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Too Soon for Tomorrow: The Story of Big Fat Radio

Too Soon for Tomorrow: The Story of BigFatRadio

BY
 Kate Scott

Before Spotify and Apple Music, BigFatRadio pioneered the integration of music and the internet, echoing the audacity of early radio innovators. The Australian start-up launched in April 2000 with bold plans and bright young broadcasters, snatching headlines like 'BigFatRadio killed the radio star'. But they were a beat too early for the future. 'Being ahead of your time can be both advantageous and disadvantageous,' says co-founder Chris Gilbey.'In our case, it was the latter.'

This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
 

Australia met the new millennium in a mood of giddy optimism, fuelled by Olympic fever, the dot-com boom and a feeling the future had finally arrived. In this atmosphere, Chris Gilbey and a group of music and entrepreneurial cohorts hatched an idea: what if radio and the internet met? BigFatRadio started webcasting in April 2000, with some of triple j’s brightest graduates beta-testing new ideas and new tech in real time. The problem? Overshooting an Information Superhighway that was still very much under construction. This is a little-known chapter in radio history, but its lessons are ripped straight from innovation’s grander narrative. BigFatRadio burned fast and bright, too early to fulfil its promise but uncannily predictive of what would come next. 

 

THE FUTURIST  

Chris Gilbey is a towering figure in Australian music. He did A&R for an early-career AC/DC, managed Australian punk band The Saints at their most epochal, and signed The Church, going on to produce their first hit single, 'The Unguarded Moment' and their debut album, Of Skins and Heart. Gilbey’s most significant contribution, however, might be as a futurist. A year before the iPod's release, he wrote a book on the 'infinite digital jukebox'. His later work in digital signal processing, video metrics and semantic research underscores his broader contributions to shaping the intersecting futures of technology and media. All of this, naturally, plays into BigFatRadio. 

Chris Gilbey: When I came to Australia in 1972, I was making my way into the music business and radio was integral to how music was communicated to people. I was a musician, songwriter, producer or wannabe all-of-the-above, and I got to know a lot of people in radio here because I had to promote records; I produced records. 

I remember one of the earliest times I went to Melbourne to promote records and met with a DJ who was one of the most important people in radio in Australia: Stan Rofe. Stan the Man, they called him. We go and have a beer, and literally, the first thing he said to me is, ‘Okay, Chris, you've got to understand something about music and Australia and radio. We invented rock'n'roll – Johnny O'Keefe was the father of rock'n’roll; Elvis wasn't. If you agree with me on that, we can have a conversation.’ 

Looking back now from a distance, I think, ‘Jesus, he was right’. There are elements of what happened in music in Australia that really did shake the world, and there were several eras of that. We make music extraordinarily well. Why? I don't know. But that's what makes radio an important medium here. 

So I'd been successful, but by the mid-1990s, I had just reached a point where I had gone, ‘I don't want to be in this game anymore’. I could only understand how to move forward outside the music business rather than inside.  

 

THE IDEA  

Gilbey turned his attention to technology. In 1997–98, he brought together a team of friends and industry veterans, such as Barry Chapman (a former general manager of the triple j and Triple M  networks) and beloved presenter Ian Rogerson, to undertake an ambitious venture: online radio. The vision was to create an interactive and immersive user experience by seamlessly combining music with relevant web content. 

Chris Gilbey: We probably were drinking, smoking joints, doing whatever we did back in those days, and saying, ‘What are we going to do? Where does this go?’ Ian Rogerson and I really had this idea for an online radio station. 

The idea that the two of us had was, wouldn't it be great to get all of that wonderful triple j talent, which to us was the epicentre of radio voice talent in this country. Wouldn't it be great to put all those people on air together? We'll do it online because this is the new medium.  

 

THE PROPOSITION   

Barry Chapman and his then-partner Janice played crucial roles in developing the concept. Their idea was to present web pages as a dynamic stream, delivered proactively to people's computers instead of waiting for user action. For instance, when a David Bowie track played, the platform intuitively directed the user to the corresponding  Bowie site for song information and lyrics. The goal was to establish a symbiotic connection between the audio and visual,  – precisely the frictionless full-universe experience we expect and demand today.  

