The early years of radio were an exciting but tumultuous time – against the backdrop of The Great Depression and war, Australians were pioneers in this new electronic technology for the home. These excerpts from Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley’s interview for the upcoming podcast ‘Who Listens to the Radio?’ outline nine essential moments to know from New Waves: 1923 to 1935.
This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
By Bridget Griffin-Foley
'Ernest Fisk was an English radio engineer who came to Australia in 1911 and helped operate wireless equipment on ships. By 1916, he was general manager of Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA), which was initially focused on installing wireless on ships, but moved increasingly in the direction of broadcasting. In 1919, Fisk was giving a public lecture in Sydney for the Royal Society of New South Wales, and he and AWA arranged for the national anthem, ‘God Save the King’, to be broadcast across Sydney. The attendees at his lecture witnessed – heard – what really was a very early radio broadcast put on especially for them.'
'Wireless was a very evocative term – this notion that you could transmit messages through the air and build on the basics of Morse telegraphy. There was fascination with the science and the possibilities of wireless… a number of experimenters put together crystal sets – basic technology that didn't need a power source. There were, interestingly, some women who were experimenting as well… There was [also] hope in the early years that radio might help bridge a gap between the city and the country [and] bring ‘city’ joy, such as concerts, entertainment, enlightening experiences to more isolated rural areas.'
'The ‘A’ and ‘B’ class system that began in 1924 was to underpin the basic structure of the radio industry in Australia and was further formalised in 1932. The ‘A’ class stations became part of a national broadcaster called the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and the [‘B’ class stations became the] commercial radio sector. There were all sorts of debates about the cultural value of radio stations and programs in the 1930s and 40s. Some listeners preferred the more educational and enlightening content that they heard on ‘A’ class stations. Some listeners preferred the jazz and livelier talks that they might hear on ‘B’ class stations. There would be debates about the merits of particular radio serials [or] about accents and whether some broadcasters on the commercial stations had, heaven forbid, a slightly American twang.'
'The newspaper industry was somewhat anxious about radio but covered its bases by investing in the new medium. So there were a number of metropolitan and regional newspapers that acquired or invested in radio licences in the 1920s and 1930s. And some of these early stations did allow… content from newspapers to actually be discussed on air. But there wasn't very much journalism on Australian radio in the 1930s.'
'Sporting organisations were concerned that if people could hear a cricket match or a horse race meeting that they were putting on, that takings at the gate would be reduced. [They thought] people wouldn't go to sporting fixtures and pay to enter because they would be able to listen to the sporting contests on air. This led to discussions about broadcast rights and by the 1930s, you start seeing radio stations negotiating with and paying a fee to organisations that were staging sporting events.'
'There's also a great deal of interest in the entertainment possibilities of radio. Some of the first things that were broadcast were musical content from classical through to jazz… community singing. There's… comedy sketches that go to air and dramas that could be in the form of series or serials. Some of the most popular ones were Mr and Mrs Everybody, which was on 2CH and commercial stations, and Blue Hills, which was on the ABC. There were also broadcasts designed specifically for children and in the 1930s, the ABC established The Argonauts Club for Children, which… became the biggest radio broadcast for children in the world, it's believed.'
'As radio develops in the early part of the 20th century, spiritualists thought it might be possible to use seances to communicate with the dead by spelling out coded messages through short tapping noises… quite similar to Morse code. Ernest Fisk himself thought it might be possible to communicate with the dead through radio and this belief wasn't just unique to him. After the First World War and Second World War with the losses of so many young men, there were grieving people such as Fisk, who lost one of his own sons in the Second World War, who thought desperately that it might be possible to communicate with the dead using wireless telegraphy.'
'Radio has been a really resilient medium. It's faced a number of challenges through the years. Television didn't actually kill the radio star. It changed radio, for instance a lot less drama came to be produced on radio – that moved increasingly to television. And talkback radio emerged as something of an antidote, something to differentiate radio from television… So radio really has become a multi-platform medium. It can be listened to in analogue and in digital forms, and it can be streamed to devices such as tablets, mobiles, computers. It's become a very low-cost medium that Australians can listen to.'
'It's really important to archive these broadcasts over the last century, so much of our lives, entertainment, and major news events have been covered or shared by radio and television broadcasts and to lose all of that would be to really lose so much of our national cultural heritage. Historians of radio can… look at sources like correspondence files, minute books of the ABC, of community stations, of SBS. But it's really important that we also listen to some of the broadcasts… hearing the voices, the accents, the intonations, the other soundscapes of music and special effects and so forth and [to] have a sense of what was actually being broadcast to our forebears over the last century.'
These transcripts have been edited and condensed for clarity. The NFSA podcast 'Who Listens to the Radio' will launch in early 2024.
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).
Main image: Two women wearing crystal set headphones. Handwriting on the back reads 'Mrs Roberts & self 'listening in', July 1924'.NFSA title: 1242643