- an overview

Australia's nationhood coincided with the beginning of the radio age, and radio has always played a central role in our history and social life. We took to the new invention immediately and enthusiastically, and it soon became an inextricable part of Aussie life. Also, because of the vast distances involved, it provided a lifeline for rural and regional Australia, and an invaluable link to Europe and the rest of the world.

Once Marconi had demonstrated radio's potential, governments including Australia quickly realised its tremendous importance and they moved fast to ensure that they retained ultimate control over it. Within a few years of Federation, the new wireless technology came under the control of the new federal government through the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905. Since then, broadcasting has remained a federal responsibility.

World War I brought all radio use under strict govenment control and this halted private development until the war ended. Even so, by 1919 there were over 900 amateur and experimental radio users in Australia alone. By that time, the invention of the Regenerating Circuit and the Superheterodyne Circuit (both created by American genius Edwin Armstrong) had made long-distance broadcast transmision of voice and music possible, and the development of radio took off again at a rapid rate.

The first official Australian radio broadcast took place in Sydney, organised by Ernest Fisk, head of AWA. On 19th August 1919 Fisk arranged for a performance of "God Save The King" (then the Australian national anthem) to be broadcast from one building to another at the end of a lecture he'd given on the new medium to the Royal Society of NSW. The first broadcast in New Zealand took place at the Uiversity of Otago in 1921.

As broadcast radio took off in the USA in the early 1920s, it proved to be tremendously popular and vastly profitable -- RCA sold a staggering $80 million dollars worth of its Radiola receivers, even though they were priced at a whopping $75 each -- several weeks' wages for the average worker in those days. Companies like AWA and other interested parties lobbied hard to get broadcasting officially established in Australia. It got off to an halting start in 1924 with the ill-advised Sealed Set scheme, in which licencees were allowed to produce and sell radio recievers that were fixed to their station and could not be tuned to other frequencies.

2FC in Sydney was the first Australian radio station to be licensed on 1 July 1923 but it is generally accepted that its rival 2SB (later renamed 2BL) was first to go to air officially on 23 November 1923. 3AR and 3LO went to air on 26 January and 13 October 1924 in Melbourne.

By this time, however, the sealed set system was proving to be an abject failure. Only 1400 listener licences were issued in the first six months, and it was quite easy for listeners to avoid the licence fee by building their own sets, or by modifying the manufactured sets to receive more than one station.

In July 1924 the government announced a new two-tiered system of "A-class" and "B-class" class licences. This combined features of the British system (where the government-controlled BBC had a complete monopoly) and the American system, where "market forces" determined the overall structure of the industry and stations were predominantly private-owned. It also permitted the use of freely tunable receivers.

"A" class stations were to be government subsidised, but "B" class stations were permitted to earn revenue by charging for advertising. The American radio industry had already proved that there was a significant amount of money to be made in commercial radio. The first radio advertisement was broadcast on WEAF in New York in February 1922; a ten minute talk by the advertiser cost $50 but recouped $27,000 in sales -- a staggering 540% return on his investment!

The first set of 'A' class stations licenced included the four original sealed-set licencees, plus one other station in each state capital - 2BL Sydney, 2FC Sydney, 3AR Melbourne, 3LO Melbourne, 7ZL Hobart, 5CL Adelaide and 6WF Perth. The new scheme was spectacularly successful compared to its predecessor-- and the end of 1924 40,000 listener licences had been issuedand this had doubled to 80,000 by the end of 1925.

The first 'B' class station on air was 2BE, in November 1924, but it went broke in 1929. The oldest surviving 'B' class (commercial) station is 2UE Sydney, which went on air on Australia Day 26 January 1925. South Australia's first stations were 5CL (A) on 20 November 1924 and 5DN (B)on 24 February 1925. By 1932 there were 43 commercial stations operating around Australia.

The only other major structural change was the nationalisation of the twelve "A" class licencees and the establishment of the Australian Broadcsting Commission (ABC) on 1 July 1932. The new national broadcaster was initially permitted to carry advertising, but this was dropped from the legislation before it came into force. The ABC was funded in part by direct government grant, but drew most of its revenue from listener licence fees. With the airwaves now divided between the ABC and the commercial sector, the two-tier system became the structural foundation for the industry, and was used as the model for the TV industry in the mid-50s. That arrangement would not change significantly for the next 40 years.

