Eastside Radio Retrospective
The Origins of Radio Eastern Sydney Co-operative Limited : A retrospect (4/1/16)
By Dr Neil Runcie, Founder and Foundation Chairman, of Radio Eastern Sydney Association and of Radio Eastern Sydney Co-operative Ltd.
Q. What were the origins of Radio Eastern Sydney?
To quote what I said to the Registrar of Co-operatives leading to our incorporation as a Co-operative on 11/6/1982:
“ Radio Eastern Sydney Association (RESA) was formed as a result of public meetings in September and October 1976. During 1977 the Association conducted five test transmissions; the fifth in conjunction with the Sydney Radio Foundation for the Print Handicapped, which was formed as a result of public meetings convened by RESA. During this sequence of tests, membership of the Association grew to about 240 members – including 33 community groups.”
Q. Why did you form a co-operative to run this community radio station?
As with the two previous community stations that I launched in Sydney, 2MBS and 2RPH, I formed a co-operative to run Radio Eastern Sydney for three basic reasons. Firstly, the democratic structure of co-operatives, of one person one vote, seemed superior, and less complex and cheaper than company incorporation for a community venture. The Registrar of Co-operatives was experienced in handling self help community ventures. Further, I had gained considerable experience with the formation of co-operative credit societies – credit unions – in the 1960s and transferred this structure to radio stations. For example, keeping the programme committee separate from the board corresponded with having a credit committee, that assesses individual applications for loans, separate from the board that has overall responsibility. (Credit unions are co-operative banks helping people to save and to borrow for worthwhile purposes). And in the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s I helped the NSW Registrar of Co-operatives in assessing co-operative applications for video and potential broadcast licences. Disputes arose and the key was to have some achievable objectives before licences were granted to satisfy the Registrar’s benign and useful supervision. Secondly, it was necessary to be incorporated to hold a broadcast licence and to limit the liability of shareholders. Thirdly, because of my earlier studies in political science and economics at Sydney University I became wedded to the ideas of public participation, community self help, and participatory democracy. After a study of modern political parties I have argued consistently for more effective government through an informed public opinion and this involves access to the media. I cannot stress too heavily the importance of the interaction between these two dimensions: an informed public opinion and access to the media.
Q. What did you see as the objectives of low power stations in Sydney?
Initially I saw low power community broadcasting as a gift to local government, that had poor media coverage, and as a means of helping to fill gaps in the content coverage of existing broadcasters. In the early 1970s I became Chairman of the NSW Coalition of Resident Action Groups that was a force of about 140 resident action groups in NSW. The resident groups decided to support the introduction of FM and to support the leading applicant for the first licence in NSW, the Music Broadcasting Society of NSW Co-operative Ltd. The resident groups saw the introduction of FM as giving them opportunities to establish and run stations and to achieve better town planning by airing issues. These two opportunities – filling gaps and better planning – were an initial raison d étre of community broadcasting in my view. At the time I stated our objectives to the Registrar of Co-operatives as: “ (i) innovational and experimental programmes; responsible and useful radio; (iii) multicultural programming; (iv) tolerance in programmes; (v) opportunity for minority and special interest groups; (vi) development of local news and information sources.” Other dimensions were added such as training young and older people for a place in reporting, announcing, public relations, station management and broadcast technology in a rapidly changing communications environment.
Q. Why did Australia lag in the introduction of FM broadcasting?
It is important to note that the existing radio and TV stations were opposed at the time to the introduction of FM here for a number of reasons including. audience reduction for existing stations, splitting advertising revenue with new entrants, and the use of the VHF band that was already being used by some TV stations. FM provided greater fidelity and frequency range than AM stations and had been developed overseas for many years. At the time there had been no new radio station in Sydney for many years. So vested interests and lack of knowledge locally explain the lag.
