Tuning In Down Under 

9 April 2007 tbs.pm/3207

Radio listening in Western Australia

A while ago I visited Perth in Western Australia. As my relatives are more oriented to radio listening – the television is mostly only used for news, sport and the occasional British imported show on ABC like The Bill – I decided to check out what is on offer on the radio in Perth when not out in the fantastic weather.

Like most Western cities with over a million inhabitants, Perth has a wide range of radio stations and some of its independent stations cover a far wider range of programmes than the narrow, formulaic ILR stations in Britain that have become a chore to listen to. Just as the ABC and SBS dispelled the myth for me that Australian television was dominated by awful soap operas, the radio proved to be better than I imagined – and superior, in many cases, to that in Britain.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is responsible for national radio, although, unlike Britain, news bulletins are presented from each state capital rather than from a national studio, with a summary of local news and weather in each bulletin. This state-funded, public service oriented broadcaster has four national networks that proved to be very interesting and a match for the BBC’s.

ABC’s nearest equivalent to Radio 1 is Triple J, an FM-based station, like Radio 1, aimed at the under 25s and fans of alternative rock. Originally broadcasting only to the Sydney area from January 1975 as an alternative to the commercial pop stations, and originally called Double J, Triple J spread across Australia in the eighties and was famous for breaking alternative Australian acts such as Nick Cave and Midnight Oil. Triple J is like Radio 1 would be if it had been controlled from day one by John Peel: the station has refused to fall into the commercial pop and rock format of its rivals, and the DJs are music enthusiasts rather than Sara Cox style celebrities.

Also, the station broadcasts youth-oriented talk programmes, comedy, political programmes on issues such as globalisation and a half hour news bulletin at 5.30. At times the station has been accused of left wing bias, being a waste of money as its ratings are often a third of its commercial rivals, and being anarchic – at one stage the presenters and acts could virtually do what they want, in 1978 rock band AC/DC trashed a studio and the police were called out to arrest them. However, Triple J, despite the criticism, is an example of how to create a distinct, public service style pop radio station that puts Radio 1 to shame, even though the music they play has little appeal to me.

ABC’s other music station is Classic FM, which is, as it says, a classical music-based station. Classic FM musically falls between Radio 3 and Classic FM in its music policy: it plays the more serious pieces that Classic FM in Britain would reject as too uncommercial but, like Classic FM and unlike Radio 3, does not play whole symphonies during daytime and uses a presenter format for each programme rather than an announcer introducing each programme. A popular feature on Classic FM is the Morning Interview at 10 am where a celebrity such as a writer or politician gives an interview and selects their favourite pieces of classical music. Other programmes such as Classic Drive and Mornings with Margaret Throsby, which include The Morning Interview, attempt to present classical music in a populist way to a country which is not known for its love of this kind of music.

ABC Classic FM, originally known as ABC FM, and for a time as Fine Music, was set up in the seventies as ABC’s first FM-only network and also because the AM band was running out of frequencies, and classical music sounds terrible on AM, it has always broadcast on stereo FM.

ABC News Radio is again a self explanatory station as it is a news oriented station whose main 8am bulletin is broadcast simultaneously on ABC local radio, but unlike most talk-based stations broadcasts on both AM and FM.

ABC NewsRadio has a very interesting history. It has its origins in the Parliamentary News Network that was set up by the Ben Chifley government in 1948 to broadcast parliamentary proceedings live. Indeed from 1228 to 2130, when parliament is in session, the station broadcasts from the Senate and House of Representatives, which makes the BBC’s parliamentary coverage look miniscule, but makes the station heavy going for all but political enthusiasts. PNN was renamed ABC NewsRadio in August 1994 when the station was switched to a mixture of a rolling news service, not dissimilar to 5 Live, parliamentary coverage, Aussie rules football matches and news bulletins from the World Service and NPR in America. As a radio station, I did find it rather repetitive, but for news junkies and political anoraks it was ideal. Not surprisingly, though, News Radio has the lowest audience figures for any ABC network, although this is not helped by it being only available to 78 per cent of the population; the ABC hope to expand coverage to 95 per cent of the population by the end of the decade.

ABC’s nearest equivalent to Radio 4 is Radio National. This has its origins in a station called 2FC, set up and run by a private company( Farmer and Company) in Sydney in 1927 until the station was bought out by the ABC in 1937 and rolled out across the country as a general network similar to the BBC National Programme before the second world war. The station was also known as Radio 2 from 1973 until 1985 and, as the ABC developed other stations, moved away from its mixed programming to a more serious tone of programming. The Radio National name was introduced in 1985.

