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Radio in Australia

Radio is a way of transmitting signals without wires. It uses electromagnetic radiation to transmit sounds made in one place to listeners in many places. Radio is also known as 'wireless telegraphy', or 'wireless', as earlier methods for sending signals (such as the telegraph and telephone) used wires. Australia adopted radio for communications at sea and in lighthouses, and wireless telegraphy gradually replaced the Overland Telegraph which had been completed in 1872.

woman standing in front of a microphone

Image courtesy of the ABC.

From the first public radio broadcast in 1923, public and domestic radio sets encouraged communities of listeners. Families and groups gathered around a wireless box or radiogram. Then as radios became cheaper and more portable – particularly with the introduction of transistor radios from the 1950s – personal radios became common, and individuals could listen according to their own preferences.

Today, sound broadcasts don't always have to be listened to at the time of the broadcast. Websites now offer recordings for people to download and listen to when and how they like. Websites and digital radio offer a range of choices for individual listeners where sound can meet text, image and moving image.

The beginnings of radio

Wireless telegraphy was first commercialised by the Italian Guillermo Marconi. He patented the process and introduced systems that allowed the transmission of morse code (telegraphy) over the airwaves (wireless).

Royal Australian Air Force trainees practising wireless telegraphy sending and receiving in a classroom of Amalgamated Wireless Ltd., 1940. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 136203.

In Australia, wireless telegraphy quickly came under the control of the newly formed Federal Government through the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905. In the same year Australia's first two-way wireless telegraphy station was built at Queenscliff in Victoria (by Marconi's company). In 1913, Marconi amalgamated with its main competitor, Telefunken, to form Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd. (AWA).

Uses of radio

One of the major early uses of radio was for communicating at sea, allowing ships to contact each other and people on shore. This served as an aid to navigation, as well as allowing ships to send emergency distress signals.

Radio also allows communication in other remote or difficult circumstances. Radio came to be used by fire services, lighthouses and remote communities.

Alfred Traeger's pedal-powered radio brought wireless telegraphy to inland and remote areas of Australia. His invention formed the communication network for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). This radio network was used to link children in remote areas to teachers as the 'School of the Air' from the 1950s.

But it is in broadcasting sound to the general public that radio has had its biggest influence.

Australia's first licensed broadcast station, 1922

Jean and Florence 'Dot' Cheers listening to a crystal set radio in the backyard of their family home in Brunswick, on Christmas Day, 1923. The set was made by their brother Ronald Cheers, when he was 20. Florence became a radio announcer known as 'Aunty June'. Florence was 17 at the time of this photograph. Image courtesy of Dr Christina Cheers and Museum Victoria.

In December 1922, the Australian Government issued “The Regulations: radio laws for the amateur”.

The first licensed broadcast station in Australia, under these new regulations, was 2CM, owned by Charles MacLurcan. The licence (number one) was signed by the Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Billy Hughes. Callsign 2CM is listed by the Federal Government as “Never to be Reissued”, in recognition of the pioneering achievements of Charles MacLurcan. 2CM was the first radio station in Australia to publish a regular program guide.

Listeners and licensing

Despite the excitement surrounding the advent of radio broadcasting, uptake was slow due to the licence fees charged to listeners. Between 1923 and 1924 only 1400 people were licensed to listen. Then in 1924 a new arrangement for licence fees came into place.

During the Great Depression, not all families could afford to own a radio. In 1934, Glebe Council in Sydney commissioned the construction of a 'Wireless House' – a public listening place – in a public park. This allowed large crowds to gather and enjoy the daily programs. It operated until the early fifties. A project to revitalise Glebe's Wireless House as a public sound art work opened in 2009.

Early radio programs 1930s–1960s

The wireless offered a new source of education and entertainment to children and companionship for women at home. It also gave families a new evening pastime.

Wireless House project. Image courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Programs such as Women's Session and Banish Drudgery dominated morning slots. Popular recorded music (English and American crooners and dance bands) was the staple of the commercial radio stations.

But family serials were the most popular entertainment, and most popular of these sagas was Dad and Dave, based on Steele Rudd's classic On Our Selection (1899), which began being broadcast in 1937.
National Film and Sound Archive, Family radio

By the 1930s country music was an established part of rural life in Australia, due in part to the widespread popularity of radio.

