Before the internet, community radio was a place where people could connect and feel less alone, no matter where in Australia they lived. Pioneering broadcasters and the rise of FM radio contributed to LGBTQIA+, First Nations, women, non-English speaking, and young listeners hearing themselves for the first time.
This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
By Caris Bizzaca
By the 1970s, radio had cemented its place in our lives, but for many, the voices they heard weren’t reflective of their own experience. Imagine then the power in switching on your radio and, for the first time, your own stories and music were beamed back to you. These people spoke the same language and knew the same in-jokes – they offered a point of connection in a sometimes isolating world.
Writer and broadcaster Benjamin Law saw this impact while volunteering on Brisbane’s 4ZZZ FM programme Queer Radio when he was 17 years old.
‘The host, John Frame, would tell me about listeners who would drive for ages just so they could get reception to queer radio, to actually hear through the airwaves other queer people sharing their stories, us playing queer music’, he says. ‘That felt like a huge responsibility and honour.’
Unlike mainstream commercial and public broadcasting, community radio can cater to a specific audience or community. In the 1970s, there were underserved audiences that were more than ready to be heard.
In 1972, only six languages were being broadcast, in stark comparison to the millions of migrants and refugees who had arrived in Australia since the Second World War. In post-war 1952, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board had been concerned about politically subversive material being broadcast and put limitations on non-English programming. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Australian Government abolished language restrictions in broadcasting and started a 12-week experiment for what they then called ‘ethnic’ radio stations to get the word out about the new health system Medibank (now called Medicare). Gough Whitlam's government launched two radio stations – 3EA and 2EA.
‘The Greek program was the first to go to air, and despite technical problems, it was a great success’, says the narrator of the corporate documentary 25 Years of SBS Radio (2000).
‘With seven languages in Sydney and eight in Melbourne, the facilities were basic [and] the broadcasters mostly amateur. Music was a major part of the programming, with records purchased by staff at their own expense.’
This ‘experiment’ paved the way for SBS Audio to be established, which today broadcasts in a whopping 60+ languages. Meanwhile, 12,000 records from 2EA and 3EA (later SBS) libraries are now in the NFSA collection.
SBS Korean Executive Producer Yang Joong Joo has worked at SBS Audio for three decades and says during that time, ‘I’ve seen that radio is a beacon, hope and lifelong friend for the vulnerable.’
Along with the push from passionate broadcasters in the ‘70s, many of them volunteers, the introduction of FM licences had a significant effect on the growth of community radio. Underrepresented groups had been advocating to be heard since the 1960s. Still, it was more than AM could facilitate.
NFSA curator Crispian Winsor says FM had been tried a few times in Australia since 1947, but in 1974, it started using the VHF (or Very High Frequency) band, and things began to take off from there.
‘FM has greater sound quality than AM as there is less interference from outside sources such as static and electromagnetic forces, as well as being more cost effective’, Winsor says. ‘The superior sound quality of FM [also] helped community radio stations, especially those that focused on music.’
FM might now be synonymous with commercial radio, but when the first commercial FM station aired in 1980 (EON FM in Melbourne, now known as Triple M), FM was dominated by community radio stations.
‘Australia’s first station on FM was 2MBS, a community radio station focusing on classical music based in Sydney’, Winsor says. ‘It went to air on 15 December 1974.’
Multicultural communities were also among the first to apply for licences, with Brisbane’s 4EB becoming Australia's first full-time ‘ethnic’ community radio station in 1979, followed a year later by Adelaide’s 5EBI.
‘The timing of FM broadcasting being reintroduced in 1974 and the first community education licences being granted in 1976 was certainly fortuitous for community radio’, Winsor says.
NFSA curator Johanna McMahon says FM meant ‘a small town might go from having one radio station on the dial to at least an FM and AM and then even more beyond that’.
This community-focused programming is important. Screen Australia's Head of First Nations, Angela Bates, felt it while living in Broken Hill and Alice Springs.
‘I love listening to the radio when I'm in those towns, especially community radio, because everybody knows everybody, and you often hear about stories that are really localised.’
Bates, a proud Malyangapa, Wanyawalku and Barkandji woman from Far West NSW, began her career as a trainee at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). While essential programs such as Radio Redfern on 2SER were already on the airwaves when CAAMA started in 1982, it was the first fully-run First Nations radio station. Now, around 180 First Nations radio stations exist.
‘It's really important to have a voice and a platform for Aboriginal people to be able to talk about issues that relate to us from our perspective’, Bates says. ‘Also, it was a great way to get communications out to communities and for Aboriginal communities to broadcast in their languages.’
The hyper-localised aspect of radio also saves lives. Unlike phone signals and the internet, AM radio doesn’t collapse when too many people tune in – so during natural disasters, public service radio provides a lifeline of information and updates. The 2022 Media Content Consumption Survey Summary Report showed that even now, the FM/AM radio feature most rated as ‘very important’ was emergency warnings (51%). When looking at the net result of ‘somewhat important’ and ‘very important’, the highest rating features were music stations (81%) and local news reports (80%).
For LGBTQIA+ listeners in the 1970s and ‘80s, radio was vital as a point of connection and source of information – whether talking about police raids, AIDS vigils or Doris Day. Gaywaves went to air in 1979 as Sydney’s first gay and lesbian radio program during a time when homosexual acts between men were illegal in NSW and mainstream media rarely reported on LGBTQIA+ issues positively.
Attitudes have changed since the ‘70s, but radio remains a tonic to the isolated – those who can't experience celebrations in person can still feel like they're there through programs like JOY 94.9’s coverage of the 2018 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade .
The rise of community radio in Australia also explains why there have been very few illegal, unlicensed stations – called pirate radio – especially in comparison to the UK, which only legitimised community radio in 2004.
Another positive byproduct of new radio programs and stations was how they elevated the careers of voices that previously were never heard on air – with broadcasters who were First Nations, LGBTQIA+, linguistically diverse, women or young.
Lorna Clarkson is Head of Parenting and Kids Entertainment at LiSTNR and worked at youth station FBi when it launched in 2003. Unlike triple j, which is part of the ABC’s national radio network, FBi is an independent, not-for-profit community radio station with a focus on Sydney. One of its early promises was to play at least 50% Australian music content and half of that from Sydney musicians. Clarkson said many of the early broadcasters, such as Marc Fennell, Dan Ilic and Linda Marigliano, were in their teens or early 20s themselves and making the kind of radio they wanted to hear.
‘FBi nailed it... They had these raw diamonds that were given a platform to go crazy. Most of them have just gone on to do excellent stuff in podcasting, on broadcast radio, and are famous around the world’, she says.
Community radio also paved the way for what was to come. It took off in Australia thanks to FM, but the internet, digital radio and podcasting provided technology to reach out to more and more targeted, niche audiences. Listeners are now spoilt for choice on any specific topic.
That said, community radio is not going anywhere. There are currently more than 450 community station licences operating in Australia, which easily outpaces the 300 or so commercial radio station licences.
For journalist and broadcaster Sosefina Fuamoli, the power of community radio continues to endure.
‘Radio has long been a connective tissue for many communities around the world for decades; as an outlet for essential information, discovery, escapism and pure entertainment’, Fuamoli said for Radio 100. ‘Fast forwarding to more recent history, I think the impact of radio in the way it has held space for unique and independent voices, as it has been an outlet for togetherness, cannot be overstated.’
Caris Bizzaca is a journalist, writer and emerging screenwriter working on unceded Gadigal Land in Sydney. She is completing a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at UTS. Connect @carisbizzaca
Main image: Announcers in the 3ZZ Access Radio studios, 1975. NFSA title: 634483