The period from the late 1930s to 1956 1940s was the so-called "Golden Era" of Australian radio. By this time were 130 commerical stations and nearly as many ABC stations. The ABC had national commitments including news, education, parliamentary broadcasting and culture (including five full symphony orchestras) but the commercial stations were much more focussed on the local community and local business, and this broad division still predominates.

Two major features of commercial radio in this period were its heavy dependence on ready-made programming (pre-recorded on transcription discs by independant production companies like Crawford Production and The Australia Record Company) and the central importance of individual commercial sponsors who usually underwrote high-cost productions upon which stations depended to maintain their audiences. It was common for the cost of these programs to greatly exceed the value of the station time devoted to the advertiser's message, but as in America, sponsors were happy to bear the cost, partly to demonstrate their status as 'respectable' businesses, but also because the sales revenue their sponsorship generated was clearly well worth the cost of the show. Popular shows of the period included "Caltex Theatre", "BP Pick-a-Box" (later transferred to TV), "Bonnington's Bunkhouse Show", "The Cadbury Show" and "TAA Hit Parade".

Although the regulatory structure of the radio industry barely changed until 1974, developments in the Fifities and Sixties radically altered the nature of radio and its relationship to other media. From 1956 on, television rapidly supplanted radio as the main family entertainment medium and, at first, drastically reduced its audience. But technological and social changes contributed to changes of direction that eventually saved radio from the cultural scrapheap.

Television had several profound effects on radio formats. As the popularity of TV increased, radio's "prime-time" gradually shifted from night to day. (In the Fifties this was specifically because most TV broadcasting was in the evening). Early morning "breakfast" and late afternoon "drivetime" shifts now became focal points, and the car radio was instrumental in this, since listeners could now hear these programs -- or parts of them -- as they drove to and from work or school. This in turn influenced the style of presentation, making it faster, louder, more dynamic and "snappy". It also became much more repetitive, built around one-hour or half-hour blocks of programming. It also generated specific new program features like traffic reports.

Under the influence of TV, radio had to abandon its traditional programming. Its former staples -- drama, serials, comedy, variety and quiz shows -- were all being being sucessfully transplanted to television. Radio lost a massive share of its audience to TV in the first few years, and proprietors desperately cast around for new forms of programming to win listeners back. The advent of TV initiated the gradual changeover to the two major program types familiar to us today -- music-based formats, targeted to the preferences of specific audience "segments" and slightly later, the introduction of talkback radio.

TV also had a catastrophic impact on radio content producers. There was a long, profitable period of steady production from the '30s to the mid-50s, but the combined effects of television and introduction of new radio formats brought that era to a jarring close. A few, like Crawford Productions in Australia, made the successful transition from radio to TV. But for many in radio-related employment, the impact of TV was almost as disastrous as the introduction of talkies had been on silent cinema in the late 1920s and early '30s.

Another focal point for the changes in radio was the start of the rock'n'roll era in the US in 1956 -- coincidentally the same year that TV officially began in Australia. The influence of the American rock'n'roll music, American deejays and American Top 40 programming was global and pervasive, and was actively promoted through radio, records, TV shows and films like the classic teen-flick Blackboard Jungle, which launched the career of Bill Haley & The Comets. 2UE in Sydney published the first Australian Top 40 chart in 1958 and Australian stations began introducing Top 40 chart shows -- talkback king John Laws hosted one of the first Top 40 shows. By 1964 stations like Sydney's 2UW, which had previously been a major broadcaster of plays, serials and quiz shows, had dropped all their old programming and adopted the new Top 40 format.

The Top 40 format was the first major product of the so-called "segmented market" approach to broadcasting. America was something of an exception, because its radio market already had a broad level of structural "segmentation", such as the southern country music stations and the so-called "race" stations that broadcast to African-American audiences. However, in the pre-TV era in most countries, including Australia, the various audience segments were served 'internally' -- that is, a radio station or network typically tried to appeal to the whole family with a varied schedule of music, drama, serials, quizzes, talk shows, comedy and variety, spread across the broadcast day. But the impact of television and the advent of rock'n'roll gave radio a compelling new impetus to study the various subgroups of its audience and target new program formats to their specific needs.

The first and most obvious division in the Fifties was between teenage and adult audiences. The concept of a "hit parade" was not new, but the distinctive audience that listened to rock'n'roll was. It consisted of or was perceived as being almost exclusively white, middle-class teenagers, who soon became a significant and highly lucrative target audience for radio. In the late Fifties and Sixties American radio consultants embarked on extensive audience surveys, defining listeners accorting to interlocking or overlapping "demographics", based on age and other socio-economic features, and they constantly devised new programming formats and presentation styles to try and win the various market segments over.

