Current Issue #488

Take care of your local air

Take care of your local air

Community radio stations were almost blown out by the power of a national signal but most have weathered the blast – and now thrive.

Adelaide has some great music radio stations. Three D – formerly 5MMM – is a station with links going back to the initial surge of subscriber-based community radio stations around the nation in the late 70s.

It’s a truism that there’s no idea so powerful as one that occurs to a lot of people at the same time and that same light-bulb moment came concurrently to an idealistic inner-city crew in Melbourne with Triple R and Brisbane with ZZZ. The idea may have been given further impetus by the power and fervour around the ABC’s Double J experiment in Sydney and how it was embraced by the rock culture so strongly and immediately. Commercial FM radio itself began around the same time with Peter Grace dropping the needle on The Eagles’ New Kid in Town on EON FM in Melbourne. It was a different time. Slower in some ways and infinitely faster in others. Let’s just use a positive – but currently dirty – word and say the times were progressive.

There were also radio stations on both AM and FM bands that were associated with universities in these cities and others. Triple R itself has always had strong links (and a focus on information and talks programming) with RMIT. Canberra had 2XX, Perth had RTR and Adelaide had 5UV which became Radio Adelaide. Many performers and radio workers came from these stations to the ABC and to commercial radio. They were places of experimentation and innovation.

The advent of triple j as a national signal in 1993/94 brought new possibilities of national touring to Australian musicians who were able to plug into that stream. Touring nationally from bases in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide became real situations. That national signal also totally took the wind out of the local Sydney scene, which suddenly lost this powerful audient mirror through which it could dramatise itself (FBi has replaced triple j as a local presence in some ways but still broadcasts in its loud and huge cultural shadow.)

Triple J’s arrival in Adelaide was big news, with 5MMM mounting a ‘Don’t Let The ABC Screw Triple M’ poster campaign (Rip It Up, 1990)

All around the country the local community stations were almost blown out by the power of that national signal but most have weathered the blast – and now thrive. Music is most potent when it is rooted in a time and place. Earthed. Think of an American or British city and you can summon images of scenes, sounds and labels with marquee artists and looks. Memphis. Nashville. Manchester. Glasgow. Portland. New Orleans. St Louis. Detroit. Some cities, like the last mentioned, Detroit, have had several musical lives; Motown, the Stooges/ MC5, 80s techno and the current ghost world of rock’n‘roll vampires and ‘ruin porn’ as summoned by Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive.

Melbourne has Triple R, PBS FM and the wonderful AM station 3CR, which owns its own building in the now spick and gentrified Smith St, Collingwood courtesy of a bequest from a Russian- Australian socialist friendship group that wound its affairs up at the turn of this century. It gifted its suddenly rootless but valuable assets to the station. Through that signal you get to hear voices from prison, unions, all manner of ethnic groups and political and cultural concerns. It wears the number of times its been raided by ASIO as badges of honour.

I haven’t mentioned commercial radio very much because I’m talking about music stations. Those powerful networks baldly deliver their heavily refined audiences to advertisers by employing the charms of guffawing, retired football players and desperate, needy comedians. All of whom have to work and all of whom get paid handsomely. Occasionally, music enters the audio spectrum but only after being carefully tested within focus groups of audience volunteers (who have been carefully tested themselves). It is a world of fogged up mirrors and old, hot bath water. (Like the oversized tubs in a football team’s changing room).

There is one Adelaide commercial music station that is an amazing example of this; the AM hits and memory audio museum found at 1323 on the AM band. (Did you ever notice that the numbers in all AM signals add up to nine or permutations of nine?)

This sort of station is quite precious because the playlist is determined by what was played on air in the golden age – the mid to late decades of the 20th century – a time when stations in each city were quite autonomous. You will hear songs on classic Adelaide playlists that you won’t hear anywhere else. Adelaide was a city that broke artists – broke hits. Things happened here.

I have to say that AM radio sounds great with jukebox hits that were made to be blasted through tiny speakers on a tight signal. The Stones’ Under My Thumb sounds perfect. Only a jukebox could improve it. (There must be an app for that.)

You also get to hear old school entertainers on these stations. People with real skills and sensibilities, still on air. Melbourne had a couple of these stations until just last year when they suddenly disappeared to make way for syndicated ‘lifestyle’ talk from Sydney. When that failed it was turned to 24-hour sport (though there was already a 24-hour sports station, which somehow limped through the non-football months each year). There are now three sports talk stations. Less and less music on the air! It’s too wild.

Actually, these AM hits and memories stations are more a kind of ‘pop-ruin porn’.

Before Magic AM in Melbourne was actually ruined you could hear a show being artfully presented by 60s pop songwriter and 70s/80s TV host Johnny Young. He knew stuff! In Sydney you can still hear Bob Rogers who began on radio in 1942! He is excellent on air. I listened to him recently playing some Beatles and Hollies and Matt Monroe and then all of a sudden introducing a new track by the young master Marlon Williams. He made that all fit together and made that world of radio and music presentation seem so simple. As it should be if you have a presenter with the skills and a station which allows them to get it all on.

So, take care of your local air. It’s delicate but valuable. Enjoy the community signals and the ‘pop-ruin porn’. While you can.


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