Chris Gilbey: When I look back on it, it was pretty bloody... What can I say? It was very basic; it's like thinking about a Model T Ford in the world of Tesla, right? Not necessarily how you'd invent the future, but that's what we were doing, so we had that notion. 

 

THE MILLION-DOLLAR CHEQUE   

Gilbey's vision materialised through a demo created by a group of engineers with whom he had previously worked. This demo became the linchpin for securing a million-dollar investment from Andrew Kelly, founder of Strathfield Car Radio. 

Chris Gilbey: I had this demo running on my laptop that essentially told the story of how it would work. Andrew Kelly looked at it, and he said, ‘Fabulous’. He showed it to a couple of his partners, very interesting people in the Sydney finance sector, and they said, ‘This is great. How much do you need?’ ‘Oh, a million’. 

The next day, we had a meeting, and they gave me a cheque for one million dollars. This was incredible because we had no structure for the business and no share certificates. It was all just a handshake and trust, ‘Send me the paper later. Everything's cool.’ 

The guy who was the financial brains in that group said something memorable. ‘Chris, I'm going to give you here a cheque for one million dollars. Those million dollars come from a real bank account, and they want to go and make friends with other dollars and bring them home to Daddy.’ 

 

THE TALENT  

The financial injection allowed the team to assemble a formidable line-up of talent, with Ian Rogerson joined by fellow ex-triple j announcers Helen Razer, Michael Tunn, Angela Catterns, Andy Glitre and Debbie Spillane. 

Catterns started the day with her live show, Morning Sesh, at 10 am, focusing on news and current affairs. Glitre followed at 12:30 pm, with former triple j drive duo Spillane and Rogerson taking over at 3 pm and Tunn rounding up the line-up after dusk. Razer presented Miss Helen's Engagements from 7 pm until 10 pm and provided humorous website tours. The day's programming then repeated.  

The Gen X icons were critical elements in the site's efforts to develop personality-based, genre-specific channels, promising to cover fashion, film, events and extreme sports; 'Guru to Stone Roses to Miles Davis’ ('Razer keeps her edge' by Lynnette Haas, Courier Mail, 6 July 2000). 

The Australian newspaper visited BigFat headquarters in June, where Catterns was preparing for a dry run of a streamcast. 'The microphone and mouse are adjusted, and the leads dangling from the desk are placed into their rightful sockets on the floor. Only then does Catterns' well-modulated and honey-rich voice ring out to welcome her audience as she puts on a track by a funky new group, Supreme Beings of Leisure. "Hello, beta testers everywhere", she says.'  

Helen Razer, July 2000: There are people who are caught between a triple j and a Radio National demographic. They do actually want some hard news and the occasional polysyllable and a little bit of cultural commentary, but they also want to feel a little bit punk rock every five minutes or so. I'm certainly one of those people. I'm 31, shortly to turn 32, and I don't like to feel that I've completely given up my cool credentials. 

Chris Gilbey: One of the people I loved from the radio days was Helen Razer. She was very vocal and opinionated, which is one of the things that made her great as a broadcaster.

 

THE PLATFORM  

BigFatRadio designed the project to have a similar structure to traditional radio broadcasts. The team, comprised of producers who also acted as researchers, created playlists by gathering web pages related to the music being played. Unlike regular radio transmissions, these playlists were sent out through various wired or wireless channels. All just in time for the Olympics. 

Ian Rogerson, June 2000: These will be the big fat games, the way you'll want to remember them: very Australian, very outspoken, with a bunch of characters taking you through the whole thing. 

Helen Razer: It engenders a profound sense of access to information in the user. For a group of info-obsessives to be able to say, ‘Golly gee, but I found out something that is just so peachy keen and fascinating’, and then take the user directly to the source material is too much fun. 

