RADIO, NEW SOUTH WALES
When Miss Dorothy Deering stepped up to the 2SB microphone at 8 p.m. on 23 November 1923, her choice of opening number was unfortunate. ‘Farewell in Desert’ suggested a melancholy ending, rather than the rousing launch of a medium that would dominate Australia’s public conversation within a decade.
Experimental broadcast was already well established in New South Wales. Wireless knew no bounds, and the demonstrations of (Sir) Ernest Fisk and Charles MacLurcan had excited interest far beyond the city limits of Sydney. Debate preceding the launch of government regulated public broadcast had been dominated by fears of an Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd (AWA) or federal government monopoly, so when the industry-backed 2SB (soon to change its call-sign to 2BL) finally went to air as the nation’s first official station, attention could turn to more pressing matters.
Initially, ‘listeners-in’ could only buy a set fixed to one station. Within six weeks, Sydney’s Sun was describing these sealed sets as ‘wireless walls’ and asking why the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) should not allow open-tuning receivers and ‘charge a blanket fee to cover all broadcasting’. A conference at Sydney’s GPO in April 1924 set the course for change, and on 11 July Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce tabled a new set of broadcast regulations. Open sets would become the norm, and broadcast stations were to be designated either A- or B-class. B-class stations would derive all revenue from advertising; A-class stations, while allowed limited advertising, would be largely financed by government-imposed licence fees. Sydney would have two A-class stations: 2BL and 2FC.
Oswald Mingay, the energetic radio manager of Sydney’s Burgin Electric Company, always claimed the company station 2BE as the nation’s first B-class station, giving an opening date of 7 November 1924. Contemporary news reports suggest the date was nearer to mid-1925. Like many similar ventures, 2BE would not endure. The B-class broadcasters depended mainly on sales of radios and parts for survival, struggling with restrictions on transmitting power, and especially with retail reluctance to spend on advertising.
In January 1925, 2UE began operating from C.V. Stevenson’s Maroubra home, and today remains the nation’s oldest surviving commercial station. That month, the first regional station in New South Wales—2HD Newcastle—was also in action. Then, in February, Otto Sandel launched 2UW, while in October 2KY went to air, the first in the world, it bragged, to be owned and operated by the labour movement. The last of the early Sydney stations, the Theosophical Society’s 2GB, began operations in August 1926.
Royalty demands from AWA (on patents and equipment) and from the Australasian Performing Right Association (on performance fees) plagued the cash-strapped industry, and widespread agitation yielded a Royal Commission on Wireless. A stay was issued on new B-class licences in late 1926, before the Royal Commission examined Australian broadcasting ‘in all its aspects’ in early 1927.
In 1928, a handful of the B-class stations formed an organisation that would become the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters (FARB, now Commercial Radio Australia), and as the freeze on B-class licences was lifted in 1930, NSW regional stations multiplied. Bathurst station 2MK had been licensed in August 1926, and in 1930–31 stations also appeared in Albury, Moss Vale, Gunnedah, Wollongong, Broken Hill and Goulburn. The Sydney dial changed further when Archbishop Michael Kelly opened 2SM in December 1931.
Change was afoot for the A-class stations as well. As licence renewals loomed, the government decided to offer all A-class licences by tender to a single company for three years. The winner would be financed from listener licence fees, and the PMG would provide all technical services. A Sydney consortium of theatre, cinema and music publishing interests formed the Australian Broadcasting Company and won the contract. By the end of 1930, this company, headquartered in Sydney, had taken over all A-class stations.
Staples like sport, music, lectures and drama were already well established, and religious programming remained prominent. ‘Personalities’ were already emerging. Another performeron 2SB’s first night, G.A. Saunders, as ‘Uncle George’, would become one of a galaxy of radio ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunts’. Saunders’ broadcasts from Sydney’s King’s Hall launched another early favourite: community singing concerts.
The company’s decision to buy 2UW rather than renew its contract suited the new Lyons Coalition government, and on 17 May 1932 the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932 passed into law. On the evening of 1 July, Conrad Charlton announced to every state in the Commonwealth, ‘This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission’. The federal government was in control of the ABC.
Sydney would remain the Commission’s base, with (Sir) Charles Lloyd Jones in the chair. National programs could now be heard alongside city stations and regional broadcasting. In 1930, Oswald Anderson pioneered a commercial radio network: the Federal Radio Network, later renamed the Commonwealth Broadcasting Network. The sharing of landline and copyright charges, and especially the allure to advertisers of a larger audience, all made sense.
Throughout the 1930s, the B-class stations—by now occasionally called ‘commercials’—grew in reach and number. 2UW’s power was increased from 500 to 1500 watts, while the NSW Council of Churches was allowed 1000 watts for its new 2CH transmitter. Regional stations sprang up across the state—in Wagga Wagga, Grafton, Broken Hill, Tamworth, Katoomba, Orange, Armidale, Dubbo, Griffith, Parkes, Young and Bega (which took over Burgin Electric’s original 2BE call sign). By the outbreak of war, Lithgow, Mudgee and Muswellbrook had stations of their own.
The power of advertisers was growing too. J. Walter Thompson and George Patterson Pty Ltd were the dominant advertising agencies, cooperating to fracture network loyalties and squeeze individual stations. By mid-1938, both commercial networks (the Commonwealth Broadcasting Network had been joined by the Major Network) were struggling with these conditions.
