First in FM – Fine Music on the radio

Ask Australians what was the first station to broadcast on FM and most will probably say the ABC. It can come as a big surprise to learn that 2MBS-FM 102.5 was in fact the first officially licensed FM broadcaster in Australia. Its first broadcast aired on 15 December 1974, and the station was formally opened on 2 February 1975 – before ABC Classic FM; before everybody.

2MBS was first because its founders had vision and they played a crucial role in making the government change its mind and decide that Australia should have FM, as many other countries had been enjoying its benefits for quite a while.

MBS stood for Music Broadcasting Society, which was another thing that often came as a surprise, even to regular listeners of the station – one of the motivations for the name change, just a few years ago, to Fine Music 102.5.

As more and more broadcasting moves to the digital medium, ‘FM’ has long been taken for granted, especially for music broadcasting. AM is still there, as a reminder of what music broadcasting sounded like before there was FM. But there’s little ‘fine music’ on AM these days.

Maybe these acronyms – FM, AM – don’t mean much to you. Perhaps your link with 102.5 is mainly for the music and you’re not especially technically minded. Perhaps you find the station by tuning to ‘finemus’ on your digital receiver or by streaming it online.

But ‘FM’ points to the core of the MBS/Fine Music story and it’s a fascinating one. Before there was FM there were interest groups that wanted better quality music broadcasting in Australia. But it wasn’t until FM became a possibility in this country that there was a realistic chance of there being a dedicated station playing fine music.

Some of the volunteer founders of the Music Broadcasting Society of New South Wales were drawn to the enterprise by a technical passion for making things to improve the transmission and reception of music on the airwaves. Things, it turned out, to do with FM broadcasting, whose cause they championed. And some of them built the first transmitters. For what purpose you might wonder? Initially it was in order to put to air music supplied by their fellow volunteers, mainly from their own record collections. There was harmony between the technically minded and the technically challenged. And that harmony was found in music.

Those founders were people of varying interests and skills, able to supply everything needed to get a new radio station on air and keep it on air. And some of them are still with us… 40 years since the first broadcast went to air. What nicer way to celebrate their achievement than to remember?

It’s true that their monument is still there. You have only to tune to 102.5 – still broadcasting, in FM, and still listener-supported and volunteer-operated. But the story to be told begins with the founders – 40 years younger than they are now – and their vision at the dawn of a radio station. Telling that story, with its triumphs and setbacks, is the task of this blog over the course of 2015, the station’s 40th anniversary year.

The history of a radio station should, you might think, be retraced in sound. Some of it can be, but even captured sound from broadcasts is ephemeral, since the context is past. Yet some of that context can be recreated by in words: bringing events to life; bringing personalities to life; describing what it sounded like; gauging its significance. What has it meant, when, once a month, dozens of volunteers pick up the latest copy of the Fine Music magazine, the guide to the music to be broadcast? When they walk the streets with a plan, and put each copy in the letterbox of a subscriber to Fine Music? And what happens next? What is it that’s so special about the Fine Music enterprise?

History is remembering. And remembering our history is a way to understand, to satisfy curiosity, even to be entertained. This blog will grow from week to week –telling the stories and painting portraits of the personalities – we hope you’ll ‘tune in’.

David Garrett
David Garrett has been associated with Fine Music 102.5 since before it hit the airwaves 40 years ago. A regular on-air presenter, he is also a former Board member and Treasurer of the organisation. David is well known as a writer and speaker on music and history. His Ph.D. from the University of Wollongong explored how the Australian Broadcasting Commission became a presenter of concerts and builder of orchestras. David has taught history at Monash and Sydney Universities. For thirty years he was a music administrator and programmer, for Sydney Philharmonia, then for the ABC and Australia’s six symphony orchestras.

The research and writing for Fine Music: Forty Years of FM Broadcasting are made possible through a generous donation from station volunteer and former Chairman Ron Walledge.

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