So what were the project outcomes overall? Once Upon A Wireless fell short of its ambitious original interview and sponsorship targets, but it did succeed in capturing on tape for posterity the essence of an era of commercial broadcasting in Australia. Given also its representation in each state and the nomadic nature of many of the radio practitioners interviewed, the project achieved genuine national reach. And the many interview references to the birth of television in this country brought home to Brendan Horgan the sobering truth that those involved in this new field at that crossover time were by now similarly age-challenged. This inspired him to embark upon a new interview-based project, with a companion publication entitled Radio With Pictures!: 50 Years of Australian Television (2006, Lothian Books).
For the NFSA, the OUAW Project provided a significant boost to its under-resourced Oral History Program and increased the representation of radio-related interview holdings in the collection. The project also gave relevant staff in each of the NFSA offices the opportunity to better intersect with this important group of stakeholders, especially at the various handover ceremonies which the NFSA hosted.
Preservation and legacy
In terms of the overall legacy of OUAW, at one level it provided a very workable model for producing a win/win outcome from an archive and media industry partnership. The OUAW Company largely fulfilled its aim of chronicling the history of commercial radio via the recorded words and anecdotes of those who steered it through its halcyon days prior to television. This outcome was achieved through the extensive personal networking of the small and skilled army of volunteers, the well organised effort of the OUAW Project Director and Board, and its corporate status which helped secure valuable sponsorship at critical times. With its limited resources, the NFSA could not have commissioned, recorded, and acquired a body of work of this magnitude on its own. The window of opportunity to interview many of these radio luminaries would have closed very quickly had not this project been initiated at that time.
At the same time, the NFSA did provide a permanent home for the completed interviews, as well as various levels of support and assistance for the project as indicated, throughout its seven year duration. And this duty of care continues. The original interviews were recorded on audio cassette, with some equipment and tapes made available by the NFSA. Interviews were subsequently transferred to Studio Master 911 reel-to-reel tape, supplied by BASF, predominantly by volunteers Monty Maizels in Melbourne and the indefatigable Ken Brentnall in Sydney, before handover to the NFSA.
In all, around 360 interviews under OUAW auspices were ultimately lodged with the NFSA. The NFSA has now digitised more than 200 OUAW interviews, increasing their accessibility for scholars, researchers, program makers, and for online use. This digital preservation work – which has been carried out by the NFSA’s Audio Services staff (particularly Ernie Oxwell, who sourced and copied the audio selections above) – will continue.
The original interviews were conducted by around 40 volunteer interviewers across six states. For the most part, these people were not professional or trained oral historians, and the quality of interview varies considerably. The best of them though, are equal to any of those recorded by career interviewers on commission for the regular Oral History Program. Like the best interview content, they highlight the value of the personal anecdote in adding life and colour to the historical record. They also help contextualise the actual productions of the time, many of which are held in the NFSA’s collection of radio programs. Given also that many of the OUAW interviews were recorded with on-air talent, the common element and extra dimension that these presenters or performers bring to their interviews is ‘the voice’ – their articulation and ongoing love affair with the microphone so redolent of the golden radio age.
Above all, the OUAW Project drew to national attention the urgency of the need to capture the story of this particular era in Australian broadcast history before it disappeared. Given that the young turks who led the music, talkback, and current affairs programming charge, after television threatened to kill the radio star, are now not so young, perhaps the time for a Mark 2 version of Once Upon A Wireless is nigh as well?