Airwaves struggles: Broadcasting back then
16 September 2019
NOOSA - I arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1963 as a school teacher and left in 1976 as a broadcaster and journalist with 10 years under my belt.
This was to be my first substantive career, and – after many adventures in Asia-Pacific - it culminated in my appointment as a senior executive in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), before I turned my communications activities to public relations in 1988.
During the 1960s, at first I freelanced as a journalist and scriptwriter for the ABC, then edited the school magazines (Yokomo was a personal friend) before joining the ABC full time as a producer.
In the early 1970s I managed Radio Rabaul and Radio Bougainville later being appointed the first director of policy and planning in the National Broadcasting Commission.
The first radio station in PNG had been broadcasting 10 years before I was born, and the history of how the NBC came into being had started way back before World War II.
When 4PM Port Moresby began broadcasting on 25 October 1935, radio was still being pioneered in Australia. But even then radio was not new to Papua because Amalgamated Wireless of Australia, better known as AWA, had operated transmitting and receiving stations for some years. It was a short step from this to a fully-fledged broadcasting service.
Not that 4PM had much impact on the then uncounted people of Papua New Guinea. The transmitter was low powered and had a range of just a few kilometers. It was another 26 years, almost to the day, before another radio station was established elsewhere in PNG.
4PM closed in December 1941, a victim of the war. But just two years later General Douglas MacArthur, commencing his campaign against the Japanese from a tenuous foothold in Port Moresby, decided radio should be used to entertain the troops. So on 26 February 1944, 9PA began broadcasting.
The war moved north and in 1944 the station was handed over to the Australian Army Amenities Section which adopted the call sign 9AA.
It was 9AA that broadcast the first radio program targeted at a Papua New Guinean audience. It was in Hiri Motu and an effort to boost the morale of Papuan labourers and carriers – pressed into service by the Army and gone from their villages for many years.
With the war over and civilian control resumed, on 1 July 1947 the ABC took over 9AA and the call sign reverted to 9PA.
Under the Army the power of the station had been increased but now it was reduced and coverage again limited to the immediate environs of Port Moresby.
It was not until 1963, 15 years later, that the ABC installed a transmitter of sufficient power to enable the provision of anything like a national service.
At this time the station was still geared to an expatriate audience and there were very few programs for Papua New Guineans.
But even so there were disputes over what time of the day the ‘native people’s program’ should be broadcast. The ABC refused to transmit it at what were considered peak listening times for Europeans.
The 30 minute program was shortened to 20 minutes because it was claimed to ‘interfere’ with broadcasts for expatriate children.
The colonial government of PNG – the Administration as it was known – was not happy with this neglect. Nor, given major political changes, was it happy that its own officials couldn’t use the station to promote the acceptance of government policies for PNG.
The ABC was deaf to these complaints. And it caused further irritation to the Administration and amongst the public by failing to expand its service in PNG.
Meanwhile, civil unrest in the Gazelle Peninsula led to the Navuneram riots of August 1958, during which several Tolais were shot by police.
In his report on this tragic event, the Chief Justice of the time recommended that radio broadcasting be used to improve communication between the Administration and the people.
Australia’s Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, agreed and suggested broadcasting be used to explain government policies and contribute to an acceptance of them.
In 1959, funds were set aside to establish a radio station in Rabaul. But the Administration was against any suggestion that the station, and another planned for Lae, be run by the ABC.
There was an argument but finally ABC chairman Sir Richard Boyer agreed that “the regional stations envisaged are not within the orbit of the ABC”. The way was now clear for the Administration to develop its own broadcasting service.
Across the border in what was still Netherlands New Guinea, with Indonesia becoming more strident in its attacks on the colonists, the Dutch had established a powerful network of 12 stations.
This also worried the Australian Administration in PNG. What if it fell into the hands of Indonesia?
Suddenly a new urgency was felt and, when the ABC changed its mind about locating a station in Rabaul but said it would take two years to do it, the Administration decided that was too long to wait and determined to build its own network of stations.
Radio Rabaul started to broadcast on 19 October 1961 and was an immediate hit with the Tolai people.
In the ensuing years prior to Independence other Government Broadcasting Service stations followed at Wewak, Daru, Kerema, Bougainville, Goroka, Alotau – in fact all around the then territory as a network of 16 stations was built.
In 1973, with self-government arriving, the ABC – which still saw itself largely as a service for expatriates - and the Government Broadcasting Service were amalgamated and became the National Broadcasting Commission, with the celebrated broadcaster and sportsman Sam Piniau appointed first chairman.
By the time of independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea had a single fully-fledged broadcasting system offering a wide range of programs at national and provincial levels.
Broadcasting had come a long way from that puny little station in 1935.
Wonderful memories of being a PMG radio technician from Brisbane but seconded to the ABC's 9RB Rabaul from February 1965 to January 1971.
Phil Maguire was manager and some of the announcers were Grey Easterbrook, Geoff Gately, Ian Bowden, Delma Muga, Robin Papat and Joaph Eremas. David Ellis was a journo, Rosemary Chow office, Cecilia Lowe office.
