Music for radio – programming a new station

Programming is about the message of broadcasting, whereas FM – transmitters, receivers and the like – is the medium. The Music Broadcasting Societies in Australia, when they began, were all about content: Brian Cabena had called in 1967 for a station broadcasting only music, for music lovers.

Many musical listeners were hi-fi enthusiasts and record collectors. Stereo recording and reproduction had outstripped the quality of what was heard on radio. Better music content seemed to demand a better medium.

The founders of MBS dreamed of a station that would broadcast their preferred music whenever they wanted to hear it. This remains a dream – tastes differ, and variety is the spice of life. In a fantasy world, programs of music might arise naturally from volunteers offering records from their own collections, and, if they had the confidence, presenting music themselves.

But what music? Did this matter? Founder Trevor Jarvie recalls how “when a determined group of people got together who were passionate about music, it never seemed to matter all that much what kind of music”.

Yet he also recalls “prejudices” being swapped, and even compares MBS to a church, with its body of faith, its schisms, heretics and persecutions.

Programming can be a divisive issue: who will choose the music? Who will present it? How can hours of broadcasting be made continuously interesting? When tastes and personalities clash over what form music broadcasting should take, who will adjudicate?

When in a big hurry, 2MBS-FM was about to come into being, it was realised that programs would need to be put to air. At the foundation meeting on 5 November 1974, a form was distributed seeking an expression of interest in programming to which 21 people responded. The station of course would be starting with no records of its own and would need to rely on the members’ own libraries.

David Rumsey took on the programming challenge for the Board. It was he who had put out the call for programmers. The first broadcasts, during December 1974, happened when presenters and music content were available. But the official launch of 2MBS-FM was only a month or so away, and by then an ‘official programme guide’ would list all the programs for the month of February. Volunteers’ programs had to scheduled and sequenced – a radio schedule is assembled by programming programs. Gaps had to be filled. Ideally the result should demonstrate a programming philosophy.

No subscriber would expect to listen to every single program, but listening could be planned using the printed guide. This was a document full of potential for controversy. As Jarvie recalled, organist Rumsey and composer Vincent Plush (both at the time teachers at the NSW Conservatorium) collaborated in compiling the February programs and ‘slotting’ them, as the process is still known.

Jarvie claims Rumsey did much of the initial work for the guide, then “he went away on holiday, and Vincent Plush virtually re-wrote it”. Plush tilted the contents of the program guide, and the broadcasts, more strongly towards contemporary and Australian music (even Plush’s friend composer Peter Sculthorpe said it looked good on paper but didn’t work). In the next issue Jarvie’s editorial responded to the flurry of complaints, quoting a typical one: “Several of us who have already subscribed have become disillusioned with the programming” although “the aims and steps taken by the Society are to be applauded on the whole”. A litany had begun, alternating complaint and praise; that is still being chanted today.

The founders had anticipated this. They knew the station would succeed only if it could attract listeners and keep them. For any radio station the mix of music is crucial. For classical music the criterion is not popularity of the moment – the Top 40 – but representing a wide range of composers, periods, styles and media – medieval organum, baroque cantatas, symphonies and string quartets, electronic music – all these and lots more are in the mix.

At first 2MBS went to air with what was available, presented by who was available. But a regular schedule demanded discriminating decisions. The founders sensed that a clear programming policy would be vital for listeners’ experience and image of the station.

They also grasped that getting a station to air and keeping it going would take a lot of energy. Administrative, technical, and financial matters would naturally be overseen by a board of management. Program policy, on the other hand, needed a more reflective and less day-to-day kind of consideration.

So important did this seem that program policy was built into the constitution. In the Music Broadcasting Society Cooperative such authority as was needed came from democratic election, by the shareholders for the shareholders. Electing a Board of Management was unexceptional. But it was decided that the Annual General Meeting would also elect a Program Policy Committee (PPC), whose members would have different qualifications than board members and very different duties. People would be elected with authority, it was hoped, in musical and radio matters, to provide the fledgling station with programming advice. Chocolate maker and writer Walter Dullo was such a person (as noted in a previous post).

My own official association with MBS began as a member of the PPC, from 1978 to 1984. In future posts I will strive to bring a historian’s objectivity to my own memories of the tensions, some creative and some less creative, caused by enshrining an arbiter of programming within the organisation. Trevor Jarvie, who had a lot to do with putting it there, said in an interview ten years on: “I now see the setting up of the PPC as a mistake. It’s never really worked, never been effective”.

Because it affects what is heard on Sydney’s fine music station, the history of its programming, how it happened and how it expressed a policy, is both interesting and controversial. The Chairman of the MBS Board remarked in the 1980 annual report that “programming and programme policy continue to be the subjects of lively debate within the station”. This is to be expected. Those who debate about programming are also passionate about music.

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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