Radio National is mostly a speech network. Like Radio 4, considerable time is given to in-depth news bulletins, although the main daytime bulletins at 0710, 1200 and 1700 use the title The World Today and the 0710 bulletin is part of the Breakfast programme which, while similar to the Today programme in many ways, also has features on cultural and scientific issues and does not major on political features. ( I suppose political animals are more than well served already with NewsRadio.) At night the equivalent to The World Tonight is Late Night Live with news and current affairs features lasting for an hour.

Countering charges of left-wing bias, the ABC has among its discussion programmes Counterpoint which allows the Right to express its opinions for three hours a week. Also the station has its popular Australia Talks Back feature, a phone-in show that lasts two hours a day and is similar to the phone-ins on talk stations, although the hosts are expected to be politically neutral.

Radio National also devotes considerable time to arts and music and is probably closer to Radio 3 in this respect. Programmes such as Radio Eye, a long-running arts documentary series, and Airplay, which broadcasts single plays twice a week, have a huge following among the better educated and intellectual community. Music programmes tend to feature world music, jazz and ambient music, the late night programmes The Night Air and The Daily Planet are similar to the music policy Radio 3 uses late at night where experimental and electronic music are promoted.

On hearing Radio National, which in Perth, unlike most of the rest of the country, broadcasts on AM, which spoils the sound quality, I found an attempt to emulate Radios 3 and 4 that was almost as good as the British stations but let down in Perth by dismal AM reception at night. A shame as in most of the other urban areas, Radio National uses stereo FM.

ABC run local radio stations based around the major cities, Perth’s station being 720 ABC Perth, all ABC stations using the format of AM frequency/ ABC/ city name to identify the station. 720 ABC Perth is one of the oldest radio stations in Australia, starting off on June 4th 1924 as a station owned by the Westralian Farmers consortium, broadcasting news and information of interest to the farming community. (In the twenties Perth was a tenth the size it is now and was more like a market town, the modern day Perth of huge office blocks and endless suburbs did not develop until the sixties.) ABC took over the station in 1929 and in 1960 moved the station to a Broadcasting House style building in the suburb of Rosehill which housed 23 studios, some used by other broadcasters and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, until economies forced 720 ABC Perth to move to a smaller building in East Perth in March 2005. According to my relatives, the studios were way beyond what you would expect for a local broadcaster and the grandeur the station aspired to showed in the jingles they used before the hourly news, which sounded like the music 20th Century Fox used to introduce films.

720 ABC Perth was the station my relatives listened to around half the time, the rest being devoted to ABC Classic FM and Curtin FM, of which more later. 720 ABC Perth, rather like BBC local radio stations, devotes two-thirds of its time to speech and the remaining third to music, most of its music being country – very popular in Australia – and middle of the road pop, the bulk of its audience being over 45. Not surprisingly in a city where Australian rules football is followed fanatically, on Saturdays the whole afternoon is devoted to the AFL (equivalent to the premiership in soccer) and the regional WAFL, with a total of ten hours devoted to sport on Saturdays including the long running Sportstalk on Saturday mornings. In England BBC local stations offer at most five hours, which proves how much sport plays a part in people’s lives down under.

Away from the sport, phone-ins prove very popular with insomniacs through the night – as I was being driven from the airport at 2 am, I endured a caller, who was very drunk, tear strips off the West Australian government until the host cut him off – with Overnights being a gruelling, for host Rod Quinn, five hour stint where Quinn in between a little music, attempts to interact with listeners who are often drunk, boring or fanatical, or often all three, or occasionally tries to indulge in banter with some lonely single listener who can’t sleep.

Daytime programming on 720 ABC Perth is generally good with presenters offering a high standard of talk, interviews and light music programming, similar on the lines to what Jeremy Vine and Steve Wright do on Radio 2, although there is less music. Typically an afternoon programme such as Afternoons with Bernadette Young will feature guests from all walks of life, an astrologer or a television critic as a regular contributor and phoned in questions from listeners. Unlike BBC local radio, there is a heavier emphasis on long news bulletins, the ABC NewsRadio bulletin is taken at 8am and this is followed by local news at 8.30am. The flagship news bulletin is at 12pm when The World Today broadcasts a one hour marathon of local, national and international news and current affairs. Often news reports from other broadcasters, the BBC being the most favoured, are inserted into bulletins. Quite a world away from the parochial type of local stations English listeners are used to.