The result was that the programming on individual stations or networks, and across the industry as a whole, became much more homogeneous. It was now based on a single music style, repeated throughout the day, as opposed to the old variety format, and from the late '50s these music formats relied heavily on rock'n'roll music. The huge success of this new format in the U.S. saw it adopted by other countries very rapidly.

New technology also played a vital part in the way radio developed in the Sixties and Seventies. During the Fifties transistors began to replace the old vacuum tubes in radio circuits, allowing radios to become many times smaller than had previously been possible. The availablility of the transistor and the introduction of cheap, reliable dry-cell batteries in the late 1950s enabled manufacturers to build very small, low-cost radio receivers that could be built into self-contained portable units, or mounted in cars. By the Sixties the consumer electronics industry was booming and world markets were being flooded by cheap portable radios made in Hong Kong, Japan and elsewhere. The advent of the "trannie" radically altered the social context of radio -- the times, the ways and the places in which radio could be heard -- and this development was instrumental in changing the radio broadcasting from a static family-oriented mode to a mobile, individualised entertainment form.

As noted by Tom O'Regan, another important technological change that proved very significant in the evolution of the music-based formats was the invention of the vinyl microgroove record. Their greater durability meant that the new records could be played many more times than the brittle and fragile shellac 78rpm discs, and this naturally lent them to a high-rotation format. Likewise, the new phonograph stylus, which typically used a diamond or sapphire, lasted thousands of plays longer than old the old soft metal gramophone needles, which had to be changed after every play. Ironically though, the relatively low cost of vinyl records -- epsecially the new 45rpm, 7-inch singles -- took records into a new realm of disposability that was reflected by the high turnover of records on the charts. In a different sphere, vinyl also had a major impact on fine music broadcasting, since the new Long Playing (LP) records made it possible to put much longer passages of music on record -- up to 30 minutes per side, three times greater than the old 78rpm discs. This was of limited value for pop music until the Seventies, but it was extremely important for recording the lengthy movements of classical concertos and symphonies.

The new vinyl discs around the same time as another crucial technological breakthrough -- the development of magnetic recording tape, an invention which revolutionised both the record industry and radio. When it became widely available in the mid-1950s, magnetic tape redefined many radio practices, in areas like advertising, promotion and the making and distribution of syndicated programs. Magnetic tape offered a new, reliable and simple way to pre-record, edit and copy whole programs, or program segments like interviews. The audio quality of tape was also far superior to the old metal or shellac transciption discs and if properly used and stored tape was even more durable than vinyl. Tape also made long, uninterrupted programs possible for the first time, since one tape could run as long as several discs. Tape also made possible the systematic "logging" of live radio, and a large reel of tape running at low speed could record many hours of airtime. This in turn created a whole new sub-industry -- companies that "monitored" radio on behalf of advertisers, sponsors and other interest groups. Logging also became an important regulatory function, and in Australia all stations are obliged to keep routine log tapes of broadcasts in case of complaints.

An important subsidiary development, and one that had a singular effect on radio presentation, was the invention of the tape cartridge. This was an endless loop of pre-recorded tape, fitted into a special case. When inserted into the player, the cartridge -- universally known as a "cart" -- would play for the duration of the recording and then stop automatically, and because it was a loop it was then ready to be played again instantly, without rewinding. The cart was ideally suited for the demands of the new radio formats, and it revolutionised the way that stations could prepare and present a huge range of material -- advertisements, announcements, jingles and station IDs. Carts helped make radio pacier and more aurally exciting, and they soon became an essential tool for presenters and deejays everywhere. They were a mainstay of radio until only a few years ago, when ABC engineers invented the "D-Cart" digital recording system, but cartridges are still widely used, if only as a backup.

The next major development for Australian radio was the introduction of talkback in April 1967. The all-music formats had saved radio from obscurity, but talkback was, to borrow the computing term, the "killer application" that radio had been searching for since the introduction of TV. Talkback had several crucial advantages -- it appealed to a wide audience, it only worked effectively on radio, and it was exceedingly cheap to produce. It quickly became the second major arm of radio programming and it remains a vitally important and hugely popular and influential part of radio programming, as evidenced by the tremendous power and influence credited to talkback hosts such as Alan Jones and John Laws, and the commensurately vast salaraies they command.

