Keeping subscribers posted – the radio guide’s volunteer distributors

Is a radio station a place on a dial – say 102.5? Is it a transmitter mast pointing to the sky – say on top of Sydney’s Governor Philip Tower? Is it a building – say 76 Chandos St. in St. Leonards? All these make a radio station, but above all it is the broadcast sound, words and in this case, Fine Music.

What does the historian chronicling a radio station have to go on? The sound is heard only once and then is gone with the wind. A historical archeology of radio can recapture parts of a station’s output, and in a future posts we will revisit, with technical pioneer Max Benyon, some of the places from which the radio station used to transmit. We will listen for echoes of radio past, fancifully, but in vain.

All this is by way of introducing something more prosaic, but revealing about a very unusual kind of radio station. Once a month, the paid armies who stuff letter boxes are joined by volunteers. They deliver something that subscribers to the radio station have come to expect each month. Now called a magazine, from the beginning it has been simply ‘The Guide’. Its content includes the month’s broadcast programs.

Since the station began 40 years ago, every month a ‘Guide’ has been published. Its production has been problematical; its justification has sometimes been questioned, but it keeps coming out. For the first few months of the station’s life there was no squad of volunteer deliverers, each picking up a bagful of printed guides from the station and traipsing local streets. The guides were mailed to subscribers’ addresses. This came at considerable cost, prompting someone to figure out that in a co-operative such as this, volunteers could deliver the guide themselves. By March 1976, 12 months after the official launch, guide deliverers by providing an alternative to Australia Post by hand delivering guides, and in the process were saving $800 a month of the station’s subscription income.

The MBS organisations that pioneered FM for Australia believed subscribers should get something in exchange for their subscription. When radio broadcasting began in Australia in the 1920s a ‘sealed set’ system was attempted, giving access to only one station, for which the set’s buyer had paid. A commercial failure and an invitation to illegal tampering, this was soon abandoned. But radio broadcasters since have looked longingly for ways of making the listener pay for their costly programs (TV broadcasters have been more successful).

As explained in previous posts, some expected that once the MBS stations had gathered enough paying subscribers, announcements would be reduced or even phased out, so that only subscribers would have full details of the music and performers broadcast. For a time, 3MBS in Melbourne moved along these lines. 2MBS in Sydney didn’t – what it was doing seemed to be working.

Far more people listen than subscribe, and have ways of planning their listening without a printed program guide. The Guide always aimed to be more than just a list of programs: a mission statement, voiced at the 1976 AGM, was “to create a journal worthy of the standard of the programs”. 2MBS’ founders hoped that the program guide, like ABC radio publications, would sell well from newsagents, Hi Fi and record shops, but sales languished. Revenue from advertising in the Guide was also disappointing.

For 40 years the Guide publication costs (especially printing) have been a budget headache. Stopping publishing was considered, or inserting the program listings in someone else’s publication – grander schemes too, such as a music magazine for east coast Australia incorporating the program listings of all the MBS stations.

Despite these ups and downs, the monthly guide has survived. Future posts will celebrate some of the people who have been responsible for the magazine’s content. The hand-delivered copy each month is a badge of membership, and unlike evanescent radio programs the printed version stays around, to be looked at – and to look at the subscriber, an ever-present reminder of belonging to a community radio station.

Home delivery of the Guide by volunteers symbolises the Music Broadcasting Society in its community dimension. For some guide deliverers, who lack either the expertise or the time to make another contribution, this is their main form of participation. It brings them into the station at least once a month, when the call goes out on air that the next month’s guides are ready. They collect the bag into which the addressed guides for their locality have been sorted, then tramp from subscriber letter box to letter box. Largely unsung, these deliverers for a quarter of a century were harbingers of the blossoming of volunteering at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

For many volunteers this is by no means their only contribution. Bruce Ferguson was the first coordinator of guide delivery, for 18 months until 1978; he was simultaneously a member of the Board of Management, among other roles. A decade on, he was staying on as a volunteer “for the sake of the guide deliverers” – by then he was looking after Chatswood and Roseville – “they rely on me,” he says.

Within the first two years there also appeared on the scene the person most and longest associated with getting the guide out to subscribers, Eva Low. Here’s an account of Eva in her heyday:

For a few days every month the room behind the foyer at 76 Chandos Street resembles a cottage-industry production line, with a dozen or so people inserting advertising brochures, packaging, addressing, sorting into districts, all supervised by the diminutive, fiery Eva”.

Organizing 6000 guides and 100 volunteer distributors, Eva Low found her niche at 2MBS. Growing up in Europe, she had formed strong ideas about music, and when she volunteered she first wanted to be a programmer. But she had no record player at home, so she began by timing and cataloguing records at the station. By the time she moved into masterminding guide dispatch, she was a widow, and 76 Chandos St. had become virtually her second home. Eva said, characteristically: “I’m here all the year round, and I can assure you nobody wants to take this job away from me”.

She was often there when programmers and announcers like me came to 76 Chandos Street. Invariably she asked me what I was going to play and provided feedback. Eva Low will re-appear in future posts as one of the most formidable of the music lovers who make this music station work.

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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