A look at the early days of radio, charting its rise from crystal sets through to first broadcasts and advertisements, the emergence of commercial stations and radio personalities, and how the public’s voracious appetite for daily music, sport, news and conversation hinted at what radio would become.
This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
By Bridget Griffen-Foley
Immediate, intimate, portable and inexpensive, radio has long been a ubiquitous medium across Australia, found in every house and every car, and providing the soundtrack to our lives.
Station 2SB (later 2BL, now ABC702) officially went to air on 23 November 1923, but the development of Australian broadcasting was fraught and haphazard up to that point, and continued to be so for some years. That 1923 date isn’t an anniversary that slips off the tongues of most Australians. Other broadcasting milestones are more celebrated, such as the creation of the ABC in 1932 and the start of Australian television in 1956.
The Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905 granted the fledgling Commonwealth Government control of the developing field of radiocommunications. In 1911, a young English engineer, Ernest Fisk, came to Australia to represent the interests of what became the Marconi Company, founded by the Italian inventor. Fisk persuaded shipowners to fit Marconi equipment and by 1916 was chair of Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA). In 1919, AWA arranged for him to deliver a lecture to the Royal Society of New South Wales, followed by a practical demonstration (‘see – no wires’) of the new technique: a recording of the national anthem ‘God Save the King’ from across the city. Politicians reportedly ‘marvelled exceedingly’ when they gathered to hear a program emanating from the home of AWA’s Melbourne manager in 1920.
It would be some time before the Government developed a sound and commercially acceptable regulatory framework for the new medium. Amateur experimenters, almost missionary in their zeal, both transmitted and received messages, with radio periodicals showing enthusiasts with crystal sets and headphones. Retailing, manufacturing and other business interests gradually vanquished experimenters interested in the two-way possibilities, seeing greater commercial possibilities in providing regular content on a point-to-multipoint basis: broadcasting. In 1922, this new category of radio licence was added to the Wireless Telegraphy Act.
Pressures for the commencement of a regular radio concert service helped lead to an Australian wireless conference in May 1923. From it emerged the strange idea of a ‘sealed set’ system, with listeners buying a receiver sealed to the station to which they wished to subscribe and paying a reasonably costly license fee, as a kind of hybrid between the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Britain and the crowded commercial airwaves of the United States. Broadcasting in Australia officially commenced with music from St Andrew’s Choir in the temporary studio of 2SB (Broadcasters Sydney Ltd) on top of the roof of the Smith’s Weekly building on that Friday night in November 1923. The small number of people who had crystal sets and earphones, or radio sets with large speakers, in their homes gingerly tinkered with knobs and wires or aerials for the best possible reception, marvelled at the mellow tones transmitted and invited neighbours over to share in the novelty.
Champions of Australian broadcasting pointed out that it took four days for newspapers and magazines to reach some towns. Although the Wireless Weekly periodical eagerly anticipated that ‘this land of magnificent distances’ was about to be covered by daily broadcasting, by mid-1924, the sealed system had only attracted entrepreneurs in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Enthusiasts had also found means to convert sets to receive more than one station. A further broadcasting conference agreed on the need for ‘open sets’ and a bifurcated system, with ‘A-class’ stations maintained by revenue from listener licence fees, and ‘B-class’ stations operating privately. Although there were many details still to be resolved, this scheme laid the foundations for the dual system of Australian radio (and then television) broadcasting that continued until the introduction of a third – community – sector in the 1970s.
The first surviving B-class station was 2UE, which went to air on 26 January 1925. Cecil V Stevenson was paid a shilling for a short talk by the butcher next to his house in Sydney’s Maroubra, almost certainly the first advertisement on Australian radio. Another early B-class station was 5DN, with broadcasts from the Adelaide home of the business owner EJ Hume (pictured right).
Music dominated Australian radio programming, and talks and actuality broadcasts were also heard. Live descriptions of sporting events, including horseracing, cricket and boxing, were popular and cheap to produce. The Theosophical Society launched 2GB, with a more powerful transmitter than most commercial stations, in Sydney in 1926. Spiritualists readily appreciated the possibilities of wireless, with Fisk amongst those who imagined that ‘radio science may solve the problem of communication with the dead’.
A principal challenge was how to make the fledgling Australian system genuinely national. If broadcasting held the promise of uniting the mother country and the far-flung dominions into the imperial family, as Fisk and other wireless proponents hoped, it could also connect metropolitan and outback citizens into the national family. With B-class stations still a residual category, new licences were put on hold while a Royal Commission into Wireless was held in 1927. The following year, the government announced its intention to nationalise the A-class stations; in 1932, these 12 stations formed the basis of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). Closely modelled on the BBC, it was a thoroughly imperial artefact, designed as an independent corporation, governed by a board of commissioners and financed solely by licence fees.
B-class (or ‘commercial’, as they preferred to be known) stations were allowed to continue, with ownership of many of them passing into the hands of newspaper, religious and political interests. The Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) also awarded some new licences. Commercial stations relied heavily on importing American transcription discs containing music, dramas and even advertisements.
Many Australian stations had ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunts’ – homely, comforting and wise personalities who appealed to child and adult listeners. These personalities frequently headed the clubs that began emerging attached to stations (especially commercial ones). The clubs often had upbeat names, such as the 2GB Happiness Club and the 3DB Smile Away Club, designed to help cast aside the gloom of the Great Depression. Radio clubs and stations sponsored community events, made birthday calls to children, and hosted community singing concerts and excursions.
By 1935, Australia had more than 60 commercial stations plus the ABC, forcing the government to adjust their wavelengths to avoid interference. In November 1937, the PMG issued Australia’s one-millionth licence, meaning that two of every three homes now had a radio set. Tellingly, only 38 per cent of the licences were in country areas. What one radio periodical referred to as the ‘“worldwide” wireless system’ was now a fixture of Australian life, well before the World Wide Web.
Bridget Griffen-Foley is a Professor in the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University, and the author of Changing Stations: The Story of Australian Commercial Radio (UNSW Press, 2009).
Counihan, Mick 1982 ‘The formation of a broadcasting audience: Australian radio in the twenties’, Meanjin, no. 41.
Goot, Murray 1981 ‘Sir Ernest Thomas Fisk (1886–1965)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
Griffen-Foley, Bridget 2014 ‘Radio’ in Stuart Cunningham and Sue Turnbull (eds), The media and communications in Australia, 4th edition, Routledge, London.
Griffen-Foley, Bridget 2009 Changing stations: the story of Australian commercial radio, UNSW Press, Sydney.
Griffen-Foley, Bridget 2004 ‘The birth of a hybrid: the shaping of the Australian radio industry’, Radio Journal, vol. 2, no. 3.
Inglis, KS 1983 This is the ABC: the Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1932–1983, MUP, Melbourne.
Johnson, Lesley 1988 The unseen voice: a cultural study of early Australian radio, Routledge, London.
National Film and Sound Archive, Early radio broadcasting, National Film and Sound Archive, retrieved 2 November 2023.
Walker, RR 1973 The magic spark: 50 years of radio in Australia, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne.
Main image: Inside 5DN Studio Paringa, 1927. L-R: K Crossman, announcer and station technician, seated at table; N Wicker, relieving announcer and land line mechanic, standing; EJ Risely, announcer and station technician, seated at pianola. From 5DN records and papers, 1905–1988. NFSA title: 585118