One great young announcer might be a pastor now. The transmitter was at the Malaguna Road studios then a new transmitter site was acquired at Kurakakaul. Later a short wave transmitter for NBC was installed there too.
I recorded school choirs, kept the tape recording and studio gear in good condition and likewise the transmitters.
Learnt about 400 Kuanua words and 50 years later manage quite a few still. They used to have an annual ABC Ball. Oh the memories.
Posted by: Frank Earley | 17 April 2021 at 01:23 PM
Thank you Keith and Philip. I guess some of us are un-memorable! I don't think I ever met David Ransom, though I do recall working with Ian Smeeton and John Waters, (and being in contact with him later when he was in East Timor). I'll try to do an article on my recollections, but it may take a while.
Posted by: Fred Griffiths | 04 November 2019 at 11:03 AM
I think David Ransom is still around Fred. The last time I saw him he was working as a television journalist with the ABC. He would be a good source of information.
I had something to do with him when I was working on the Commission of Enquiry Into Land Matters in 1972. I think Dave was either head of DIES or in some other senior position.
I would join Keith in asking whether you can fill the void with an article.
David has retired to Lake Macquarie in NSW. He's a mate of mine and for a time was head of current affairs in DIES. I worked in the department when Fred was there, variously as manager of Radio Rabaul, Radio Bougainville and supervisor of broadcasting. Unfortunately I don't remember Fred - KJ
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 31 October 2019 at 10:15 AM
Hello Keith and all other ex PNG personnel. Having read your article and comments, and wonder why there is no mention of the Department of Information and Extension Services (DIES)? I worked for DIES from 1971-1974 as a broadcast officer, assistant station manager and even up to station manager. These positions covered postings to Kavieng, Rabaul, Daru and Wewak.
In fact I have read every article since the beginning of PNG Attitude - and never see any mention of DIES! Why?
Ex-DIES, now residing in Canada.
There are a number of mentions of DIES, Fred, and of its subsidiary operations (especially in radio) in PNG Attitude. But perhaps you can correct any perceived deficiency with an article of your own - KJ
Posted by: Fred Griffiths | 31 October 2019 at 07:32 AM
Okay, KJ, when did 9RB Rabaul hit the airwaves.
I remember when we were live calling boxing back in the late Sixties on 9PA Port Moresby the ABC islands radio relay went through 9RB, Rabaul.
It was quite a fine station was 9RB. A number of well-known (in PNG anyway) announcers did shifts through the day on the ABC's Rabaul station.
9RB (ABC Rabaul) went to air in 1962, a year after Radio Rabaul, when the ABC feared that it would be gazumped by the Administration's own broadcasting service. Its fear turned out to be well based and Rabaul was the end of the ABC's expansion in PNG as the Government Broadcasting Service grew steadily until it finally checked in with 18 stations. By the way, ex kiap Graham Taylor established 9RB as its first manager - a tale covered in his book A Kiap's Story which I reviewed for The Australian in May this year https://www.pngattitude.com/2019/05/kiap-days-astonishing-yarns-from-a-remarkable-time.html - KJ
Posted by: Richard E Jones | 16 September 2019 at 06:36 PM
As an additional point of interest, Keith, the first time (so it is claimed) that the Motu language was ever heard on the wireless was in April, 1931.
Two boy scouts, Arua Gavera and Lohia Udu from Hanuabada village, were attending an international Scout Rally in Sydney at which the founder of the Scouts movement, Lord Baden-Powell, was also present.
One report said they broadcast in the "Motuan language" over the "new AWA Radio service" and had messages particularly for their Scoutmaster, Mr. P. Chatterton of the London Missionary Society in Port Moresby. The same article noted that "The surprise that was expressed in the village when they heard the voices from far-away Sydney can be well imagined".
Whether Mr. Chatterton or anyone in Hanuabada listened to the broadcast is a matter of conjecture as another Australian newspaper report of the period claimed that the broadcast in Motu was made over station 4QG Brisbane (perhaps on network relay from Sydney?) and that "We do not know if any Papuans actually heard their fellow countrymen speaking on the air."
Come what may, never to let a good story go by without some added commentary, one journalist wrote of the radio broadcast that "Some of the older Papuans were convinced that it was nothing less than 'puri-puri', or white man's magic, and was quite inexplicable."
Posted by: Martin Hadlow | 16 September 2019 at 02:32 PM
Thanks for this KJ. I was sponsored by the NBC to study Communications Engineering at UNITECH when Sam Piniau was NBC chairman in 1976.
He approved my transfer from the Technical and Engineering division of NBC to Programs Division later when I did poorly in some exams.
I trained under John Malisa to be a broadcaster/announcer. Don Penias was my instructor. Later I studied Journalism at UPNG.
I hope to see Kupiano tomorrow on a road trip to Kerema. Kupiano is where Don Penias took us as part of our training. I gave K12 to a young boy whom I met there who said he was a student. Wonder where he is now.
Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 16 September 2019 at 10:18 AM
Hi Keith - Thank you for this reflection on broadcasting history in Papua New Guinea. Very informative.
The power of radio is still powerful today. One can reach a million audience instantaneously through the power of radio waves. Happy independence PNG!
Posted by: Simon Davidson | 16 September 2019 at 07:16 AM