The radio becomes portable, and a kind of mania – Beatlemania – grips the nation as the popularity and powers of DJs and presenters grow, and audiences find a connection in the once-illegal talkback radio.
This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
By Caris Bizzaca
In June 1964, The Beatles descend on Australia – an event that would irrevocably alter the Australian media landscape and reverberate through the heart of youth culture.
'I like to refer to it as BB and AB: Before Beatles and After Beatles', says Radio 100 Curator Simon Smith of the epochal shift. 'It was just such an enormously exciting time to be young.'
The Beatles' first and only concert tour of Australia, spanning just two weeks, began in Adelaide.
'They weren't even meant to be playing in Adelaide, but this is the power of radio', Smith says. 'The three main commercial radio stations in Adelaide, usually fierce competitors, banded together. They all helped in getting a petition with 80,000 signatures which was sent off to Beatles management, compelling them to add another show.'
The result? A staggering 300,000 South Australians turned out to greet the band, the single largest gathering the Beatles ever received – anywhere.
In the midst of this musical revolution, television seized the spotlight in family living rooms, prompting radio to adapt. Enter the transistor, a portable marvel born in 1947 that bestowed freedom upon a burgeoning generation.
Simon Smith describes the transistor radio as a ‘personalised individual listening experience’ – a pocket-sized rebellion against the conformity of gathering around a single device.
Small and affordable, it was the blueprint for portable music devices that followed: Walkmans, Discmans, boomboxes, iPods and more. It offered freedom – to take music with you, and similar to modern streaming, to listen to what you wanted and when, instead of gathering around one device and arguing about which station to listen to.
‘The transistor radio meant that radio [became] a personalised individual listening experience’, Smith says. ‘You could take it into your bedroom, the bathroom, you could take it to parties, you could take it to the beach.’
It was the perfect accessory for the Baby Boomer generation, who by the 1960s were becoming ‘teenagers’ – a term coined by US advertising executives that became common within two years of the transistor’s invention. Locally, manufacturers like AWA were also making transistor radios and marketing them to teenagers.
This period also marked the rise of the disc jockey. Before then, a disc operator and radio presenter were separate roles, but DJs in the 60s spun discs themselves – and could make or break a career. By the mid-1970s, there was even a category in the TV Week Australian Popular Music Awards for Most Popular DJ.
'The DJ had enormous power’, Smith says. ‘They invented catchphrases; they had their own fan clubs. Someone like Stan ‘the Man’ Rofe was the biggest name in teenage radio in the 1960s in Melbourne [and] Australian music artists [including] The Masters Apprentices, The Twilights, Zoot and Russell Morris all attribute Stan Rofe to a lot of their success. Ward ‘Pally’ Austin on 2UW held similar influence in Sydney.’
While now it's simple to call up your local radio station to win a prize or tell a story, this wasn't always the case. Broadcasting telephone conversations was illegal under the 1905 Wireless Telegraphy Act until 1967, when the ban was rescinded, and talkback was born. There were some teething issues – in an early recording, announcer Barry Jones still needs to explain why callers can’t hear themselves on air and that calls are screened beforehand. But Smith says talkback gave radio an edge.
‘The storytelling ability of radio, whether through the presenters or talkback callers, gives the medium that feeling of intimacy and immediacy that television never could’, he says. ‘For many, radio is company and friendship. The best presenters can remain on-air for decades and in their longevity and familiarity, become a welcome and constant part of people's lives.’
When Wendy Harmer joined 2Day FM in 1992 to co-host the highly rated breakfast radio show The Morning Crew, two major moments in radio’s history had occurred: talkback had become a mainstay, and after some tension, FM radio, with its crisper audio and music focus, had risen in popularity throughout the 1980s.
Harmer says she was approached by then radio executive Brad March, who had realised the lack of women on the FM airwaves. Her approach was unique at the time.
‘I just brought everything that I'd been doing in stand-up to the radio’, Harmer says. ‘It became very personal because I just blabbed about everything that happened in my entire life… The poor listeners of 2Day FM heard me going on dates, then getting married and having my two kids. It was sort of like my personal soap opera.’
Harmer would co-host on 2Day FM for 11 years – and, in doing so, help change the landscape of commercial radio.
‘Brad and I together turned 2Day FM into a female-skewed radio program’, she says. ‘And I don't think you would listen to a commercial radio program now without people bringing their personal stories to the air, mostly with a female co-host equal to the blokes.’
The rise of FM radio in the 1980s was also important for that generation of once transistor-carrying teens. Several easy-listening or nostalgia-based stations sprung up that played hit songs from the 1960s and '70s, such as GoldFM in Melbourne or nationwide station Smooth FM. And for a generation of listeners from the late '90s, there was a combination of nostalgia and connection in the form of Richard Mercer's segment ‘Love Song Dedications’.
It's clear, looking back, that radio and teenagers have a symbiotic relationship. Radio played a crucial part in creating the ‘teenager’, while those teenagers propelled new music and audio culture – even when they became the adults in charge. Even as technology evolves and changes, the link between music, radio and teen culture endures.
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: Disc jockey Ward 'Pally' Austin pictured at 2GB studios surrounded by musicians and artists including The Atlantics, The Bee Gees and Little Pattie, c1964. NFSA title: 744784