From the 1960s to at least the 1980s, Radio Australia had the biggest audience of any Australian media organisation. At its peak, its international audience exceeded Australia’s total population, yet few Australians had heard of the ABC’s international broadcaster.
Short-wave broadcasting works because, unlike other radio wavelengths, when high frequency signals hit the ionosphere they are reflected back to earth, and can be heard by those in the footprint where they land. Short-wave can often be heard more than half a world away.
From the discovery in the 1930s of the long distances short-wave radio signals could travel, international broadcasting showed immediate and rapid growth fuelled by international competition and national pride. When short-wave international broadcasting reached its peak in the late 1980s, more than 100 countries had their own international short-wave operations.
As a vehicle for international political communication, short-wave had many advantages: it could be transmitted over huge distances; it required only cheap, easily accessible equipment; and it could cross national boundaries unhindered—evading national censors. In the age of satellite television and the internet, shortwave radio has become an antiquated medium, but for more than half a century, it was a vital source of information and entertainment for hundreds of millions of listeners.
Radio Australia began in December 1939, a few months after the outbreak of World War II. After a decade or so of institutional instability, it became part of the ABC in 1950, and international broadcasting eventually became one of that organisation’s charter activities.
Radio Australia expanded its language services and programming output from the mid1950s as the government viewed it as a Cold War weapon. Its first languages were principally European, but gradually it acquired an Asia- Pacific focus. By the 1980s, it broadcast in English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese and Tok Pisin (to Papua New Guinea). Khmer and Burmese were added later. In the late 1980s, Radio Australia ranked 13th among international broadcasters in terms of hours of output.
Estimates of audience size varied widely. The ABC claimed to the Dix Committee in 1980 that the ‘best estimates suggest that the total audience is in the vicinity of one hundred million’, claiming audiences of 30 million in Indonesia and 25 million in China. Radio Australia played a pivotal role in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific, where the undeveloped state of local media meant that it had a very important role in informing indigenous audiences.
Most international broadcasters were propaganda arms of their governments, and so lacked credibility among all but partisan audiences. In contrast, the BBC World Service had established and maintained a degree of independence from the government of the day. Radio Australia aspired to a similar reputation for independence, but faced an uphill battle to establish this.
There were two broad phases in this troubled relationship: during the Cold War phase, Radio Australia’s editorial independence was frequently threatened and often compromised. Many in that generation of diplomats were hostile towards anything not directly under government control.
From the 1970s, however, a new generation of diplomats was more willing to accept a more limited government role within the totality of international relations. But then a new threat to Radio Australia’s role arose with the Australian government’s sensitivity to anything that upset relations with Suharto’s New Order regime in Indonesia. From the mid-1970s, the Australian media became a contentious element in this relationship. As a result, some influential figures started to assert that Radio Australia was doing more harm than good to Australia’s national interest. Some even argued that broadcasting into another country in their own language was an invasion of sovereignty.
This group was never strong enough to close Radio Australia, but it did impede its growth. In particular, Radio Australia’s transmission capacity fell behind in the 1980s. As other international broadcasters expanded their capacity, Radio Australia was unable to match them.
In the 1990s, the importance of international short-wave broadcasting declined substantially. This was partly because the end of the Cold War reduced the intensity of global propaganda battles. More fundamentally, the changing media mix increasingly marginalised short-wave among audience preferences. By the 1990s, many developing countries had undergone an entertainment liberalisation—if not a political one. Moreover, a generation raised on FM radio was less tolerant of the uncertain reception of short-wave.
Although the relative importance of different media was changing, international communication overall was growing enormously, and analysts proclaimed (or decried) the advent of media globalisation. Satellite television increasingly had the large broadcasting footprints of short-wave radio, and with digitalisation becoming more common by the turn of the century, each satellite could carry many channels. Similarly, the internet had revolutionised access to international sources of information. The audience for short-wave radio was only a fraction of what it had been.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 had mandated that it broadcast internationally in both radio and television. While Radio Australia fulfilled this requirement in radio, no parallel activity was undertaken in television. No one seemed bothered by the fact that the ABC was largely ignoring its legal obligations, and no government money was forthcoming to help it do so. Finally, at the initiative of the ABC under David Hill, Australia Television began in 1993. As the Labor government was reluctant to fund this new activity, the agreement was that it would basically be self-supporting. It thus became the first ABC service to carry advertising.
Because of this, and because there was a widespread suspicion that it would divert resources from domestic services and from Radio Australia, Australia Television was viewed with suspicion by many in the ABC. However, after an uncertain and troubled start, it had begun to achieve stability and to build up its audiences (and advertisers) when in 1996 the Howard Coalition government announced it would be sold to the private sector. The government also announced the Mansfield Inquiry into the role of the ABC, and implemented funding cuts of $56 million immediately and more in the future. Submissions to the Mansfield Inquiry showed that the government had unleashed a massive vote of public confidence in the ABC. Bob Mansfield did not address Radio Australia’s position directly—at this time, it was reaching an estimated four to five million listeners weekly at a total cost of $25 million a year. Rather, Mansfield’s simple mantra was to assert that international broadcasting came at the cost of the domestic broadcasting, and that the latter should be the priority.
Minister Richard Alston immediately endorsed the Mansfield report; however, Radio Australia survived the onslaught. There was a vigorous campaign in its support, but more importantly, because the government lacked control of the Senate, there was no attempt to alter the ABC Act in line with Mansfield’s recommendations. Instead, the government simply removed most of the international broadcaster’s resources. Radio Australia survived, but as a shell of its former self.
Radio Australia has shown considerable resilience in the years since, and has moved into different delivery technologies. It continues today with a smaller range of services, and its capacity for new ventures in the dynamic international media environment is extremely limited by severe resource constraints. As an established international broadcaster, with a high level of goodwill and credibility, and extensive multilingual broadcasting skills, it should have been well placed to move into the emerging delivery platforms.
Within a few years, following the fall of President Suharto’s regime in Indonesia and the outbreak of conflict in East Timor, the Australian government started to rediscover its interest in international broadcasting. The Seven Network, which had taken over Australia Television, announced that it would close the service. Soon afterwards, the government announced tenders for a new television service, and when the ABC was not among the initial applicants, approached it to become involved. ABC Asia-Pacific received more government financial support than the old Australia Television ever did.
The service, now known as the Australia Network, was put out to tender, with Sky News Australia challenging the ABC for the contract. After a chaotic policy process, the tender was abandoned, and in December 2011 it was announced the service would remain with the ABC.
REFs: K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983) and Whose ABC? (2006); S. Revill and R. Tiffen, The Decline and Fall of Radio Australia (1997), http://www.rodneytiffen.com.au.