ARMIDALE 1976-77 – In May 1976, I had no sooner proffered my resignation from the National Broadcasting Commission than an advertisement appeared in The Australian newspaper for a ‘station coordinator’ of 2ARM-FM Armidale.
This was an embryonic community based radio station with a board of directors, a programming collective, $10,000 in the bank, but no staff, no programs and a six month deadline to get on air.
The advertisement came with a few warnings. The station’s viability would only be ensured by securing “community involvement through voluntary labour”, there was no guarantee of continuity of funding and it would have to be on air by year’s end or lose its licence.
I applied and was told to present myself in Armidale, northern NSW, for interview the following week. 2ARM-FM – aka Armidale Community Radio - would pay half my airfare and reimburse the other 50% if I got the job.
The interview was in two stages: a formal process involving professors from the University of New England, on whose campus the station would be established, and a wild after-party involving the station’s young movers and shakers but no professors.
I was later advised that the purpose of the second stage was to determine “whether you were a good bloke who liked a drink.”
I seemed to pass with flying colours and was offered the job the next morning before I returned to Moresby.
Sue and I decided she would fly to Armidale to secure accommodation and a vehicle while I took care of Simon and Sally and worked out the remaining few weeks of my term at the NBC.
By July we were in Armidale where winter, sleet and snow had set in and I had a radio station to get going. It shared a room with Radio UNE, a students’ operation narrowcasting around the university campus.
The student broadcasters, many of whom were suspicious of this new community outfit imposing on their space, had their own studio and 2ARM-FM had its own. Both were the size of a small kitchen.
My station had no staff, no programs, no transmitter and aerial, little money but it did have a partially equipped studio and plenty of enthusiasm among its progenitors. I got down to work.
There were four big objectives on my to-do list: recruiting and training voluntary broadcasters; developing a program schedule and producing the programs to give life to it; reaching out to the community to let it know the new station was theirs; and figuring out ways to generate revenue so I’d still have a job at the end of the year.
I was fortunate to be surrounded by smart, hard-working and resourceful people on the station’s board amongst whom I, at 31, was the old man. We set a date in October to start regular broadcasting but before then, for technical and publicity purposes, wanted to get a signal out to Armidale’s 20,000 people.
From my perspective it was important we accumulate some sort of a profile well before we went to to air with a full suite of programs. So we borrowed a small transmitter from Sydney station 2MBS-FM and by the end of July were transmitting music for a couple of hours a day from our still incomplete studio.
The first volunteers were trained, the program collective got down to real work, I began to reach out to local associations and businesses to offer them access to the station and began to turn my mind to revenue-raising.
I quickly realised there was no easy way to generate funds from the community. Even the university and the local council were reluctant to part with more than $1,000 each. Suspicions can run deep in Australia’s provincial towns.
On the other hand, the university students’ representative council was incredibly generous, providing $16,000, and there were one-off equipment grants from the Australia Council and the Film Commission.
It was still not enough.
After just copping a hiding about introducing commercial broadcasting on the NBC, I began to think about corporate and private sponsorship and how that might work. What could the station offer in return that was more substantive than a warm inner glow?
I began to leaf through the Wireless Telegraphy Act, which the Whitlam government in its dying days seven months before, had hurriedly adopted to get the first public radio stations on air.
What did the Act have to say about how these stations could generate funds? What did it allow; what did it not allow? A ‘special condition’ attached to our licence did not permit the advertising of goods and services, but it was silent on matters of sponsorship.
So – on the premise that the old are not bold and the bold are not old and I wasn’t old – I opted for another trope, that silence is assent. We would ask business and private supporters for financial support and, as a reward, acknowledge their patronage on air:
“Newell’s Music Centre of Beardy Street is pleased to be a corporate supporter of 2ARM-FM. We thank Newell’s Music Centre for being such great neighbours of Armidale Community Radio.”
It worked - and, after the Australian bureaucracy got over the shock, eventually became Commonwealth law and provided a great contribution to the successful development of community radio throughout Australia.
So 2ARM-FM began to offer its ‘corporate support plan’ for $150 a year and, for private supporters, $20 a year (with no on air recognition). The supporter base gradually built to 40 organisations and 160 individuals. The money began to flow in.
After six months our revenue had strengthened to provide the station with $35,000 a year (about $225,000 in today’s money). We weren’t rich but we had a viable operation and it became clear my job wouldn’t expire on 31 December because we'd run out of funds.
Amidst the high activity to get the station operating, the family and I were driving the 7-8 hours from Armidale to Sydney and the same back every couple of weeks to see my mother, who by this time was seriously ill.
Just two weeks before the station opened she died of bone cancer. I was at her bedside. Joan was just 56 and had been ill, on and off, for 18 years.
The station was officially launched by Armidale mayor Alderman Peter Poggioli on Saturday 9 October 1976. An hour before he arrived, I herded from the office a group of five students who had been sitting in a circle on the floor smoking dope. I threw open the windows and switched the fans to high to try to dissipate the sweet smoke of marijuana.
That night, with 2ARM-FM churning out its brand new programs, a few of us climbed the hill behind the station and danced around the antenna pole overjoyed that in a bit less than three months we had got our project on the air.
Over the next few months we expanded broadcasting to 15 hours a day with an eclectic mix of talk and music and a workforce of 100 volunteers.
I remained the only paid staff member and also freelanced for the weekly New Englander newspaper (comprising a printer and advertising salesman but no journalist) in exchange for free advertising for 2ARM-FM. This was easy for me as I fronted the station's daily current affairs program and was well across community scandal.
By Christmas, Sue and I had bought a house on a few acres of land on the road to the goat racing capital of NSW, Bundarra. The property had an expansive view across the New England tablelands, and was located just west of the Great Divide about 20 kilometers from Armidale.
Life was sweet and 2ARM, the first rural community station in Australia, was going gangbusters. In my station manager’s role I’d got to know many people in the community.
By now Papua New Guinea and the drama surrounding my exit was very far away. My family and I were well settled in this pleasant new environment. 2ARM-FM was allowed a transmitter power increase, increasing its reach to 60,000 people, and we could now embark on bush barbecues listening to our new community station.
Furthermore, after much effort, we were about to launch a monthly program guide replete with articles about broadcasting, news of station activities, photos of our ‘stars’ and paid advertising. 1977 was shaping up to be a terrific year.
Then a letter came from UNESCO. It asked would I accept a job. The government of the Maldive Islands wanted to establish an educational broadcasting operation.
In case you missed them.....
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