The Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905 granted Australia’s fledgling federal government control of the developing field of radio-communications. Amateur experimenters and professional engineers interested in the two-way, point-to-point possibilities of radio telegraphy competed with, and were gradually vanquished by, retailing, manufacturing and other business interests, which saw greater commercial possibilities in providing regular content on a point-to-multipoint basis. In Sydney in 1919, Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd (AWA) sponsored the first public demonstration of radio in Australia, and soon organisations began agitating for the introduction of regular broadcasting services. Australian broadcasting officially commenced in 1923.
A conference the following year agreed to a bifurcated system, with A-class stations maintained by revenue from listeners’ licence fees and some advertising, and B-class stations— very much a residual category—continuing to do little more than broadcast radio concerts. In 1932, the A-class stations were nationalised to form the basis of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). B-class (or ‘commercial’, as they preferred to be known) stations, many of which had passed into the hands of newspaper, religious and political interests, were allowed to continue and some new licences were granted. In 1930, they formed what became the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters (FARB), now Commercial Radio Australia (CRA).
By 1935, Australia had more than 60 commercial stations. They were heavily reliant on the importation of American transcription discs containing music, dramas and even advertisements. The popular Australian radio serial Dad and Dave launched in 1937; partly inspired by the American serial Amos ’n’ Andy, it was designed to promote Wrigley’s chewing gum.
Most stations had ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunts’— homely, comforting and wise personalities who appealed to adults as well as children. Commercial stations and the ABC both provided ambitious staged broadcasts of cricket Tests between England and Australia. The commercials formed relays to cover special events, such as the 1932 opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, broadcast some parliamentary sittings and installed themselves in election tally rooms. These were ‘prestige’ broadcasts, explicitly designed to challenge the ABC’s claim to be the national broadcaster. In 1938, the most enduring commercial network, Macquarie (with 2GB Sydney as its linchpin), was formed to appeal to advertisers wanting a national reach.
The state’s role increased in World War II, with the new Department of Information monitoring and censoring programs on security grounds. Following the recommendation of a Parliamentary Joint Committee, a single Act was passed regulating the commercial sector and guaranteeing the ABC’s independence. The Broadcasting Act 1942 stipulated that at least 2.5 per cent of radio time be devoted to the work of Australian composers; this Australian content quota was to become a constant irritant to the commercial industry. Newsprint rationing and restrictions on the importation of American transcription discs heightened radio’s appeal to advertisers and encouraged a local production industry.
Steering the shape and prosperity of commercial radio in the 1940s were major advertising agencies. The Australian arm of the American behemoth J. Walter Thompson, handling the Lever Brothers account, introduced the Lux Radio Theatre and Australia’s Amateur Hour, while George Patterson established the Colgate Palmolive radio production unit. A local star system was created, serials were recorded live—usually in front of an audience—and Macquarie formed a production arm, ARTRANSA, to export programs to New Zealand and South Africa. Quiz and game shows, with their heavy reliance on listener involvement, remained hugely popular.
In 1949, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) was created as a statutory authority to regulate the industry, although the Postmaster-General’s Department retained powers to award and revoke licences. The ABCB survived by trying not to offend the government or powerful interests, and rejected thousands of applications for new commercial licences, citing a shortage of available frequencies. Inspectors visited each station regularly to ensure the provision of ‘adequate and comprehensive’ programs, making recommendations rather than rulings.
The Broadcasting and Television Act 1956 legislated for a dual television system, as with radio, and doubled the local music quota to 5 per cent. In 1958, the 34-page Broadcasting Program Standards introduced self-regulatory codes. Television displaced radio as the sole medium of electronic entertainment in the home, and introduced a new competitor for advertising revenue. Several commercial radio stations hedged their bets by buying into commercial television. The decision to allow television transmission in parts of the VHF band usually designated for FM radio effectively insulated AM stations from the major new threat.
In a 1956 memo entitled ‘Television Counter Measures’, a Macquarie executive wrote of the need to intensify local advertising and an active interest in community affairs, promote microphone ‘personalities’ and encourage the sale of car and transistor radios. Radio changed from being a family to a highly individualised medium, with one radio for each person over the age of 16 by 1962. Broadcasters began targeting separate audiences instead of the whole family. In 1958, the first Australian ‘Top 40’ music program had been introduced to 2UE by Bob Rogers, and many other stations rushed to follow suit.
Weather and traffic reporting improved. Most commercial stations became increasingly interested in ‘actuality’ broadcasts, with reporters using telephones to directly broadcast news stories and on-the-spot interviews. The success of ‘conversation’ programs in the United States also demonstrated to Australian radio executives that the telephone had other uses, and in 1967 the Broadcasting Program Standards were amended to allow the recording and rebroadcasting of telephone calls. Established radio presenters like Norman Banks could now legally take open-line calls; they were joined by a new generation of talkback hosts, including John Laws.
In 1956–57, with the advent of television, radio profits fell, but resumed a sharp upward spiral the following year. By 1960–61, only three of the 110 commercial stations were making a loss. Radio drama was the biggest casualty, as writers, producers and audiences turned to television.
