The NFSA's Simon Smith shares his unique insights into the innovations, cultural impact and societal shifts seen throughout the Youthquake era.
This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
The Radio 100 Curatorial team spans Generations X, Y and Z – all of which have different relationships with radio. Given the generation you occupy, what does radio mean to you personally?
Growing up in south-east suburban Melbourne, I used to listen to 3XY in the 1970s – who didn’t? – and by the mid-1980s, when my sisters had moved out of home and I had the radio to myself, it was FOX FM! On Saturday nights – Barry Bissell’s Take 40 Australia and on Sunday nights, the American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. Programs would last four hours and armed only with a 90-minute audio cassette, it was hours spent sitting next to a radio-cassette tape deck with my fingers poised to record only the songs I wanted. I’d be so annoyed if the start of a song was missed because I failed to press the record and play button at the same time, or forgot to stop taping at the song’s end and got all the adverts as well! It was all very manual and real-time and now reminds me what I was often doing at 10pm on a Saturday night as a 15 year old! But it was the excitement of music discovery that radio offered back in those days, before the multiple music avenues of today, that remains hard-wired into my memories. I remember listening to hours of radio one night just to tape Angry Anderson singing ‘Suddenly’ – sad but true!
In your opinion, what are some of the most volcanic moments in radio during the Youthquake chapter – such as innovations in tech or changes in culture?
The period encompassing Youthquake crosses so many landmark moments in Australian radio history. The end of radio playing the shellac 78, the beginning of the modern vinyl record era, and the electric guitar sounds that came with it. The birth of the Top 40 in 1958. The end of the radio serial by the mid-1960s. The legalisation of talkback or ‘conversation’ radio in 1967. The cult of the personality DJ as we looked to American radio for our influences, followed by their suppression in the early 1970s when music programming became more targeted and was on high rotation, and the presenter on the mic introducing the song became less crucial.
The denim-logo 'Rocktober' era of the 1970s saw the major commercial AM rock music radio stations across the country enjoy enormous popularity, only to be swiftly overtaken by the superior sound quality of FM radio in the 1980s. To say nothing of the new sounds and voices emanating from the emerging community and public broadcasters that we will cover in Chapter 4. There was a lot that happened and, interestingly, where women’s voices were often heard in the radio serials and quiz shows of the Golden Days period, they were much less obviously heard during this later period. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the commercial radio sound of the Youthquake era became increasingly masculine, reflecting the prevalent trends of the popular music industry of the time.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve done – or greatest length you’ve gone to – to research, acquire, resurface or restore a collection item?
The NFSA’s collection of radio recordings numbers in the tens of thousands but even so, there’s so much we don’t possess. Among the holy grails of Australian radio collecting yet to be uncovered are two Buddy Holly appearances on Melbourne radio in February 1958. We got in touch with Jamie Kelly, a radio historian and possibly the biggest radio disc collector in the country, to enquire if he may have had a copy of either. Sadly he didn’t, but he did have something we were very keen to locate – a specific episode of The Ampol Show. This was a live music program that travelled all over the country, hosted by Australia’s greatest radio star of the pre-TV era, Jack Davey. It ran for 7 years and reached 378 episodes, of which the NFSA holds recordings for approximately 50. But one we definitely did not have was episode 301, featuring the remarkable moment when Davey interviewed young American rockers Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran in Sydney, in October 1957. We were really grateful that Kelly generously allowed us to acquire this recording; it was on this tour that Little Richard decided to give rock’n’roll away to return to the USA to become an evangelist. He mentions this to Davey on the recording. It’s a significant moment which we thought had to be shared as part of Youthquake.
The invention of the transistor radio roughly coincided with the word ‘teenager’ entering common usage – do you think this is a coincidence?
When I think of transistor radios, I always think of teenagers and the growing demographic they represented to the advertising industry desperate to capture their distracted attention. Having a transistor radio was an affordable, light and portable way to hear all your favourite songs, available wherever you wanted to go, as long as the radio reception was decent!
One of my favourite television advertisements in the NFSA collection from the pre-colour TV era is for the AWA Carnaby Group set of transistor radios from 1967. We went back to our original 16mm film components and rescanned this iconic advertisement to ensure we had the best quality copy. Everyone’s got their own transistor radio, breaking out their swinging moves to 'a sound so big it’s frightening, baby!' – it all looks so unnaturally idyllic and incredibly 1960s. The guy in the all-white outfit is actor Patrick Ward, who later had bit parts in many 1970s and '80s Australian TV drama programs, including Number 96, Cop Shop and Arcade.
Has there been a particular area of fascination – or favourite collection item – for you in Youthquake?
I’d always been fascinated with the record ban on commercial radio for half of 1970 where many of the latest 45s – literally overnight – stopped being played around the country due to a dispute between the music industry and commercial radio. In those days if you wanted to hear a new song, especially from overseas, the only way you discovered it was listening to commercial radio. If it wasn’t heard over the airwaves, it basically didn’t exist. Until the Countdown era began in the mid-1970s, any pop music TV shows were supplementary to what was being played on radio. 'Video killed the radio star' as the 1979 song goes!
But in 1970, the promotional film clip as a ubiquitous selling tool was still years away. Radio remained king for hearing new music and DJs still had the individual power to break a record. So you can imagine not having your record being played was like falling off the edge of the world. It was therefore a real find to come across a portion of audio we held of a Stan ‘The Man’ Rofe program on 3UZ in September 1970 where he actually announces that one of the songs in the 3UZ charts can’t be played due to the disc falling under this embargo. No wonder all the big Aussie artists signed to the major labels affected by these restrictions complained so heavily. They were watching their positions as the top local recording acts being challenged by all of Ron Tudor’s Fable label artists – such an interesting time for the Top 40 charts and new Australian music being played on the radio.
Tell us about a moment captured on radio in the Youthquake era that you consider significant in terms of its cultural impact at the time.
As someone who used to be a presenter on a Melbourne community radio program dedicated to just playing the music of The Beatles (how niche is that?), hearing some of the 3UZ commentary on the arrival of the band in 1964 was really exciting. The live radio coverage that survives of the Fab Four's trip into the Melbourne CBD from the airport was extraordinary.
The radio station threw all their resources into moment-by-moment coverage of their arrival. There were presenters reporting from vantage points throughout the journey into town, include one flying above in a Cessna! In 1964, Australia was a long way from Europe; to get the most popular band on the planet arriving at the peak of their world popularity, just before they started to become tired and jaded from all the incessant adulation, was a moment of sublime and fortunate timing. The on-air crew were told by 3UZ not just to report what they saw but really capture all the insanity of Beatlemania with heightened personal enthusiasm. No wonder so many people were totally entranced by their arrival – the radio was capturing it all with high energy, as it happened.