AM AND PM
AM first broadcast on the morning of 4 September 1967 on the ABC’s Second Radio Network (Radio Two). On 7 July 1969, AM’s evening counterpart, PM, went to air.
Both sought to exploit radio’s natural advantages—of immediacy, low production costs and non-domestic reception. Radio was uniquely placed to extend audiences through portable, transistor and car radios, displacing the ‘wireless’ console sets of earlier decades. In both production and broadcasting terms, the AM/PM initiative extended the ABC’s range by utilising new technologies and international communications facilities.
The groundbreaking television current affairs program This Day Tonight launched on 10 April 1967. Like it, AM reflected post-war Australia’s increasing cultural sophistication, internationalisation and tertiary education. The ABC sought to honour its charter to distribute information programs nationally to general audiences in both television and radio, and developed a sophisticated Audience Research Department, headed by Ray Newell.
AM’s format moved beyond the BBC fore-runners that inspired it, such as Today. As head of public affairs radio, and from 1961 federal talks supervisor (news talks), Selwyn (Dan) Speight introduced radio current affairs formats, including News Review, Notes on the News and News Commentary. He urged ‘highly topical’ initiatives that would feature ‘analysis, explanation and commentary, eye-witness descriptions and “actuality” sound’.
Speight designed AM to report complex political and social events more deeply than was possible in short news bulletins. AM immediately began covering the causes and consequences of local and international issues, such as the Vietnam War. The first program featured a location piece with recorded sound about threats to the native lyrebird. An item labelled ‘hard news’ anticipated the program’s future agenda: Philip Koch reported from South Vietnam on that country’s imminent election. Russell Warner was executive producer and Robert Peach presenter.
AM utilised inter-continental cables, such as COMPAC (Europe and North America, from 1963) and SEACOM (Southeast Asia, 1967). It could break international stories that arrived during the early hours after morning newspapers had gone to press. In this way, AM enabled the ABC to compete with the metropolitan broadsheets.
Journalists wrote and presented their own reports of up to four minutes’ duration. Among the early recruits were Paul Murphy, Richard Carleton and Allan Hogan, and presenters included many journalists who went on to distinguished media careers: Hamish Robertson (1976), Steve Cosser (1979–80), Ellen Fanning (1994–96), Peter Cave (1997–2001), Linda Mottram (2001–03), Tony Eastley (2004–13) and Chris Uhlmann, who has anchored the program since 2014.
Audience reach increased when AM moved to Radio One in 1971. When the Whitlam Labor government was elected in 1972, one in five of Melbourne’s radios was regularly tuned in. AM’s consistent quality has ensured that it continues to rate very highly for its timeslot.
When PM began in 1969, Australia lacked quality afternoon newspapers and no broadcaster provided evening commentary on state and federal parliaments, business and commerce, or international affairs. PM took advantage of the time difference between Australia and Washington. It could cover parliament, including Question Time, and ran for 55 minutes. It introduced daily stock exchange reports and ‘broke’ business news stories.
PM was produced by Tim Bowden and presented by John Highfield. Its distinguished voices have included Huw Evans (1970–83), Paul Murphy (1983–92), Monica Attard (1994–97) and, for more than 15 years, the highly respected Mark Colvin, whose dignified professionalism many see as responsible for much of PM’s continuing appeal.
As both programs are investigative and adversarial, AM and PM have been scrutinised intensively by the major political parties and allied ‘think-tanks’, such as the Institute of Public Affairs. This has resulted in persistent accusations of bias.
AM and PM (and their stablemate The World Today, 1983– ) highlight searching interviews by senior journalists. Their reporters regularly expose political hypocrisy, corporate corruption and governments’ policy embarrassments. Tenacious investigations of the asbestos manufacturer James Hardie (by Matt Peacock and colleagues) and exposés of tobacco industry duplicity exemplify the programs’ continuing ability to hold power to account. AM and PM have earned several Walkley Awards for reports from international war-zones and for coverage of police corruption, superannuation and industrial relations.
REFs: P. Bell and T. van Leeuwen, The Media Interview (1994); K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983) and Whose ABC? (2006).