I became aware of community broadcasting during my PhD studies in London from the end of 1957 till mid-1960. During that period in London, the BBC was introducing FM broadcasting and developing regional radio stations. The pirate radio operating from an offshore ship, Lady Caroline, was also heralding a new era in broadcasting in the UK with greater public participation. The high quality of many BBC broadcasts especially in music and public affairs and its publication The Listener were an inspiration. On returning to Sydney in 1960 I formed The Listeners’ Society with a fellow post graduate Sydneysider Murray Low whom I met in London. The Society had multiple objectives, partly inspired by the BBC, but the main one became to campaign for the introduction of FM broadcasts in the internationally recognised VHF band of the broadcast spectrum. Our aim became to reverse the decision in September 1960 of the Huxley Committee that recommended FM in the UHF band. But as UHF receivers were not available commercially anywhere in the world, and this meant a long delay in the introduction of FM and enabled TV to become entrenched in the VHF band contrary to international practice and agreements.
Q. Were test broadcasts important in getting FM and community radio on air?
The test broadcasts did help to get political and Departmental approval because they helped to gain recognition of the gaps in broadcast coverage and the potential of FM. It is important to note that an enthusiastic band of electrical engineers associated with the Music Broadcasting Society built an FM transmitter in anticipation that the Huxley Report decision would be reversed and this transmitter played a crucial role in a very interesting series of test transmissions throughout the State. However, Radio for the Print Handicapped that joined with RESA in test broadcasts and used our studio facilities and support eventually used the transmitter and aerial of 2UV at UNSW and the video room in the Paddington Video Centre for three test broadcasts although the subsequent licence was granted in the AM band for various reasons. As 2RPH was granted a licence before RESA we made our studios available for a period for 2RPH broadcasting.
Q. How was the Huxley Report reversed?
The reversal of the Huxley Report recommendations came via a Senate Inquiry and an independent official review by Sir Francis McLean, former Chief Engineer of the BBC and local economist Professor Cyril Renwick of Newcastle University. Limited grants were available to community groups to buy equipment for experimental broadcasts. Initial temporary licences were granted by the Minister under the Wireless Telegraphy Act.
Q. How did Radio Eastern Sydney Association start?
A simple press release to the local newspapers was used to convene the first meeting of a group of people interested in setting up a radio station to serve Eastern Sydney. Of course a good deal of networking was done. I used the press connection frequently in the lead up to the grant of a licence and in the first few years when I was Chairman of the local radio station. I still regard this link between the printed and spoken word as very important for success in achieving objectives.
Looking down the list of attendees at one of the early meetings (22/7/77) my personal file shows representatives and interested individuals from Centennial Park, Waverley, Bondi, Woollahra, Bellevue Hill, Surry Hills, Randwick, Paddington, Double Bay, Glebe and Darlinghurst. I issued regular newsletters and press statements.
Q. How did you choose Waverley College for the FM aerial?
The Randwick ridge is possibly the best broadcasting site in Sydney for FM transmissions. I had hopes of getting on the Telecom Tower at the top of the ridge but this was rejected. At that stage even the NSW Police could not get on the Tower. So the College that is a good deal lower was a second best but still excellent solution. There was some shadowing on the northern side of some of the beaches but westwards there was a line of vision to the Blue Mountains. Our thanks are due to the Waverley College.
Q. How did you come to choose Paddington Town Hall for the studios?
As Chairman of the City of Sydney Resident Action Committee I had close contact with the Sydney City Council on many matters. The Paddington Town Hall, that was no longer in use for administrative purposes, was a fairly central location, with a cinema, library, and a video centre and two large halls and a few rooms at the back that we were able to convert for our nascent station and test broadcasts. Of course we also sought Council support in programming and financially, as with the other Councils nearby. The premises have always been crammed but we managed to set up two studios and an administrative office. I recall the excellent conversion work of Ern Hillier, John Brownscombe and Peter Joyner among the small army of helpers. Perhaps it is worthwhile noting that I had later ambitions of obtaining larger premises in the nearby Paddington Fire Brigade Training College when it closed down. With Murray Low I prepared detailed plans for a Community Radio House to house three community radio stations. This site had two street access that would have provided adequate on site parking. Neville Wran as Premier promised to make the site available if Sydney Public Affairs Radio Foundation, where I was also the convener, obtained a licence. As SPAR did not obtain a licence the third station was to be an education station or an ethnic broadcaster. We could have shared tech support. Currently real estate opportunities are fairly limited but the old RAS site (Fox Studios and the EQ) has possibilities. The EQ already houses AFTRS and it would also be an ideal location for the PBAA. I am of course concerned that the Town Hall has been downgraded as a media centre.