Women in early radio

Women played an important role in the early radio industry. By the mid-1930s, women were on air as announcers and were working in radio production. By the late 1930s and 1940s women, such as Queenie Ashton, Ethel Lang and Grace Gibson, gained prominence as producers, directors, writers and performers. In 1946, the first episode of Blue Hills by Gwen Meredith went to air. The series, with Queenie Ashton, Ethel Lang, ran for 5,795 episodes until 1976.

Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), 1930s–1950s

On 1 July 1932, the Prime Minister Joseph Lyons inaugurated the government-funded ABC. The ABC initially controlled 12 stations formerly run by the Australian Broadcasting Company, with coverage in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Newcastle, Corowa, Rockhampton and Crystal Brook.

A young boy plays along with a musical game during one of the many ABC broadcasts for children, 1950s. Image courtesy of National Film and Sound Archive.

Opening day programs included the first Children's Session with Bobby Bluegum, the first sports program, Racing Notes with W A Ferry calling the Randwick races, British Wireless News received by cable from London, weather, stock exchange and shipping news, the ABC Women's Association session [], a talk on goldfish and their care, Morning Devotions, and music.
History of ABC Radio .

At first each state ran its own programs, but by the end of 1933 there were regular program relays between cities. Until 1935 there were no recording devices installed, and all programs went to air live.

Kindergarten of the Air, Ruth Fenner illustrates a theme as she sings, c. 1943. Image courtesy of the ABC.

Music was a major feature of early radio broadcasts. Other programming included news, sports coverage and live drama, with many plays being specially adapted for radio.

The younger generation were also catered to – in 1935 Schools broadcasts began, and in 1941 the Children's Session, with its Argonauts Club, was revived as a national program; by 1950 there were over 50,000 club members.

From 1932 to 1936 stations in each state produced their own news bulletins. Then in 1936 the first national news service started relaying news to all states except Western Australia.

The Second World War

On 3 September 1939 Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies announced the beginning of Australia's involvement in the Second World War on every national and commercial radio station in Australia.

Radio served a vital role throughout the war, informing citizens and boosting morale. Conversely, the war led to strict censorship restrictions on radio broadcasting. Censorship delayed the broadcast of programs and news of the war; most programs had to be submitted to censors three weeks before broadcast. One example was the HMAS Sydney II, which sank on 19 November 1941 but the Prime Minister did not confirm this until 1 December 1941.

In some instances reports distorted the truth by, for example, minimising the number of casualties or the extent of damage. Sometimes significant current events were not reported at all, such as the death of approximately 243 Australians following the Japanese bombing of Darwin.
National Film and Sound Archive, Censorship in Media

Light entertainment post–Second World War

After the Second World War the ABC revised its programming strategy to give the national and interstate networks a distinctive character and appeal. The more serious programs would be broadcast on the national network, while lighter entertainment programming with more local content would be reserved for the metropolitan stations. A Light Entertainment Department was formed and programs such as ABC Hit Parade, Bob Dyer's Dude Ranch, The Wilfrid Thomas Show (which ran for almost 40 years), and The Village Glee Club began.

Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton doing their top-rating morning breakfast show on 3AK Melbourne, 1960s. Image courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Humour became an integral part of Australian radio. From the early humorous radio plays and series like Dad and Dave, the 1950s saw humour on the radio turn to become more personality based. One of the first of these personalities was Graham Kennedy (1934–2005).

The feature

The variety of programming also increased dramatically after the war. In the fifties a new type of radio program, the 'feature' or radio documentary, developed. Features were devoted to covering a particular topic in some depth, usually with a mixture of commentary and sound. Later ABC radio features included Radio Eye, Hindsight and Background Briefing.

Impact of television, 1956–

In 1956 the introduction of television services in Australia brought vast changes to the radio industry. Many of radio's mainstays, such as serial dramas, variety and quiz shows, had less appeal to listeners when they could watch similar formats on television.

Some radio broadcasters predicted that television would be the death of radio altogether. But radio found two significant niches where it could compete with television.

The first was news reporting; radio could report news instantly, while television news was initially slower to produce. The second was the format termed 'talkback'. With television up and running in Australia, listeners continued to tune in to their favourite radio talkback shows. So radio stations looked for ways to enhance the format and invited their listeners to 'phone in'. Initially it was illegal to broadcast material via the telephone, but this was changed in 1967. On 17 April 1967, radio host Mike Walsh on 2SM opened the lines to listeners' calls for the first legal talkback program on Australian radio.

Radio on the move, 1930s–1960s

Portability was a notable feature for radios from very early on, with fire brigades beginning to use radio as a backup in case of telephone breakdown as early as 1928, and radios being advertised as portable from the early 1930s.