The ABC does certainly live up to its role as a public service broadcaster as its stations do try to be distinct from the commercial rivals and even very different in some ways to BBC networks. At a national level there is no equivalent to Radio 2, mainstream pop and rock is almost absent from the ABC, and even the Radio 1 rival Triple J would be heavy going for most daytime Radio 1 listeners as it follows a distinctly alternative musical path similar to that championed by the late John Peel.

The general lack of mainstream pop and rock, and the speech heavy local stations, has meant a huge market for commercial local stations to capitalise on this gap in the ABC’s schedules, or try to imitate the speech format of their local stations. Not surprisingly the majority of radio listening is to commercial stations in Perth, although these weren’t as lightweight as I’d imagined if you discount the tedious chart hits format stations like 92.9FM and Nova FM.

Perth has 24 commercial stations, covering a huge range of interests. The oldest station is 6PR, which began broadcasting on October 14th 1931 as an entertainment and music station. From 1931 until 1972, 6PR was Perth’s most popular radio station, reaching its peak of popularity in the sixties when its mix of pop music, local news and sport proved a winner. However, in 1972, with the rise of rival pop and rock stations in the city, 6PR switched to playing easy listening music and began to increase the amount of speech programming. From 1977 onwards, 6PR wound down the amount of music programmes in favour of sport – the station from 1977 until it launched Racing Radio in December 1994 on FM was the main horse racing broadcaster in Western Australia – and talk programmes.

Currently 6PR is Perth’s most popular talk and sport station. Sport coverage is even more comprehensive than 720 ABC, especially with regard to the AFL and WAFL. On Saturdays and Sundays the station broadcasts a mammoth 20 hours of Aussie rules with matches relayed from other parts of the country after Perth Eagles and Fremantle Dockers finish play. Add to this a Friday night match and the Saturday Morning at the Football review show, then this sport, which admittedly is the most popular sport in Perth, is broadcast for 25 hours a week. However, fans of soccer, which is growing in popularity after the World Cup, are well catered for as 6PR also holds the rights to Perth Glory home games and rugby league games are sometimes broadcast.

At other times 6PR is similar to Talksport or, to an extent, 5 Live as the station is built around news and talkback shows, although the station has resisted the trend in America to use stridently political hosts on the lines of Russ Limbaugh. King of the talkback hosts on 6PR is Jon Lewis, whose show I caught when I was jetlagged and couldn’t sleep, whose six hour through the night talkathon, apart from phone ins, features competitions, news discussions, recipes and guest interviews. Lewis is referred to as ” the king of night radio” and his entertaining show attracts 35,000 listeners, and is the most popular through the night show in Perth.

The most popular station in Perth is Mix 94.5, a descendant of 6KY, a music station that was opened in 1941 and which changed its name to, firstly in 1991 when it moved to FM, KYFM and then the snappier Mix 94.5. This station is rather like Radio 1 used to be before 1994, a pop station that appeals mainly to listeners aged 25-54 and plays a mixture of pop hits, golden oldies and adult rock. While I only heard it a few times, I could understand its popularity but I found it rather bland and the presentation average. In fact it reminded me very much of CFM Radio in Cumbria, not particularly good but not particularly bad. Similarly 96FM, Perth’s longest running FM station, caters for the same market and is seen as Mix FM’s biggest rival.

Being a large city with a diverse population, minority groups are well catered for. Information Radio, funded by the state government, is one of the most interesting radio stations I have come across. This station, catering for the blind and those who cannot read – the so-called print disabled, operates a talking newspaper service, programmes of interest to the print disabled, and community action programmes 18 hours a day. Whereas the blind only have Does He Take Sugar on Radio 4 in Britain, this is a brave venture to have a whole radio station devoted to a minority group, or two minority groups if you include non-readers, that is almost overlooked in British media.

Ethnic minorities also have their own stations, which is not surprising as the city has a large Asian Oriental and South European population. The leader in this group is SBS FM, the radio division of the Special Broadcasting Service, which broadcasts programmes in 47 different languages, although the Perth station is mostly a relay of programmes from Melbourne. Italians (Rete Italia) and the Portuguese (Portuguese Radio) have their own stations which broadcast programmes of interest to these groups.

Community radio has also become well developed in Perth. Twin Cities FM, broadcasting to the northern suburbs of Joondalup and Wanneroo, where my relatives coincidentally live and with a combined population of 150,000, is a local station for this part of the city broadcasting local interest programmes as well as a mixed schedule of music and entertainment. More daringly RTR FM, funded largely through donations although the lure of the pink dollar has seen advertising appear, is the only station aimed at the gay and lesbian community, something yet to be created in Britain. Groove 101.7, again funded by donations and opened in 2003, is a rival to Triple J, but features more dance music, especially at night and also covers programmes of interest to the under 25s and students.

