the long-awaited introduction of FM radio in both the national and commercial sectors. The first experimental FM broadcasts began in Victoria in 1947, some 14 years after the system was patented by American electrical engineer and inventor Edwin H. Armstrong. However, FM was not welcomed by Victoria’s commercial broadcasters, who were concerned about costs and competition, and by 1961 FM transmissions were closed down completely to allow for the expansion of the television frequency band.
The re-emergence of FM broadcasting was the result of a series of socio-political and cultural transformations that occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first related to the closure of experimental FM stations, which mobilised considerable numbers of fine music enthusiasts seeking high-quality audio broadcasting. Simultaneously, there was a growing interest from the broader community in accessing the public airwaves controlled by government and commercial interests. Universities lobbied to be allowed to broadcast educational material. Australia’s ethnic communities, as well as other organised groups of social and political activists, wanted a voice of their own on radio.
Australia had not developed the same history of pirate radio as Britain, but in 1971 the anti-Vietnam War movement inspired two pirate radio stations based on Melbourne university campuses: 3DR (Radio Draft Resistor) at the University of Melbourne and 3PR (People’s Radio) at Monash University. Both of these unlicensed and unauthorised stations broadcast messages of dissidence and resistance to the broader community, and were short lived, with 3DR’s equipment smashed in a police raid and 3DR shut down by electronically jamming its signal.
In 1970–72, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board’s report into the introduction of FM radio recommended the introduction of public access stations to meet the needs of educational, religious, professional, musical and other special interests. During this turbulent period, Melbourne’s stable commercial radio environment was shaken up by the award of a new licence in the nearby Mornington Peninsula (3MP, 1976). In 1975, three public access stations were granted licences to broadcast in Melbourne, with fine music station 3MBS FM the first Victorian public radio station to broadcast on the FM band in July 1975. In October, 3CR was awarded a restricted licence, and commenced broadcasting the following year. Ethnic broadcasting also commenced in 1975, when the community-run and ABC-owned 3ZZ was born, with 20 ethnic communities being the first to broadcast in their ethnic languages through the national broadcaster. Later that year, 3EA began as an experimental station and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) was established in 1977.
In May 1976, 3RMT, based at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, was granted an experimental educational licence to broadcast, becoming 3RRRFM (also known as Triple R) in October 1978. Since the late 1970s, Triple R has relied upon Melbourne’s arts and cultural community and listener subscriptions for support, and currently has more than 11,000 active subscribers.
In 1978, 3PBS was granted a special ‘S’ licence to broadcast music. While Sydney’s 2JJ had been established in 1975, the ABC’s youth network did not commence broadcasting (as the Triple J network) until 1989. Until 1980, 3RRR and 3PBS were the only youth-oriented FM broadcasters in Melbourne. Broadcasters on 3RRR initiated innovative program formats, with the station becoming the unofficial training ground for the national and commercial sectors.
Community radio has grown rapidly, with over 70 licensed stations now operating across Victoria. The most recent Melbourne-wide community radio licences were granted to Student Youth Network (SYN), Triple Seven Communications, the South Eastern Indigenous Media Association and Joy Melbourne. Their associated communities of interest—youth, Christian, Indigenous, and gay and lesbian—reflect the diversity of community stations across Victoria.
Commercial radio stations, which had missed the opportunity to establish themselves on the FM band in the early 1970s, began pushing for access, arguing that all AM stations should have the right to simulcast on FM. Instead, two licences were given in Melbourne to ‘new players’ rather than existing stations. EON-FM (later to become 3MMM) was the first Australian commercial FM station to broadcast (in July 1980), followed in Melbourne by 3FOX. FM conversions occurred by auction, organised under the National Radio Plan. This period saw prices paid for conversion peaking with 3KZ’s bid of $31.569 million in 1989. 3KZ became 104.3fm in 1990.
Commercial FM stations currently servicing Melbourne are 3FOX (better known as FOX-FM), GOLD104.3, Mix 101.1 (formerly 3DB), 3MMM, Nova 100 and smoothfm 91.5. However, AM radio in Melbourne continues to attract a wide listener base with talk stations 3AW and 774 ABC vying for the highest market share across both AM and FM bands.
The advent of digital technologies changed the game for radio, with the very technologies that eased methods of production also putting colleagues out of work. The ways people used radio changed too, as did the relationship between audiences and producers.
The move to digital has been a relatively slow process in Victoria. Although testing of digital radio occurred as early as 1999, using the Eureka 147 platform, it was not until 2009 that Melbourne commercial and national stations commenced transmissions. The community sector launched its digital services in 2011. By 2013, ABC and SBS offered 19 services, with the commercial and community broadcasters a combined 37 services on two Melbourne multiplexes. These services are a combination of AM or FM simulcasts and a similar number of digital-only services.
Over recent years, the medium has been forced to adapt to become part of a networked media environment. The delays in introducing digital radio and being limited to the Melbourne metropolitan area have seen the simultaneous development of online services. Virtually all Victorian AM and FM radio stations are using online services as an adjunct to the material broadcast over their conventional transmissions.
REFs: B. Carty, Australian Radio History (2011); M. Phillips, Radio City (2006); P. Thornley, ‘Broadcasting Policy in Australia: Political Influences and the Federal Government’s Role in the Establishment and Development of Public/Community Broadcasting in Australia— A History 1939 to 1992’ (PhD thesis, 1999); http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM01220b.htm.