Until 17 April 1967, talkback radio was illegal in Australia. Talkback appeared in Australia not as a unique product of the local radio industry, but as a programming concept imported from the United States. For many years, commercial broadcasters in Australia closely observed programming initiatives launched by the American commercial radio industry. To some extent, talkback also reflected talk radio programming formats that emerged in Sydney in the early 1960s. As early as 1961, a number of radio stations directly contravened the Broadcasting Program Standards to trial a new form of broadcasting dubbed ‘talkback’. But in order to protect those being recorded, the Telephonic Communications (Interception) Act 1960 rendered illegal any attempt to record a telephone conversation using a device attached to the telephone.
In 1964, several commercial stations began using a Swedish ‘beep-a-phone’ to broadcast telephone conversations with callers. The device produced an intermittent beep to warn speakers that their conversation was being recorded. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) expressed concerns not only about the technical quality of calls and callers’ privacy, but what was being said on air, who was saying it and the immediacy of this type of broadcasting. After protracted discussions with industry representatives and individual commercial radio stations, in September 1966, the Postmaster-General (PMG), (Sir) Alan Hulme, finally announced that the prohibitive restrictions would be overturned.
When the ABCB formally revoked the relevant conditions in the Broadcasting Program Standards, the PMG insisted on leasing a mandatory device called the ‘Recorder Connector Type 1’ to radio stations. The device created a delay of seven seconds before calls were put to air, inserted an intermittent beep (later dropped) and included an ‘emergency’ cut-out button. In April 1967, the Standards were amended to allow radio stations to put telephone calls to air.
Talkback was a novelty when it first appeared, with a number of metropolitan stations preparing with ‘rehearsals’ for the April 1967 launch. Commercial stations in most metropolitan markets introduced new programs, or program segments, using the open line, and listeners overwhelmed telephone systems. But the novelty soon faded. The development of talkback reflected other programming shifts on commercial radio, including content changes and lengthening program sessions; an increase in the number of commercial stations and the forging of distinct station identities in the 1960s and 1970s; the introduction of commercial FM radio and news/talk formats in the 1980s; and the consolidation of station networks and an increase in program syndication in the 1990s.
The launch of commercial FM radio in the 1980s split stations between ‘music’ and ‘talk’; they tended to specialise in one or the other. As FM began, many—although not all—AM stations focused on talkback rather than music. In 1982, Sydney’s 2GB adopted the slogan ‘News-Talk’, launching a news commentary and current affairs talkback format with no music. Following 2GB, metropolitan AM stations including 3AW, 3DB and 3UZ in Melbourne, 5DN Adelaide and 6PR Perth adopted dedicated news/talk formats, of which talkback was a significant component.
Most talkback programs were not syndicated across state borders, even though program syndication on commercial radio generally increased between 1986 and 1994. The Consolidated Broadcasting Network—a joint talkback venture between 2UE Sydney and 3AK Melbourne, launched by Kerry Packer in June 1986—was a financial failure. Few prime-time talk programs were syndicated nationally. Talkback announcers who broadcast nationally included John Laws, Alan Jones and Charles Wooley. Other programs were syndicated nationally during periods when audiences were smaller. Talkback programs were generally local, and from the 1990s, a small number of stations dominated talkback in each capital city in Australia—notably 2GB, 2UE, 3AW, 4BC, 5AA Adelaide and 6PR. In Sydney, 2UE topped the radio ratings with programs featuring Laws, Jones and Stan Zemanek.
Unlike their state counterparts, federal political leaders initially needed to be convinced about the value of talkback. On 17 April 1967, two Liberal state premiers, Sir Robert Askin and Sir Henry Bolte, took listener calls. As a candidate for Liberal Party leadership, Senator (Sir) John Gorton was initially hesitant about using talkback, but agreed to appear on 3DB with Barry Jones. (Sir) William McMahon was also hesitant. As a Coalition Cabinet minister and later as prime minister, he agreed to appear with 2GB’s Brian White.
Talkback was soon used for electioneering and campaigning: during the 1977 election campaign, talkback appearances were sought by both party leaders. On 5AD Adelaide in April 1968, Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam may have been the first federal politician to ‘talk back’ directly to listeners. As prime minister, Whitlam made considerable use of talkback. His Coalition successor, Malcolm Fraser, used talkback to avoid Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery journalists—a technique already being used by NSW Labor Premier Neville Wran.