My relatives tended to like Curtin FM, one of the city’s most interesting radio stations. Curtin FM, originally known as Curtin 927, was opened in 1976 as a community radio station broadcasting programmes for minority groups and also programmes of country and fifties music from the grounds of Curtin University. Staffed mainly by volunteers, Curtin FM broadcasts a mix of programmes similar to an extent to 720 ABC, but the emphasis is more on easy listening music, charity programmes, community action and country music and the station takes limited advertising. I found it rather like hospital radio in that it came across as a friendly, community oriented station and the volunteers were as professional as some of the paid broadcasters. Presenters like Keith Taylor, who presented a show of fifties and sixties music at drivetime, as well as being good to listen to, showed a real love for the music that my relatives said made his programme enjoyable. After all, Curtin FM promotes itself as ” the greatest music of all time station” and this volunteer station lives up to its name.

Of the other stations in Perth, these tended to be self explanatory in their role. Racing Radio is an FM station devoted to horse racing, Sport FM is at says a station devoted to sport (locals claimed this was a poor alternative to 6PR and had fewer listeners), Heritage FM was devoted to golden oldies and, no prizes, Country 100.9 was a country music station, while of the others without self explanatory names such as Base FM played dance music, 6IX catered for easy listening music and Mac FM played rock music. In addition there is Tourist Radio, which is advertised on road signs along the coast, which broadcasts tourist information and weather reports.

Apart from the excellent weather, I must say I enjoyed twiddling around with the radio in Perth. The ABC, like its television service, offers a real public radio service that John Reith would have been proud of and is distinct from its commercial rivals. Although its stations attract fewer listeners than commercial stations, this is not the point: the ABC provides the kind of programming that the private sector could not do – Radio National, like BBC Radio 4, would not be viable as a commercial station – and is very good at it. Rather like the BBC, there have been calls to privatise the ABC – the Hawke government seriously considered this in the eighties until they woke up and realised it would seriously damage the quality of the ABC – and, as it is funded through taxation, there have been spending cuts imposed from time to time by governments that consider the ABC biased.

The independent stations were also far better than I imagined and far better than the rubbish that passes for most ILR stations in Britain. Fair enough, there were formulaic chart hit stations with incessant advertising and moronic DJs, but most of the stations I heard were of a high standard and stations like Curtin FM would give Saga Radio a good run for its money, especially when you bear in mind it is run by volunteers. Ventures like RTR FM are also praiseworthy as not even in London, with its larger gay population, does a radio station exist devoted to the gay market. A country once (in)famous for its awful broadcasting has better radio stations with a broader range of interests than Britain. I was impressed with the radio down under to say the least.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Paul 6 May 2012 at 6:52 am

Excellent article and interesting to read a Brit’s take on radio down under.

Just a couple of things. Sadly ABC Radio National is only available on AM in the state capitals. It’s very annoying to think you can be in the middle of the outback and hear it on a FM relay station, but only on AM in Melbourne and Sydney etc. We now have digital radio using the DAB+ standard (the better AAC+ codecs) which means that ABC Radio National is available in quality sound anyway. The other good thing is that most AM stations here don’t restrict their audio response. So if you have a wideband AM receiver you can get pretty good audio to about 9kHz. Local noise and interference permitting. Sadly some short sighted AM stations in Melbourne (like Magic 1278) are cutting their response at 5kHz. I can’t imagine why. They’re not saving any money by doing it. Usually it’s a commercial imperative! Their DAB+ service is not much better.

The other matter was that I can never remember what has now become ABC Radio National ever being called “Radio 2”. Those stations used to run a mix of networked and local programming under their own callsigns such as 2FC in Sydney, 3AR in Melbourne and 6WN in Perth. I also believe the originally commercial radio station 2FC in Sydney was taken over by the ABC a lot earlier than 1937. It became part of the Australian Broadcasting Company in 1929 which was subsequently nationalised to form the ABC in 1932.

Really enjoy reading everything on your site!

Andrew B 7 May 2012 at 2:09 pm

I remember “Radio 2”. In the 1970s and 1980s there were the schools broadcasts on 3AR and after the end of the broadcast there’d be the voice over announcing “ABC Radio 2” before going to the news on the hour.

“Radio 1” I think was what is now Local Radio, and ABC Radio 3 was the regional network which was a hybrid of both Radio 1 and 2 but is probably now just ABC Local Radio, as Radio National (ex-Radio 2) is now rolled out to a lot of regional sites.

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