Another important event took place in mid-1970 -- the infamous Radio Ban. The ban was the flash point for a simmering dispute between commercial radio and major British and Australian record labels. The labels were demanding a "pay for play" royalty on the records they supplied to radio stations. Radio argued -- with considerable justification -- that they were providing free promotion for those records, so they refused to pay. When the record industry dug in, radio imposed a ban on all the major labels although it's most sigificant that the Ban did not include American labels. The effect was disastrous for some Australian groups signed to major labels like EMI, but it also provided a unique "foot in the door" for smaller Australian companies like Sparmac and Fable. These small labels and the groups signed to them -- like Daddy Cool -- were not affected by the embargo, so ironically, while it killed off some bands, it gave others breaks they otherwise might never have had. The same was true for Australian groups like Autumn, Maple Lace and The Mixtures, who had major local hits with cover versions of successful UK hits, simply because the originals were banned.

In the early Seventies the major feature was the consolidation of the existing formats, although there was one very significant change that affected both TV and radio. The Labor Communications minister, Doug McClelland, abolished TV and radio licence fees, which had been collected since the 1930s and which formed the major part of the the ABC budget. It was replaced by the current system of direct government funding.

In pop music programming, the major influence was the Digamae consultancy, formed in 1972 by former Sydney deejays Rod Muir and Hans Torv. Digamae studied current American trends and adapted them to local radio. By the early 70s many pop stations around Australia were being programmed by Digamae, who favoured a pacey, highly structured format with little talk, lots of advertising, and a very restricted range of 3-minute pop songs on high rotation. The effects on the local music industry of Digamae's dominance were widespread, profound, and in my opinion negative in many respects. But their style was undeniably popular and tremendously profitable, keeping stations like 2SM in Sydney at the top of the ratings until commercial FM became established in the 80s.

Some stations changed formats completely. In Sydney, 2CH dropped all all 'ethnic' programming from its roster in 1972 and changed to an all-music "easy listening" format. While this was bad news for community groups, it provided an unexpected windfall for local musicians -- 2CH soon found itself so short of suitable music that it was obliged to commission its own easy-listening recordings. In 1973, Melbourne's 3AK, formerly the top-rating pop station in the city, bade farewell to its old audience on 31 May 1973 with Spectrum's I'll Be Gone, the last rock single played on the station before it too switched to an easy-listening format.

The last major changes of the era came at the very end, but they were perhaps the most important. The progressive Whitlam Labor government had been elected in 1972 after more than twenty years of conservative rule, and it was determined to break the regulatory logjams that had kept Australian broadcasting lagging years behind its overseas counterparts. It's important to remember that as late as 1974 radio was still monaural and broadcast only in the AM band, and TV was still monochrome. Acting on the recommendations of the McLean Report, tabled in early 1974, Labor totally overhauled the radio industry -- although, significantly, they left TV virtually untouched.

The most important outcome for radio was that the McLean Committee flatly rejected claims by the commerical lobby that there was insufficient space on the VHF-FM band to accommodate both TV signals and FM radio broadcasts, and that FM radio should therefore be located in the UHF frquency band. Radio manufacturers and the FARB had lobbied long and hard to have UHF-FM established as the standard in Australia -- even though it would have made Australia the only country to do so.

In part, the agenda behind this claim was simple -- the commercial radio sector's desire to protect its long-standing oligopoly. But there were more serious economic concerns. Since all overseas-made FM radios were made for the VHF band, placing FM in the UHF band would have given local electronics companies like AWA a virtual free run in the local FM market with no competition from overseas products. Following the tabling of the McLean Report, the Whitlam government ordered that FM radio was to be established in the VHF range, alongside TV. Not surprisingly, there were none of the predicted adverse effects. Partly as a result of this decision, but especially because of the Whitlam government's controversial 1973 decision to cut tariffs on imported electronic goods by 25%, most locally-owned electronics manufacturers disappeared from the market within a few years, unable to compete with the flood of imported receivers from Japan and elsewhere.

There were several other important innovations during this period, including the establishment of the community radio network, the long-awaited introduction of FM radio in both the govrenment and commercial sector, and the foundation of the world's first 24-hour, non-commercial rock music radio station Double Jay in Sydney.


ABC Online

Caslon Analytics

Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters

Adventures In Cybersound
Dr Jeff Langdon -- "The History of Radio in Australia"

New Zealand Radio History

Tom O'Regan
"Radio daze: some historical and technological aspects of radio"
Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol. 6, No 1 (1992)
Murdoch Universty Culture & Communication Reading Room'Regan.html

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