Talkback programs and announcers became more visible in the 1970s, with patronage by political leaders and the growth of systematic electronic media monitoring. In Brisbane, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s staff was monitoring 4BC’s Hadyn Sargent and his callers by the late 1970s. West Australian Labor Premier Brian Burke installed a radio-phone in his official car to comment on breaking news stories and participate in talkback programs. Wran’s government retained an electronic media-monitoring operation inherited from the previous Coalition government that enabled the premier to have tapes of any radio or television item within minutes.
Monitoring drew increasing attention to the performance of politicians on talkback programs. During the 1980 and 1983 federal election campaigns, both political parties monitored gaffes made by party spokespeople. The Press Gallery president derisively dubbed the 1983 campaign the ‘John Laws election’, as major pronouncements were made on Laws’ program. During the 1987 election, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke used talkback extensively, although he reputedly disliked it. Then Liberal federal opposition leader John Howard also frequented talkback. Labor’s Paul Keating used talkback when he was Treasurer and later as prime minister, uttering his famed ‘banana republic’ caution about the state of Australia’s economy during an interview with Laws.
John Howard made greater and more sophisticated use of talkback than any other prime minister. While Liberal opposition leader, Howard commended the neo-conservative counter-culture on talkback in Sydney. He appeared with talkback announcers around Australia—notably with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell and 2GB’s Alan Jones. During this period, Premiers Jeff Kennett, Bob Carr and Peter Beattie also made considerable use of talkback.
Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd favoured FM over AM radio, but was not the first politician to use the youth-oriented medium. Politicians using FM included Kennett and Beattie, and federal Labor opposition leader Mark Latham. In the early 2000s, Julia Gillard appeared in Latham’s stead as deputy prime minister.
Opposition leaders received some airtime, but talkback sessions were generally reserved for incumbent premiers and prime ministers. Lower-ranking parliamentary representatives were not usually invited to take listeners’ calls.
In 1999, revelations about the advertising agreements held by a number of high-profile announcers attracted considerable critical attention to talkback. ABC Television’s Media Watch revealed that a number of high-profile talkback announcers had received payments for on-air endorsements as part of undisclosed advertising agreements. The inquiry into the ‘cash for comment’ affair revealed that a number of high-profile talkback announcers accepted money and other goods or services in exchange for endorsing products and companies. Initially implicated were John Laws and Alan Jones, both at 2UE. The inquiry was subsequently widened to investigate 3AW’s Steve Price and Bruce Mansfield, 5DN’s Jeremy Cordeaux and 6PR’s Howard Sattler. The most lucrative commercial agreements were held by Laws and Jones.
Although the term ‘talkback’ has come to be most closely associated with the news/talk format aired on many AM stations during breakfast, morning and drive sessions, many types of talkback programs are broadcast on commercial radio, including religious programs, gardening, motoring, home renovations, health and sport. The number of females hosting programs declined during the 1970s, and few female announcers broadcast AM talkback. On FM—unlike AM radio—women co-hosted talk programs.
Talkback was traditionally associated with AM radio, but from the late 1980s increasingly FM stations also ran some talkback. While FM stations in the 1980s identified primarily as music stations, some had begun not only to broadcast talk programs during the breakfast session but also to syndicate comedy programs during the afternoon drive session. On FM stations, announcer duos and teams ran segments with talkback, rather than whole programs. In the drive session, talk programming fractured into AM talkback, with male announcers and comedy duos and teams on FM radio. Comedy programs, which had largely disappeared from AM talk stations, migrated to the drive session on FM radio. While names such as Bob Francis, Alan Jones, John Laws and Howard Sattler were associated with AM talkback, new FM duos broadcast talkback to a younger generation: Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O, Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, Merrick and Rosso, and Hamish and Andy.
REFs: L. Gould, ‘Talk Radio and the Open-Line: A History of Commercial Talkback Radio in Australia’ (PhD thesis, 2012); G. Turner (ed.), ‘Talkback Radio’, special issue of MIA, 122 (2007).