The Australian, 22 June 2000: Program producer Ellen Geraghty describes her new role as part radio producer, part vision switcher as she changes the web page to link with the topic being spoken about or the music track being played. Each page usually stays up for no more than a minute. Like the music, the web pages chosen for display are eclectic.  

 

THE BIG-TECH OPTIMISM  

In 1989, Pegasus started providing commercial dial-up internet in Australia's major cities; the same year the World Wide Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee. From 1990, the AARNet national backbone linked universities nationwide to a central hub at the University of Melbourne. Yahoo introduced its Australian branch three years after its initial launch in 1994, offering novel services such as email and a search engine. Telstra's initial rollout of ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line; a missed opportunity for an album title) began in 1999. Though the maximum speed was 1.5 megabits per second, Telecom Research Labs had already demonstrated speeds of up to 6. Australia was being transformed by the internet at a velocity comparable to that of radio in its first decades.  

But all this promise kept snagging on reality. Home internet users were grappling with slow dial-up modems. Broadband was coming, we were assured – but the infrastructure wasn't yet in place.  

Internet analyst Paul Budde noted that internet radio was still very much in its infancy here, and bandwidth was the most significant cost, with stations spending considerable amounts to transmit data through telecommunications networks. Enduring players, he said, would be those with deep pockets.   

Throughout August and September 2000, message boards were alight with three topics: the Olympics, internet speeds, and what the web meant for music. 

Whirlpool commenter: 256Kbits/sec isn't broadband, it’s an insult. Broadband is meant to be [*blistering fast*], with rates of 300Kbytes/sec – 1Mb/sec. 

Whirlpool commenter: Who the hell wants to pay for music they can only listen to on their computer? 

Chris Gilbey: Of course, at that time, most people with computers had dial-up modems, and there was virtually no broadband. Back then, we were optimistic and thought, ‘Oh, it's just around the corner’. I knew people at Telstra who were engineers and business development people who kept saying to me, ‘It's coming, Chris; it's going to be great’. We started putting together this idea in anticipation of being able to stream music.  

Paul Budde, June 2000: I suspect the market really won't open up in a big way until 2003 when the new 3G spectrum licences allow more use of the internet applications through things like the mobile phone. 

 

THE AUDIENCE  

Undeterred, the team pressed forward and launched in April 2000. In its first month, BigFatRadio claimed an audience of 35,000 internet users who stayed an average of 15 minutes. During the Olympic Games, the station ran live coverage syndicated on Ninemsn and Yahoo. Today, Gilbey says the audience that embraced BigFatRadio consisted primarily of tech enthusiasts, with a surprising 30% of users from the United States. One American contributor told Gilbey the platform inadvertently played a role in shaping early blogging. 

Chris Gilbey: The people who were adopting were really technology people. Geeks, basically; geeks of every professional persuasion. I suppose it inspired people in America to do things that weren't being done at that time in terms of one-to-many communications. 

 

THE INDUSTRY REACTION 

The press reacted with optimistic superlatives, with headlines declaring: ‘BigFatRadio killed the radio star’ and anointing the venture ‘A Big Fat Step into the Future’. Academic Michele Hilmes, writing in the Boston Globe, said, 'You don't need a licence to run a Web radio service; anyone with the desire and the technical know-how can simply set up and operate’. She extolled BigFatRadio, along with Freies Radio Wien in Vienna, Kiwi Radio from New Zealand, Kimoji Net from Taipei, Radio Morcna from Brazil and Radio Free Kansas, as 'global-local radio: not generic formulas spread thinly like margarine over lucrative demographics, but local culture reaching out in all its depth and difference to a global audience.'  

The music industry's reception was more tepid; their resistance perhaps heightened by growing anxieties around file-sharing platforms such as Napster. BigFatRadio's negotiations with record and publishing companies for licences added financial strain. However, BigFatRadio’s foresight in streaming and the subsequent success of platforms like Spotify ultimately underscored the merit of their approach. 

