A woman sits on concrete steps holding two portable radios, one on each knee

Interview with a Curator

Interview with Radio 100 Curator Johanna McMahon

The NFSA's Johanna McMahon speaks to radio's evolution in the digital era, how podcasts have changed what Australians listen to, and the challenges of preserving podcasts before they are lost forever.

This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.


What's your relationship to radio – personally and professionally?

Growing up in Sydney, what sticks in my mind are the big-name talk shows that played on commercial radio in the car, at my retail job, and at our local shopping centre. The ‘someone and someone’ programs of noughties drive-time radio: ‘Kyle and Jackie O’, ‘Merrick and Rosso’ and ‘Hamish and Andy’. I absorbed countless hours of chat and comedy and read and watched media revolving around radio broadcasters, from scandalous newspaper headlines to television spin-offs. Radio was a huge part of pop culture in the 2000s.

For me, radio was and always is music. First, as a teen devotee to triple j and later listening to community radio stations like PBS, 3RRR and NTS, all of which shaped what I listened to and often complemented my attendance at live music events and festivals. For a time there, I would go to local gigs as soon as triple j ‘unearthed’ a new band.

I started working at the NFSA in 2021 and have acquired radio and new media material for the national collection, which spans from lacquer discs of 1930s broadcasts by Norman Banks to fluorescent screen-printed community radio posters from the 1980s and contemporary digital podcasts. Recently, I have spent more time researching and writing about podcasts, tracing their history, looking at why they are an important cultural phenomenon, establishing how they are at risk, and looking at what can be done to preserve them.


Tell us about your approach to selecting archival pieces to showcase in the Let’s Get Digital chapter?

We were initially thinking about digital convergence and how, with the advent of the internet and digital technologies, the last three decades have seen a consolidation of media. Your phone is now a single portal to a multitude of media, platforms, ideas and voices. But in many ways, this convergence is coupled with divergence. Radio's definition has become fluid, interacting with new media like podcasts and streaming. I wanted to select material that showed this coming together and pulling apart of audio media in the last few decades.

The shift from a broadcast radius to a location-independent, community-based model is also noteworthy. Freed from geographical locations, borders in the digital era are increasingly defined by personal taste and algorithms. There is an audio clip from Media Magazine which describes how narrowcasting diversified radio in the 1990s through increasing licences for special interest broadcasting. The internet has accelerated this ‘narrowing’ at an astonishing rate. Today, if you only want listen to one type of content, you can stream countless hours of playlists and shows and connect to like-minded people worldwide through online communities.


6PR presenter Peter Dean and guest Adam Blake discuss favourite websites with listeners, 29 June 1997. NFSA title: 327676


Tell us about some of the other key pieces and why they’re significant to this period of audio divergence and convergence?

It's coming up 40 years since the start of the Web. A 1997 6PR clip reflects the early days when the internet was a new phenomenon for the general public. People were calling in their favourite websites for a radio competition, and the winner describes a site where you can gift digital flower bouquets. Not that long ago, the average person's interaction with the web was pretty basic, and it is interesting to see how these have evolved over time. What’s particularly fascinating is how radio has been used to introduce people to new technologies, and how technologies intersect with each other. I found a 1999 newspaper article about a simulcast on TV, radio and the internet, broadcasting live from the Home and Away set.

Online radio really started taking shape in the early 2000s. There's a news report about the launch of internet radio station Talk Australia, where the 'on-air' sign is replaced with a flashing 'on-net' sign. Interestingly, I had to adjust my search terms to the lingo of the early 2000s to find these early instances of radio and internet crossovers: it's been a while since I have had to spell out 'World Wide Web'.

The 1997 opening broadcast from Net FM also highlights internet radio's unregulated nature in the early years. Net FM proudly broadcast rude and offensive content that would not have been allowed on licensed radio. There's a parallel with today's podcasting era: a massive platform for unregulated voices and conversations.


You touched on the tech side of radio and how radio interacts with other technologies. How do you see this shaping the way we consume media?

Much of the technology from this time shows the integration of radio and other media, like headphone cords acting as antennae in MP3 players or car transmitters bridging the gap between iPods and car stereos. Combining radio with other tech is not new; there are, for instance, reports of cars having radios installed which date back to the first decade of radio in the 1920s. But 100 years on, radio’s often fully folded into other technologies. There would be listeners who have never tuned a dial or accessed radio through a standalone transistor.

Another significant change in the early 2000s was the introduction of digital radio. It seems a given today, but digital radios such as the Pure Digital Evoke-1 DAB radio offered features like autotuning, selecting stations by name, and text displays of song names: functions that are more akin to streaming than tuning.

Digital radio also offered new content. Stations like SBS Pop Asia showcase the continued efforts towards diversity and representation. SBS has been a trailblazer in representing a multiplicity of voices, and with digital radio, there was even more room for specific communities. This extends the work started in Chapter 4, providing platforms that serve audiences that may have been previously overlooked.


Regarding diversity, how have new audio forms like podcasts changed what Australians are listening to?