In the 1950s many commercial stations moved into ethnic broadcasting (particularly in Greek and Italian), with advertising support from local businesses. This programming increased the range of music and sports news available to Australian listeners until the late 1960s, when some station managements began withdrawing from the field because of rising program costs and competition. Managements also wanted a more uniform station image.
Between 1947 and 1971, Australia’s population nearly doubled, but only 13 new commercial stations were licensed—principally in the regions. The Whitlam Labor government spearheaded the licensing of FM and new AM stations, the awarding of experimental licences for non-profit community access stations and the abolition of listeners’ licence fees.
The community radio sector expanded due to delays in the awarding of commercial FM licences, for which FARB’s lobbying was partly responsible. When commercial FM finally debuted in 1980, playlists were more varied than the Top 40 format, the rate of rotation was low and the number of advertisements was restricted. As AM stations were prevented from simulcasting in FM, in the mid-1980s they switched to broadcasting in stereo to improve their sound quality, but listeners showed little interest in acquiring stereo receivers.
With its superior sound quality and appeal to younger audiences, FM radio came to be associated with music and comedy, and AM radio with news and talk. AM stations increasingly vied for ratings success by signing up talkback hosts with strong, sometimes deliberately provocative, opinions. In 1985, the beleaguered 2GB, which had adopted ‘Newstalk’ as its slogan, lured John Laws from 2UE to host the morning session for a salary in excess of $1 million. ‘The King’ of Australian radio lifted the station’s advertising receipts by more than 50 per cent and substantially increased ratings.
By 1986, with the opening of the frequency spectrum, Australia had 139 commercial stations. Changing community values and a move towards deregulation saw the 1958 Program Standards cut from 34 to four pages and the removal of the advertising time limit (18 minutes per hour) in competitive markets. The Macquarie Network formed MACSAT to transmit program content to 32 stations. Commercial stations also syndicated music programs and formats. Since 1984, the radio production house mcm entertainment has been producing Take 40, a countdown of the country’s most popular songs, from 2Day-FM.
In 1988, the Hawke Labor government announced the National Radio Plan for metropolitan services. It involved the conversion of two AM stations to FM in each mainland capital city and the staggered introduction of new commercial FM stations in these cities. New licences would be awarded by tender, with the licence going to the highest bidder rather being awarded than on the basis of commercial viability.
More than half of Australia’s metropolitan commercial stations changed hands in 1986–89, with record prices paid. The radio industry was collectively in debt in 1990–91. The Macquarie Network was sold off in pieces, but some newer players expanded quickly: licence auctions in 1989 allowed Austereo to form the first national FM network.
The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 removed restrictions on foreign ownership, as well as the cap on the number of stations a company could own. As a result, station ownership consolidated rapidly, and in the mid- to late 1990s there was considerable overseas investment. The Act also ushered in a new industry-based self-regulatory regime, the limitations of which were demonstrated by the ‘cash for comment’ scandal of 1999.
Australian music quotas were as high as 25 per cent for formats such as contemporary rock and pop, but as low as 5 per cent for niche programs. These quotas did not induce commercial stations to program new Australian artists or to broaden the mainstream musical base. Top 40, middle-of-the-road and easy-listening formats dominated metropolitan music stations on the AM band. Commercial FM was dominated by album-oriented rock. Twenty-five- to 39-year- olds, rather than teenagers, came to be seen as the safest source of advertising revenue, and managements competed for this audience through on-air personalities rather than music content.
The number of journalists employed in commercial radio fell by as much as a third between 1986 and 1996. By 2003, Southern Cross Broadcasting was sending its metropolitan news bulletins to 177 commercial stations. The provision of news and current affairs was effectively abandoned in favour of talkback. By 2000, half of all metropolitan stations and 38 per cent of all large regional stations carried talkback. The advent of mobile phones increased the genre’s popularity.
FM networks such as Triple M moved towards talk-oriented programming, with more news, sport, entertainment and gossip, and personality-driven shows around ensembles such as Kyle and Jackie O, Merrick and Rosso, and Hamish and Andy.
By 2004, CRA could classify only 10 per cent of commercial stations on air as independent. There were three major metropolitan owners: Austereo, the Australian Radio Network (ARN) and DMG Radio Australia. In 2011, Southern Cross Media purchased a majority of Austereo.
Australian radio stations faced the challenge of remaining attractive to audiences and advertisers as portable audio devices such as MP3 players grew in popularity. The ‘block’ programming of many ABC stations meant they adapted better to the environment of podcasting than commercial stations, with their continuous ‘flow’ programming. In addition, the capacity to create new revenue streams by selling music downloads was limited by copyright. Many commercial stations, networks and presenters moved to audio stream their programs and use their websites to provide program and personality information, conduct promotions and interact with listeners.
The introduction of digital radio to Australia was—perhaps predictably—protracted, with concern about the most appropriate technology, the cost of infrastructure and receivers, and the role of existing commercial licensees. In 2004, the Australian Broadcasting Authority announced a five-year moratorium on the issue of new commercial digital licences in order to protect the incumbents and signalled that digital radio may never fully replace analogue services. In 2006, the government unveiled plans for a staged roll-out of digital ABC, SBS and commercial services, which commenced in the major capitals in 2009. While trials began in Canberra and Darwin the following year, the digital roll-out to regional Australia remains in the planning stage.
REF: B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009).