Radio before FM – Australia’s long wait for a better sound for music

Pioneers of FM in Australia were keen listeners, with sharp ears and minds to interpret what they heard. Together they brought a radio station into being. To make this possible they had to pave the way for a broadcasting medium that Australia did not yet have – frequency modulation.

Some of them didn’t know, at first, what FM was. But others joined them who could explain, and FM became part of their cause. They all loved music and – paraphrasing conductor Sir Thomas Beecham – “the noise it makes”. On radio in Australia, by the 1960s and 70s, the noise they heard was more and more displeasing. They determined to improve it.

On 15 December 1974, 2MBS became the first licensed FM station in Australia, broadcasting music, nothing but music. The roots of this breakthrough lie much earlier. Here are some basic markers: since the early 1920s Australia, like much of the world, had radio (‘wireless’, a name reflecting its growth out of telegraphy). Australia is a big country, and soon there were many stations.

Pre-FM radio sets offered up to three options: short wave, medium wave and long wave. Most of the stations, where music could be heard were in the medium wave band. The signal delivered information by amplitude modulation, or AM for short. Without explaining how AM works, take this as given: it is not the best medium for the sound of music it broadcasts.

There was an alternative, by the time this story begins, in the 1960s, an alternative superior in many ways, and especially for music. This newer medium conveyed the signal’s information (such as music), not by amplitude modulation, but by frequency modulation. FM, as it is called for short, was described in a paper read to USA radio engineers in 1935, by its inventor, an American called Edwin Howard Armstrong. Radio stations in the USA began to adopt FM in the late 1930s, and by the 1950s it was widespread. Across the Atlantic, Britain in 1955 followed Germany, Belgium and other countries into FM, when the BBC began broadcasting in FM.

At that time in Australia FM wasn’t even visible on the horizon, except to a tiny coterie of radio enthusiasts. There were FM transmissions, and those who knew about them could purchase or build receiving equipment. They could hear classical music on radio in high fidelity sound. In 1947 the ABC began to broadcast experimentally in FM, first from Sydney and Melbourne, later from Brisbane and Adelaide. In 1948 the Chifley Government announced there would soon be FM on the ABC (but not on commercial stations). This didn’t happen, and frustration eventually contributed to change. In 1961 the ABC’s experimental FM stations were closed down, and TV stations were allowed to ‘invade’ part of the broadcast spectrum, previously reserved for FM. This was especially irritating to music enthusiasts hoping for change. Illustrations of the experience of a few of those people destined to be MBS pioneers flesh out the story.

On the day 2MBS first went to air David Rumsey’s was the first voice heard, presenting music. He was a professional organist and teaching at the Conservatorium in Sydney. Both Rumsey’s parents sang in a choir, and he listened, as a 12 year old, to ABC broadcasts of concerts in which they were singing. Rumsey was gradually becoming aware of a gap between music heard live, and music heard on the radio.

“The problem for the ABC,” he remembers, “was technology”.

The technology for reproducing music had advanced by leaps and bounds, beginning with recordings played with a stylus on shellac or acetate, then on vinyl, a quieter surface. Magnetic tape was quieter still, but with a hiss one wished wasn’t there. Rumsey knew all this when he became a hi-fi enthusiast. Hearing some of his organ records played over the radio, he was appalled – the dynamics and frequency range made them simply ‘unplayable’. By the 1960s, there was stereo recording everywhere; in the USA from 1961 there was stereo FM radio, but in Australia … no FM, let alone stereo FM. The frustration was building up.

David Rumsey first heard stereo FM broadcasting in Copenhagen in 1963. Some of the early push for FM came from those who brought their awareness of it to Australia. In 1967, Philip Weate (a Sydney stockbroker and MBS’s second chairman) met a fellow sailor in Grenada, in the Caribbean. Michael Law was skipper of a charter boat, and Weate was looking for a crew member to help him sail his own boat back to Australia, taking over from him when he flew back to Sydney from Tahiti. Weate mused many years later: “I don’t think Michael had any idea of going out to Australia” – but he went out, and stayed. Law too was to become an early MBS chairman, and played a key part in shaping community broadcasting in Australia.

Michael Law had been a radio officer in the Royal Navy during World War II. In his native United Kingdom, he had heard BBC FM since 1955. Just a few years after arriving in Australia he spotted one of Trevor Jarvie’s advertisements for a Music Broadcasting Society, and got in touch.

It was in Britain also that MBS’s foundation Chairman, Neil Runcie, found a higher standard in radio programming and sound, compared with Australia. Like David Rumsey, Runcie had a background in choral music (his mother was a church organist). In his teens he heard Graeme Bell and other jazz bands, then his attention shifted to classical music.

Runcie was a postgraduate student in London for two and a half years. He listened to the BBC and attended opera, and concerts. Noticing that broadcasts of the Proms from the Royal Albert Hall often sounded better than what he had heard in the hall, he bought hi-fi equipment, and appreciated BBC broadcasts in FM. When Runcie and like-minded friends Murray Low and David Menzies returned to Australia, they listened to the ABC’s trial broadcasts in FM. Goaded partly by the closing down of these broadcasts, they formed the Listener’s Society, aiming to improve the standard of radio in Australia, to urge the introduction of FM in Australia, and to advocate publication in Australia of a periodical like Britain’s The Listener.

Australia lagged behind the world in not having FM. I cast my mind back to how I became receptive to the call for FM, not knowing yet of its existence. In 1961 I had recently returned to Australia from a childhood spent in Geneva, Switzerland, where I went to record shops to listen to stereo LPs, when they were new. In Australia my family bought their first stereo player. Listening to records supplemented going to concerts as a way of learning music. Listening to radio, too…on the ABC.

The new ‘stereophonic’ recordings, when played over the radio in AM, could not demonstrate their main selling point. ABC technical staff, well aware that stereo broadcasting and reception was a technical possibility, had to be content with the occasional gimmick of simultaneous broadcasting from two of their radio stations – one channel in each. Listeners who could tune two radios in the one room could listen in stereo – AM stereo, that is. We tried that at home! FM should have been just around the corner – but 14 years more were to pass.

Music broadcasting did not engender FM, but music benefited most. FM was a possibility discerned and invented by technicos because it seemed beautiful to them. The beauty, for radio was in the sound. ‘Better’ sound. Purer sound, clearer sound, richer sound, wider ranging sound, sound less stained by interference. FM sound.

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.

For information on how to donate or subscribe to Fine Music 102.5 click here


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