Chris Gilbey: The response from the music business was what I expected. They were paranoid; they were like hedgehogs – put their heads into the ground and put up their quills to try and protect themselves from the future. The record business consistently tries to protect itself from the future, fails, and then responds as I've described. Many people in the music business are very good but get highly defensive. Of course, that's natural; they want to protect their copyrights and assets. The telcos were very keen to see us succeed because they essentially wanted a pool for broadband. But at the same time, they didn't provide us with any of the infrastructure to enable that to happen. Or, we were ahead of their rollout. 

 

ThE DOT-COM TO DOT-BOMB  FALLOUT

Amidst the dot-com fallout in 2000, BigFatRadio also grappled with challenges in securing additional funding. The absence of a clear business model, coupled with advertising struggles, left them unable to weather the storm. Four-and-a-half months after launching, they unceremoniously shuttered to inevitable headlines like 'Dot-com to dot-coma' and 'Tuning In and Out'. But BigFatRadio was hardly the only bubble bursting. Several prominent local dot-com businesses faced demise in 2000 due to high cash-burn rates and the inability to secure new equity. Internet investment group LibertyOne, the first internet stock listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, crashed in December. Internet service provider eisa, valued at $206 million in February, entered voluntary administration in September. Ventures like KGrind and Talk Australia, targeting new media and youth markets, struggled to secure funding and collapsed.  

Chris Gilbey: Internet crashes were coming left, right and centre, and we were one of those. Capital had dried up, and when you get a credit crunch, raising money for ideas becomes much harder. You can raise money where there's a revenue stream, but when you've got a raw idea, it becomes difficult. By the beginning of 2000, nobody could raise any money for anything.  

Helen Razer, October 2000: Oh, the digital debris. Please excuse substandard linkage and diffident prose. I am preoccupied with unemployment. 

 

 

THE LEGACY OF BIG FAT RADIO’S UNREALISED PROMISE 

Despite its premature demise, BigFatRadio laid the groundwork for interactive multimedia streaming experiences. Gilbey, ever prescient, told PC World in 2001, ‘I believe that online entertainment, music and media are absolutely going to be the future, but the question is timing’.’ 

Chris Gilbey: We were naive; almost every entrepreneur is naive. It's easy to look at these things in retrospect and say what could have, should have, would have, but what we should have done on the back of that first million dollars was immediately go out and raise another million, or two or five. If we had started BigFatRadio in California, it would have been Netflix. 

As you do, we sowed many seeds of our failure when we started. We were people of that era, and things have changed, not necessarily for the better in some respects. Still, the great thing we did was communicate living pages from the web together with music. It's still super cool. I still want to see those tangential threads that take me off into areas of creativity; movie producers, TV producers, and songwriters I haven't been aware of. Of course, now we've moved into these large language-model AI engines, which are becoming really fascinating. 

In its own little way, BigFatRadio was a piece of the DNA of some of these things. It would've been lovely to see how it could have related to other things if it had lived longer. 

 

THE persisting power of AUDIO  

Australia’s sound pioneers have carved out a legacy often hidden in plain sight. Considering the future of radio and audio culture in Australia, Gilbey highlights our remarkable contributions to date.  

Chris Gilbey: It’s not just radio; it's audio and the audio technology that has evolved in this country.  

Peter Freedman founded RØDE Microphones and built a vast global business from nothing. I don't think many people know it's an Australian success story. 

Bruce Jackson, one of the greatest audio geniuses in the world, built a company called JANDS with one of his friends, which became Australia's largest PA system business. He went to America and became a mixer for Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand. Then, he created a joint venture with Clair Brothers, who were the largest PA company in America, to develop what was going to be the next generation of audio processors for live sound. He acquired the company I ran, Lake Technology, which was started by a couple of guys, one of whom was David McGraw, an engineer and an audio engineer who started his PhD in chip design at the University of South Australia. He and Bruce did some amazing things  and created part of what Dolby is – a global standard for audio in entertainment, movies, and in many aspects of sound.  

