'Wow, the things people say!'

BY CHRIS ARNEIL AND ROD BUTLER

Did you know that until 17 April 1967, talkback radio was illegal? Fifty years ago, listeners first enjoyed the possibility of discussing any topic - from 'music, missiles, books, boots, Beatles, income tax, teenagers, Graham Kennedy' - on air!

In the early days of radio, the new medium offered 'a new source of education and entertainment for children and companionship for women at home; a new evening pastime for families'. However, the  introduction of television to Australia in 1956 forced radio to innovate and develop unique programming. The previous radio mainstays of serials and quiz shows could now be seen on television and therefore faced dwindling popularity across the airwaves.

Radio had the advantage of being seemingly instantaneous, and one niche that radio subsequently carved for itself was the talkback radio format – but it wasn’t easy. In 1963, Melbourne’s 3AK and Sydney’s 2UW began broadcasting what they called ‘open-line’ or ‘beep-a-phone’ programs (named for the beeps that were heard during recorded telephone conversations), where listeners could call in to discuss any subject. These programs utilised home-made devices specifically designed to record telephone conversations, and invited listeners to communicate directly with radio hosts for the first time.

The only problem was that this was illegal – broadcasting and telecommunications regulations introduced in 1905 prohibited the recording or broadcast of telephone conversations – and these programs were forced to cease after six months. This wasn’t the first time that these regulations were enforced – in 1925, Sydney’s 2BL (later part of the ABC) invited telephone subscribers to call in to ask questions of the lecturer, violating Postmaster-General's Department regulations prohibiting conversations between individuals by wireless radio as the PMG saw this as competing with the pre-existing postal and telegraphic services that were also controlled by them.

Radio stations at the time stated that they found the PMG and Broadcasting Control Board’s regulations restrictive and their worry about ‘unsavoury comments’ unfounded. 3AK program manager Henry Gay noted that in the six months of their beep-a-phone programming, 'there were only four or five "dicey moments" when callers forgot themselves or lost their tempers'.

Talkback programs continued though, but without the voices of listeners. In an interview with The Age in 2007, 3DB’s Barry Jones recalled that he invited listeners to ring, put on some music and sprinted down the corridor to answer calls. He and his producer Peter Surrey took frantic notes and relayed as many messages as they could on air after the song.

These restrictions were finally lifted for radio (but not television) on 17 April 1967. In the lead-up to this milestone moment, Harry Robinson predicted in The Sydney Morning Herald, 'We can expect some drivel from the public and some useful comment from people like you and me. So long as the stations don’t go overboard – and there’s no sign of that yet – we can expect to hear some of the saltiness of real conversation in among the smooth creaminess of commercials and the rattle of dee-jay patter.'

These advertisements promote the new talkback radio format as an exciting way to discuss any topic:

2UE’s Ormsby Wilkins beat all his competitors to the punch when he took a handful of calls after midnight on 17 April. Starting that day, many stations rearranged their schedules to accommodate a wide range of talkback programming. Other talkback pioneers include Barry Jones and Pat Jarrett (3DB), Mike Walsh (2SM), Buzz Kennedy (2UW), John Laws (2UE) and Norman Banks (3AW).

But not all stations participated immediately. Bob Baeck, 3XY’s general manager at the time, was unimpressed by the quality of the broadcasts and programs and predicted that talkback would not attain the same popularity in Australia as it had in the US. He said at the time that listening to beep-a-phone callers would become 'annoying and frankly frustrating'.

However, talkback flourished, covering topics such as politics, sports, religion and health. 3DB even broadcast a ‘buy, sell and swap’ program hosted by John Anderson called ‘Tradio,’ where listeners could request and offer various items for sale!

To celebrate this anniversary, listen to three clips from the early days of talkback radio in Australia. In the first one, Barry Jones explains how talkback works, and discusses road rules with a caller. The next clip is from Talk It Over with Pat Jarrett, with a caller voicing her concern about 'the barefooted youth of today'. The final excerpt is from Tradio with John Anderson, with a caller offering a nice carpet square for sale: 'very well looked after; no bugs'.

Barry Jones introduces his 3DB show and discusses road rules with a caller on the second day of legal talkback in Australia, 18/4/1967. NFSA Title no. 677259

A caller voices concern about the 'barefooted youth of today' on 3DB's Talk it Over with Pat Jarrett, journalist and broadcaster and guest Hilma Cranley, schoolteacher and unionist. NFSA Title no. 573534

A caller offers a carpet square for sale on 3DB's Tradio, a buy, swap and tell talkback program hosted by John Anderson. NFSA Title no. 573534