Arthur Sheldon, Gloria Sheldon and her radio at the beach, 1953. Image courtesy of Museum Victoria.

An unsatisfied demand for car radio was identified in Sydney in the mid-1930s, and production of the first car radio began in 1938. Although these early radios were able to be moved around, they were generally still bulky; it was not until the development of the more compact transistor radio that listening to the radio could become the take-anywhere activity it is today. In July 1954 the companies 'Texas Instruments' and 'Industrial Development Engineering Associates' (I.D.E.A.) began a six month project to produce a pocket sized radio for the Christmas market.

By the 1960s transistor radios were widespread, and brought popular music to young people. Radios became standard equipment in most cars.

Catering for a wider audience

In the 1970s the increasing demand for radio stations for specific audiences – local communities, people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and Indigenous people – was met in various ways.

Community radio, 1972

In the 1970s, the Australian Government made a number of community broadcasting licences available. Australia's first community station, 5UV (now Radio Adelaide), was established in 1972.

SBS radio, 1975–77

After the end of the Second World War, there was substantial growth in the number of people coming to live in Australia. Between 1945 and 1975 Australia received nearly four million migrants. Many migrants felt Australian radio and television did not cater to audiences from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

In 1975, two small radio stations – 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne – began broadcasting four hours a day in seven and eight languages respectively. Initially established as an experimental service to inform migrant communities about the newly introduced health system, the service gradually expanded. In 1977 the Broadcasting and Television Act was changed to provide for the establishment of a national Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) with multilingual radio and television services.

In the early days, SBS Radio broadcast 42 hours of programs in eight languages each week. Today it broadcasts 650 hours of programming in 68 languages each week.

Indigenous radio, 1972–1980s

Tiga Bayles in a broadcast studio at Radio Redfern in the late 80s. Image courtesy of Screen Australia.

In 1972 the first Indigenous-produced community radio program went to air on 5UV in Adelaide. In March 1981, ABC Radio began carrying Aboriginal and Islander broadcasts in Alice Springs and in May 1983, the service was extended to north Queensland.

Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA)

The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) was established in 1980 by two Aboriginal people, John Macumba and Freda Glynn, and their associate Phillip Batty. Their goal was that Aboriginal voices be heard throughout the world and for Aboriginal people to take ownership and control of their own future through a strong, vibrant media centre. Today CAAMA's radio network broadcasts on 8KIN FM.

FM radio, 1974

Frequency modulation, or FM, radio was developed in the United States in the 1930s, and experimental FM broadcasts began in Australia in 1947, but it wasn't until 1974 that Australia's first licensed FM radio station went to air.

The first use of FM in Australia was for public broadcasting, by fine music stations 2MBS and 3MBS. The ABC entered the medium in 1976 with the establishment of ABC-FM based in Adelaide. Commercial radio first started to get access to the FM band in 1980.

The Internet (first turned on in Australia in 1989)

The growth of the Internet as a tool for communications has been enormous, and has an ongoing impact on the broadcast media. The Internet serves as both a source of information for broadcast, and also a new medium for transmitting information.

Screenshot of the Radio National website, 2008. Image courtesy of the ABC.

Radio broadcasters have enthusiastically adopted the Internet and its capacity for multi-platforming to expand their reach and meet the demands of a technologically aware audience. Websites offer the opportunity for broadcasters to distribute radio material for downloading as podcasts.

The future of radio – digital radio, 2007–

In May 2007, the Australian Parliament passed legislation to facilitate the introduction of digital radio in Australia by 1 January 2009 (to be extended to 1 July 2009). Digital radio is being introduced to supplement existing radio services in Australia, rather than a replacement technology. The introduction of digital radio technology and the growth of the Internet lead to speculation of what the future may hold for Australia's radio industry.

It is anticipated that digital radio sets will feature visual displays for text and image, as well as information such as artist and song title. Other developments might include advertising, weather, news or event information. Digital radio as a portable media device may also include video clips and streaming interviews.

This means that sound-only media will ultimately be replaced, and the ways in which we consume and contribute to this media will be radically altered. At present, digital radio in Europe is described as an 'Internet sibling'. We seem to be heading towards a point at which print, online, radio, film and television media converge.
Paul Venzo, Digital Killed the Radio Star, Metro magazine No. 157

Useful links


Radio broadcasters

Radio technology

Radio programs and personalities

Portable radio

Wireless house project

Look, listen, play

Last updated: 13 April 2010

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