Bruce has given us a huge amount of what live sound is now; Peter Friedman did the same for microphones. These guys have just done some amazing things and came out of Australia. Now, other people worldwide have done equally amazing things. Still, if you think about this country as a crucible for invention in sound, it's well and truly punched above its weight for decades and decades. But we don't know about it. 

 

THE CONCLUSION: WHAT'S NEW IS OLD AGAIN 

Since the grand BigFatRadio experiment, the allure of sound and appeal of distinct voices has only increased. Angela Catterns has been a constant on Australian radio since her BigFatRadio days, from hosting the National Evening Show on ABC Local Radio to topping the ratings on 702 ABC Sydney's Breakfast, along with forays into commercial radio here and overseas. And then there are the podcasts: Is it Just Me? and In the Loop, co-created with Wendy Harmer, and a reunion with Ian Rogerson for Suddenly Senior. Rogerson, meanwhile, resurrected the hugely popular Jono and Dano Show in 2009, broadcasting to 700,000 Australians on 28 radio stations. Since then, he has hosted many shows on 702 ABC Sydney and 2UE. Helen Razer's commentary found new avenues on platforms like SBS, Crikey and the Saturday Paper. In several books, Razer has expanded on and consolidated the sharp, honest and challenging perspective she originally honed on radio. 

So, what is it about audio?  

Chris Gilbey: I'm constantly fascinated by sound. In my view, sound remains a far more important and immersive aspect of our environment than vision. The reason is you can feel it. When you get in the car, you've got your GPS system; it talks to you and tells you when to turn left and right, but you keep your eyes on the road and are going forward. You can't watch a video while there, but you can listen to the sound. It is a medium that enables you to move out of your own mind and into a bigger space without distracting you. That's really out there; the theatre of the mind is enabled by your ears. The future – God only knows what the future is, I can't tell – but I'm pretty sure that sound will be a huge part of it.  

 

REFERENCES  

'BigFatRadio cops the axeB & T, 16 October 2000

'BigFatRadio: tune in to the future of radioBillboard Spotlight: Australia, 21 October 2000, p. 56

Bustos, Luisa 'BigFatRadio axed from airwaves' PC World, 12 February 2001, pp. 372

Dent, Jackie 'Just like the old days' The Guide, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 2000

Gibbons, Patrice 'Dot-com to dot-coma' BRW, 19 January 2001, p. 19, INFORMER

Given, Jock Turning off the television: broadcasting's uncertain future, University of New South Wales Press, 2003 

Haas, Lynnette 'Razer keeps her edge' Courier Mail, 6 July 2000, p. 19 

Hilmes, Michele 'Radio’s new wave: an old medium is reinvented' The Boston Globe, 22 May 2005, p. 74 

Howarth, Brad 'Spike Radio talks up a comebackAustralian Financial Review, 23 February 2001 

Joyce, James 'A big fat step into the future' Newcastle Herald, 30 June 2000, p. 79 

Keegan, Sarah 'BigFatRadio killed the radio star' PC World, 12 February 2001 

Knapton, Tim 'BigFatRadio's new e-radio modelAustralian Financial Review, 1 September 2000 

Lloyd, Simon 'Marketing Feats – and Flops – of 2000' BRW, 8 December 2000, p. 76 

Low, Catie 'Pump100 leads charge to keep internet radio afloatBusiness News, 29 January 2001  

Macleay, John 'Anybody out there? – The uncertain new world of internet radio / Internet thrills the radio stars' The Australian, 22 June 2000 

Macleay, John 'Net radio taps into choice fat of US audience' The Australian, 28 August 2000 

Needham, Kirsty 'Bigfatradio.com goes Bigfatbroke' Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 2000 

Walsh, Philippa 'Huge weight loss for BigFatRadio' Daily Telegraph, 12 October 2000, p. 39 

Winterford, Brett 'Tuning in and out' ARN, 12 February 2001 

Wright, Simon 'Slow news week – Olympics sitesWhirlpool – Australian Broadband News, 19 September 2000