Podcasts can be produced and disseminated at little to no cost, setting them apart from traditional media which is often gate-kept by complex production methods and large media companies. The roots of podcasts can be found in more informal internet media like audio blogging and online radio. Because of the lower barriers to entry, podcasts are uniquely diverse and practically unlimited in subject matter. They have also emerged as a vital platform for underrepresented voices, telling stories and histories that might not be heard in mainstream media.

Podcast creators range from professional journalists and radio presenters to someone with no experience launching a podcast with their phone. The jokes around everyone starting podcasts during the COVID lockdowns were quite telling in how easily someone can do just that. Casefile is now one of Australia’s biggest podcasts, but it began with an anonymous host recording in his spare room. The lo-fi quality of early episodes gives the audio a certain intimacy and suspense. I find sound uniquely engaging in this way – without visuals, some creative legwork must be done in the listener’s mind.

The other way new formats engage us differently is that the listener has more control over how they interact with audio, content and creators. You can curate playlists, binge whole series, and support your creators on Patreon. Even skipping, rewinding and speeding up are all interactions that we take for granted but are relatively new to our sonic experience. The frustration – and thrill – of having to wait by the radio for your favourite song to be played and ensuring you hit record at the right time is a distant memory.


Excerpt fromCasefile True Crime: Episode 1, The Wanda Beach Murders. NFSA title: 1560838


You mentioned one of your research areas around podcasts had to do with the risk of losing material. Could you elaborate on why they are at risk and the challenges in preserving podcasts?

The misconception is that everything on the internet is there forever. Born-digital formats like podcasts are at risk due to several factors. First, the rapid evolution of digital technology poses a threat. For example, I can't access content from my 2019 phone, let alone my 2014 phone. With constant changes in technology, a lot of digital material is lost within a decade. Software updates, too, can make older technology unusable within a few years. Everything digital is also physical, so if your digital files are stored on computers – be it yours or someone else’s – machines wear down and break, and data storage devices are susceptible to bit rot. Content stored on proprietary sites is vulnerable if those platforms go under or change direction with market trends.


It's fascinating and concerning how quickly digital formats can become obsolete. Are there any strategies or initiatives to address this preservation challenge?

A group called Preserve This Podcast undertook a project to help podcasters archive their own work. One part of their research really stuck with me – they took a sample size of 125 podcasts from 2005, captured by hobbyist archivist Jason Scott, and discovered that only 13 of those podcasts remained findable online today. That's a massive loss in less than two decades. Imagine if we could only find 10% of films from 2005. Initiatives like this highlight the urgency of preserving podcasts as they capture our experiences, creativity, stories and history in unique and sonically exciting ways.

Other organisations, such as PodcastRE and the Internet Archive, are also working to preserve podcasts. Then there are university libraries and state institutions across the world that have begun to capture the vast landscape of podcasting. This includes the NFSA: we have highlighted several podcasts preserved in the NFSA collection for this chapter.


Do you think older tech formats ­– like transistor radios, for instance – still hold value?

Absolutely. There's not just nostalgia but a genuine appreciation for older formats. Records, tapes and transistor radios endure because they offer a different way of experiencing media. In the case of transistor radios, tuning in creates a unique atmosphere that differs from modern streaming. In an era of seemingly infinite choice, I personally find relief in listening to the same community radio shows each week and letting the presenter decide what comes next.

The reliability and accessibility of radio become crucial during emergencies. In situations like bushfires, when power is out and communication systems are down, people turn to transistor radios for news and information. Radio provides a sense of reliability and connectedness. Even with advancements in technology, it remains a lifeline in critical moments.


Excerpt from podcast Game Changers Episode 41: Radio. The Story of Hamish and Andy, 2017. NFSA title: 1520958


What's behind Australia's enduring love of audio: radio, podcasts and beyond?

One unique aspect is Australian geography. We live in a vast country with a relatively small population, so long drives and road trips could make radio a companion during these journeys. We also arguably have fewer events than other places worldwide, which could make radio an alternative space for experiencing live events and performances. Coupled with Australia's robust music scene, as reflected in the broadcast of live performances like those on 3RRR ( for which we have the setlists), this adds another layer to the appeal.

Another take: Australians take pride in their friendly and chatty nature, and this personality trait aligns well with the intimacy of radio. Looping back to my memories of radio from this time, the names of the broadcasters stuck. The immediacy of the interaction, as highlighted in the Game Changers podcast interview with Hamish and Andy, creates a connection that feels like a personal conversation, whether it's between hosts, a caller or the audience.

We also punch above our weight in what we produce in Australia when it comes to audio content. One thing that struck me when researching podcasts was the relatively high percentage of Australian-made podcasts in the Australian charts. The last time I looked, eight out of ten of the most listened-to podcasts in Australia were Australian. While other media is imported at a higher rate, the local aspect of the stories, news and voices of podcasting is certainly a drawcard.


Return to Chapter 5


Main image: NFSA curator  Johanna McMahon.