Sir Hugh Denison’s new Macquarie Network would be different. While maintaining a stout independence, Macquarie affiliates would co-operate to ensure sponsored programs reached all the network’s stations, countering in some measure the agencies’ manoeuvrings. From a strong Sydney base in 2GB and 2UE, and with federal access through Canberra’s 2CA, Macquarie would become a powerhouse in commercial radio.
Between 1930 and 1956, radio overtook cinema as the unchallenged universal medium of entertainment. Vaudeville performers like Jack Davey and Bob Dyer became national stars. Ambitious drama productions nurtured other stars, as Macquarie and 2UE established their own troupes of players. Sydney remained central, as Macquarie’s hometown and as base for over half of all ABC employees.
By 1956, radio had brought metropolitan Sydney and the outback into a shared, entertained and informed present. Would television now replace radio? Just when gloomy predictions were loudest, a new electronic marvel emerged. The transistor ensured that miniaturisation and portability would rescue radio. Even as it was being displaced in the living room, radio blossomed in the car, the garden, the teenage bedroom and on the beach, from Bondi to Manly.
These were uncertain times. FARB was guarding its turf, and only two new NSW stations were licensed in the 1950s: 2RE Taree and 2VM Moree. Another regional station was giving early hints of a different future. By the mid-1950s, 2RG Griffith’s Continental Music Club had attracted a large following, and underscored the need for ethnic broadcasting. The experimental 2EA would be set up later in Sydney, and in 1976 become part of the new SBS.
FM radio had been on the agenda for decades. Quietly undermined by commercial interests, it had got nowhere by the 1960s. But Raymond Allsop, the engineer behind Miss Deering in 1923, was a long-time FM advocate. Representing a push to reopen the case for FM transmission, he was finally granted an experimental licence in 1966. The experiments were successful, and an inquiry in the early 1970s conspired with the 1972 Whitlam election to catalyse real change.
The first FM licences would go to community groups—ethnic, educational and fine music interests. On 15 December 1974, Sydney music station 2MBS FM became the country’s first fully licensed FM radio station. When the Whitlam Labor government announced 12 more licences in 1975, one of radio’s earliest ideals—non-commercial, independent community wireless services—was finally being realised.
Meanwhile, Sydney’s AM stations had been competing fiercely, especially for a growing teenage audience. In 1958, 2UE introduced the country’s first daily Top 40 program, complete with disc jockeys John Laws and Bob Rogers, and charts for the fans. Ward ‘Pally’ Austin drew teens to 2UW, and by 1963 the Catholic station 2SM had moved to 24-hour programming with its team of ‘Good Guys’. Other stations struggled. In its attempt at a ‘new’ 2GB, Macquarie’s ‘Most Happy Sounds’ theme was hardly groovy. 2KY—always big on sport—could now take refuge in the familiar, and was afforded a measure of stability by its comprehensive horse racing coverage.
In 1967, ‘conversation radio’ became legal. Talkback radio (as it was soon called) was never far from controversy. The novelty attracted the powerful, but it was inevitably the hosts themselves who became the stars. For decades, Laws reigned supreme in Sydney, and then across the country. Courted variously by stations 2UE, 2UW and 2GB, not to mention politicians, his morning talkback became influential. Alan Jones would later compete effectively on 2UE and 2GB, and along with Laws would be subject to investigation into ‘cash for comment’.
Throughout these years, the ABC continued to pay attention to what it did best: news, background and documentary. By 1972, its first station, 2BL, had become part of the ‘light’ network (Radio One). Then, on 19 January 1975, the ABC unleashed 2JJ on Sydney—or at least the half of Sydney that could receive the new station. The first new Sydney AM licence in 40 years ushered in programming that was radical, irreverent and (for young people) topical. The only other new Sydney station that decade would be 2WS in the west, one of the commercials to convert later to FM.
But it was 2JJ that became Sydney’s first mainstream FM broadcaster on 1 August 1980, soon changing its call sign to 2JJJ. As Triple J it would eventually go national. Two new commercial FM licences (2MMM and 2Day) followed in quick succession. FM stations proliferated across regional New South Wales, with some regionals converting AM to FM licences, as did 2WS and 2UW.
The larger landscape of media control and consolidation was changing radically, with new alliances of ever more concentrated media ownership. One example in a bewildering field was Austereo, formed in 1980 and expanding through three decades of acquisition, partnership and takeover. By late 2011, it had been taken over by the Southern Cross Media Group (once known as Macquarie Regional RadioWorks) to form Southern Cross Austereo, with metropolitan and regional radio stations across the nation. For New South Wales alone, it meant 17 regional stations now under single ownership.
State and regional boundaries were becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially as the potential for radio and its extensions on the internet became evident. From 2009, digital radio began transmission in selected cities, including Sydney. Radio was now on the net, or networked across the country.
Yet 2SB, which had become 2BL, and finally 702 ABC Sydney, was still broadcasting locally. There was still music and sport, news and commentary, talk and local information. Perhaps things were not quite so different as people had begun to imagine.
REFs: B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009); K. Inglis, This is the ABC (2006) and Whose ABC? (2006); I.K. Mackay, Broadcasting in Australia (1957).