Q. What sorts of programmes did you put on for the test broadcasts?
We appointed retired educator Eric Baker, as Chairman of the Programme Committee and together we were able to capture in programming a good deal of the initial enthusiasm. We ran the fifth test broadcasts over three days. This was designed to demonstrate to the authorities that there was sufficient material available to justify a frequency allocation. Our close proximity to three Universities and a number of leading hospitals as well as the CBD was a help as education, economic affairs and medical programming were conspicuously underrepresented in broadcasting. I did a good deal of interviewing myself in those early days. I recall a number of interviews with Donald Horne, The Lucky Country author, who was Professor of Politics and a colleague at UNSW.
Q. The initial FM licences were temporary, When did they become permanent?
In April of 1982 we submitted a 62 page application to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal followed by supplementary supporting material of several hundred pages relating to the history of Radio Eastern Sydney Association, our corporate plan and details of incorporation as a co-operative on 11/6/1982 The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal held licence application hearings and reported as follows on our application (p.17 of Report on Inquiries , June October 1982):
“The Tribunal considered that Radio Eastern Sydney submitted an excellent application and was impressed with the evidence of its perception of the needs of its community and how they could be met by a community public broadcasting station.”
All four members of the Tribunal sat at the hearings (viz Chairman David Jones and Members James Oswin, Keith Moreman and Catherine Weigall) and recommended our C licence under the provisions of the Broadcasting and Television Act of 1942.
Q. What additional ventures did you pursue in the broadcast area?
The most important at the time was the Sydney Public Affairs Radio Foundation (SPAR) that was my most sophisticated application for a broadcast licence. It brought together groups from the left and the right in the political spectrum, and learned societies and community groups concerned with public affairs. It failed to gain a licence in 1978 hearings for a metropolitan licence over the three incumbent stations ( 2MBS, 2SER, 2CBA). It is now history that the Chairman Bruce Gyngell favoured SPAR. He disagreed with his two colleagues on the Tribunal and held up the report till July 1979. The compromise was a recommendation for a fourth public broadcasting S licence for metropolitan Sydney. Interestingly Gyngell disclosed in discussions that he viewed SPAR as a mother ship supporting the low power groups in Sydney. Other ventures included proposals for a Communications Tower in Sydney as in Toronto and London. But the other important venture was in cable. In Centennial Park Garden Suburb, where I live, Optic Fibre Trials commenced in 1986 and arose from a letter that I sent to Telstra in 1985 when the UNSW was being optic fibre wired. I saw a case for linking our precinct venture with the UNSW optic fibre system. Three related ventures emerged: a cable system where we brought in a dozen stations including a community station that was organised at Paddington Town Hall video centre, and a dozen other stations including Worldnet and NASA. I suggested to Telstra that we link the Universities in Sydney by optic fibre. Subsequently UNSW, Sydney University, UTS and Macquarie were linked as Uninet that has been taken over now by AARNet. And the other related venture was Schoolnet that nearly took off at the time but regretfully remains unfulfilled.
Q. What do you see as the Future of 2 RES?
Where are we now? Firstly, I would like to see a history of the station compiled to enlighten us and inform the present as well as the future. The ABT report on community broadcasting could have been much better informed and our history would help correct some widespread official misconceptions. Secondly, the scope for innovation in programming and transmission still exists. Thirdly, the station needs closer links with community groups in the area. For example there are major environmental issues associated with light rail, and the future of the Centennial Parklands that are under attack from never ending money making by the decision makers. Fourthly, the links with local government have not been developed as I had hoped. Fifthly, building up relations with the printed media, cable and TV is essential if an active and vibrant audience is to be encouraged with effective public participation. Remember there is now Twitter and Facebook and they can be looked on as “personal broadcasrers” to be harvested in creative programming.