The NFSA's Amy Butterfield shares the challenges and surprising discoveries of curating for Radio 100, including how Australia was a radio ‘vanguard’, dating the oldest radio broadcast in the NFSA collection, and – despite the gap in time – the parallels between the rise of radio and the internet as a means of human connection.
This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
Interview by Kate Scott
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching Radio 100?
How quickly Australia embraced radio, especially compared to television. Though Australia wasn't especially laggard in establishing television (in 1956) – Sweden, Ireland, Greece and South Africa all did so later – we were in the vanguard of radio broadcasting. Radio also expanded beyond Sydney and Melbourne to the rest of the country much faster than television, with broadcasting introduced to all the mainland capital cities by 1925, Hobart following in 1927. It took until 1959 for Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart to receive television, with Hobart in 1960. Why that occurred remains unclear to me; maybe television lacked the kind of persistent and powerful advocate that radio had in Ernest Fisk.
What's the strangest thing you've done – or the greatest length you've gone to – to research, acquire, resurface or restore a collection item?
My biggest challenge in this project was trying to date the oldest radio broadcast in the NFSA collection accurately. Many recordings were assigned a date range, but accuracy matters if you're challenging a record holder! The record stands, with commentary of the 1932 Melbourne Cup still the oldest recorded radio broadcast in Australia. But my efforts weren't totally in vain. One radio broadcast describing Charles Kingsford Smith's landing at Sydney Airport was previously believed to be from 1932 but was, in fact, broadcast on 17 May 1935.
Did you discover any parallels between early radio and early internet?
The parallel between early radio and early internet that I find most endearing is that they epitomise what can be achieved by the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs. Even though commercial broadcasting didn't begin until 1923, dozens of radio buffs ran their own stations for a few years before that, creating content and entertaining listeners for free, like so many podcasters do today.
Another quality that early radio and early internet share is the sense of optimism of its proponents. The belief is that these technologies can bring the world closer together and that exchanging information and ideas will make disparate communities more tolerant of each other. Although that may seem an extraordinary claim on behalf of radio broadcasting, the technology behind wireless transmission enabled faster, more direct communication. International telephone exchanges, for example, weren't possible without it. Proponents of radio and the internet also shared a tendency for utopian thinking, with extravagant claims about the potential of both technologies to solve problems far beyond their capabilities, a fact belied by time.
What was the biggest challenge in curating the New Waves chapter of Radio 100?
The greatest challenge by far was that there are no surviving recordings from the first decade of broadcasting, making it very difficult to re-create the sounds of early radio. There is no recording of an announcer saying, 'Good evening and welcome to radio', as Bruce Gyngell did for television.
You need to think laterally about what source material is available. For example, since many Australians, particularly in regional and remote areas, did not have access to radio, many broadcasts were later recorded onto audio discs for sale. During the 1929 federal election, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, a former prime minister (William Hughes) and Opposition Treasurer (EG Theodore) all recorded speeches at the studios of 2FC in Sydney, presumably after delivering the same piece to air. Why you would purchase such a recording is known only to the customers themselves. Though it’s unlikely that such recordings sounded the same as what was broadcast, it is the best we'll ever get.
Has there been a particular area of fascination – or favourite collection item – for you in New Waves?
I've enjoyed how all the items in the NFSA's collection come together, building such a richly textured picture of the period. And though much has changed since the 1920s, what struck me was all that remained the same, even 100 years later. I'll readily admit, though, in trying to confirm whether Emil Voigt's commentary of the Jones v Lawlor fight was the oldest radio broadcast ever recorded in Australia, I read so much about boxing it was enough to last me a lifetime!