On September 25, 1897, the Adelaide Observer reported on a remarkable demonstration during a lecture by Professor William Bragg of Adelaide University. The journalist witnessed “a bell responding merrily in the lecture hall to an impulse sent from a vibrator in quite a different part of the building.” The subject of the lecture was “Telegraphy Without Wire”, and the merry ringing of that bell signified the arrival of radio in Australia.
Bragg’s demonstration made local headlines, but another Australian’s work made history. Ernest Thomas Fisk, an engineer employed by the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company (later called Amalgamated Wireless Australasia, or AMA), was the first person to demonstrate cross-continent radio transmission when in 1918 he sent a signal from Caernarvon in Wales to his home in Wahroonga, Sydney. This achievement had huge repercussions for a country that hitherto relied on cumbersome underwater cables for international communication. Fisk also gave the first public demonstration of radio telephony in Australia when he broadcast the national anthem between his office in Clarence Street and the Royal Society Hall in Elizabeth Street in Sydney’s CBD.
By 1922, radio in Australia had attracted the attention of entertainment entrepeneurs. In that year, the Australian government issued its first of many broadcast licenses to one Charles Maclurcan, whose station, 2CM, broadcast classical music from the Wentworth Hotel on Sunday nights. But concerns soon arose as to how stations were funded. Ernest Fisk proposed the sale of “sealed sets” which required that listeners pay a subscription fee to stations. Unfortunately, technological limitations meant that the sealing, intended to limit the signals each set could receive to only those of subscribed stations, were easily broken and people were able to access stations they weren’t paying for – an equivalent of today’s pirate streaming of movies and TV. Another solution to the problem of radio station funding was called for. Some, including many figures in the Liberal party of the day, wanted Australia to adopt the commercial model popular in the United States. Others advocated for a model based on the UK’s BBC, which would maintain licensing fees and include a royalty on the sale of radios. In 1924 a two-tiered licensing scheme was devised; the “A” class licenses funded by subscription fees, and the “B” class stations which would subsist on ad revenue. Coincidentally, it was also in 1924 that Kelly’s Motors in Liverpool, NSW installed its first car radio. Although this innovation wouldn’t become popular until the late 1930s, access to radio during commutes would give the medium an edge over television and the internet in years to come.
Subscription-funded stations continued to struggle, and eventually their ongoing problems led to A-class stations being taken over by the Postmaster-General’s Department as their licenses expired. They were amalgamated into the Australian Broadcasting Company, and in 1932 the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act was passed, nationalising the ABC and charging it to provide programming “in the interests of the community.” This mandate to work for public, rather than commercial, interests was instrumental in the development of Australia’s modern media landscape, but funding remained dependent on listener subscriptions for another forty years.
For the next twenty years Australia enjoyed a golden age of radio, but that was all set to change. In 1956, the arrival of television spelled doom for established radio programming as the new, visual, medium quickly adopted the serial and quiz show formats that had been mainstays of radio programming. A new kind of radio show was needed, in which sound, not pictures, would be king. In March of 1958 a new program was broadcast on Sydney station 2UE. The format, brought from the USA by 2UE owner Stewart Lamb and general manager Alan Faulkner, played music – but not just any music. Lamb and Faulkner borrowed the idea of finding the songs played most often on pub jukeboxes and broadcasting them – sharing popular music that listeners didn’t need to see to enjoy. The Top 40 music station had arrived. Radio had found its new style.
This shift was followed by another in 1967 – the rise of Talkback Radio. Since 1925 broadcasting conversations by wireless radio had been prohibited by regulations from the Postmaster-General’s Department and the Broadcasting Control Board, on the grounds that they created unfair competition with the postal and telegraphic services. When these regulations were lifted, stations could air calls directly from listeners. Commercial radio had at last gained the format which would become the sounding-board of the Australian public.
Stations now had all the hallmarks of modern radio. However, one last great shakeup to the medium still awaited. In 1974 Douglas McClelland, Media Minister for the Whitlam government, abolished license fees for radio and television users, funding the ABC directly from the federal budget. This decision eased competition with commercial broadcasters and secured a platform for diverse programming for a national audience.
Since the advent of the internet, global media has been forced to adjust to a growing divide between consumers on either side of the political spectrum. Right- and left-leaning individuals can pick and choose the content that best suits them, hugely impacting the commercial sector whose programming has always been determined by the size of the audience it can command. On top of this, the popularisation of audiobooks and podcasts has created new competition in the aural media sphere. Many radio stations now create podcasts in addition to their regular programming, demonstrating again the mutability that has long been emblematic of Australian radio.
The growing popularity of podcasts is encouraging, as they allow for examinations of complex issues without the time constraints of broadcast radio. It sometimes seems that everything old is new again, with fiction podcasts taking the place once held by radio serials (with the added convenience of on-demand listening.) Media on the internet is increasingly created by independent artists as new methods of distribution and funding reduce reliance on traditional commercial relationships – how long until we hear the first Patreon- or Kickstarter-funded radio broadcast? Perhaps an unintentional return to the days of subscription-based broadcasts is not far off.
Radio’s greatest strength has always been its range – both in programming and in the number of services it provides. Broadcasters’ adaptability has kept them ahead of emerging trends, from the rise of the Top 40 to the emergence of social media. It is this breadth of range that will ensure radio’s continued success long into the future, as it continues to adapt to new information, new technologies, and new markets.
Note to readers: This article began life as an assessment for the Graduate Diploma of Radio at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. I have included a short bibliography for anyone who wishes to learn more about the topics raised here.
Adelaide Observer, 25 September 1897: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/162381651
Jones, C. Something in the Air: A History of Radio in Australia, Kangaroo Press Ltd 1995
Ernest Fisk and the First Wireless Messages from the UK to Australia: https://web.archive.org/web/20140102200034/http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/natural_world/…/people_places/north/professionals/fisk/index.html
RadioInfo: Who Was Radio Pioneer Charles MacLurcan? https://www.radioinfo.com.au/news/who-was-radio-pioneer-charles-maclurcan
RadioInfo: Lessons of History Inform ACMA Thinking Today: https://www.radioinfo.com.au/news/lessons-history-inform-acma-thinking-today-radcomms-conference
Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C1932A00014
NFSA: Top 40 Radio Turns 60: https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/top-40-radio-turns-60
NFSA: 50 Years of Talkback Radio in Australia: https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/50-years-talkback-radio-australia
Australasian Radio: A Chronology of the First Sixty Years: http://www.milesago.com/Radio/radiochron.htm
Biography of Douglas McClelland: https://biography.senate.gov.au/mcclelland-douglas/
The ABC: An Overview: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1415/ABCoverview#_Toc395086096