SYDNEY 1981-82 – Vulgarity, offence and obscenity have cherished places in the folklore of broadcasting and all broadcasters have their favourite story of how they said something inadvertently odious or incredibly stupid while the microphone was live and thousands of people listening in.
A colleague of mine, the manager of Radio Rabaul, Paul Cox, given the job of broadcast director of the royal tour of Papua New Guinea in early 1974, was one broadcaster who experienced the fallout from inadvertence.
Paul was compelled to resign from the National Broadcasting Commission when – upon realising Her Majesty’s words were not being broadcast because the microphones had been strategically placed in front of other dignitaries – thundered into his closed circuit mike: “Will some c--t please give one to the f--king Queen!”
In the confusion someone had switched the director’s in-house microphone to air and the terrible words were broadcast throughout the nation.
It was not the end of Paul's media career in Papua New Guinea, where he became many things including a newspaper editor and a ministerial adviser, but it was the end of his career in broadcasting.
He also made PNG his permanent home - marrying there, and dying there.
Paul's was an extreme case, but they do occur and 2SER-FM was often in trouble with someone but on only one occasion where this was taken further was the station found to be in breach of its licence.
Our educational remit was always conducted responsibly and capably without controversy. The stress for management came with the access function, which could be fraught with conflict and recrimination.
If it wasn’t the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal hounding us over an allegation of obscenity, it was the federal government rattling sabres about some presumed breach of the official secrets act, or the conservative cleric Fred Nile agitating over the immorality of allowing gays on the air.
I had a reputation among many of our 200 or so voluntary broadcasters of monitoring the station whenever it was on air.
And to be honest I did spend a lot of time listening to what we were putting to air not because I was concerned about the programs (which in any event were being logged on tape) but because I liked to be able to talk with our broadcasters about what they were doing.
I was sitting at home one Thursday night listening to the station when our weekly homosexual program, Gaywaves, always entertaining, took to the air. With exquisite subtlety, this particular program was sub-titled ‘The Lesbian Open-Ended Sex Special’.
The specific segment that sent me charging to the liquor cabinet for a steadying Scotch described in plain language a tableau of two women making love.
It was evocative, it was stunning and to a station manager it was terrifying. I stopped trembling midway through my third drink.
The broadcast became something of a community cause celebré and the subject of a protracted enquiry by the Broadcasting Tribunal.
On behalf of the station I argued passionately that the program was erotic not obscene and therefore not in breach of the law. It was too fine an argument to get away with and we lost.
The penalty was that the matter would be taken into account during our licence renewal later in the year. It was, but, when time had elapsed, was not considered so significant.
It was remarkable that this was the only obscenity case we lost, given the station’s frequent exploits into the hinterland of sexuality.
I should write more about Listening Post, the radio magazine we launched just ahead of 2SER-FM going to air. The magazine was itself a major project.
Having a background in educational broadcasting – which was my first job with the ABC in Papua New Guinea – I had learned the value of written support for broadcasting to schools and other educational institutions.
Broadcasts themselves couldn’t do the entire job for you. You needed other support to drive the information home.
Much of that ancillary support came from school teachers in their classrooms but some of it came from publications.
When I got to Sydney to start 2SER-FM, I realised it was not just good enough for us to push out educational material through the airwaves, we needed reinforcement and this would be provided by print.
So, as we were planning and developing the radio station, we were also creating Listening Post, which appeared in newsagents a week or two before the station went to air.
We wanted to let people know not only what programs we were broadcasting, we wanted it to be a magazine about broadcasting and about the issues being kicked around on this new educational radio station.
Sue Butler, now known for her central role in establishing the Macquarie Dictionary, was the driving force behind the early issues.
Then I took over for a while, as I continued to do as editors moved on from time to time.
Later, students Jenna Price and John Kavanaugh, these days long married and two of Australia's senior journalists, took over, and we had ourselves a flourishing magazine.
It never took off in the newsagents as I’d hoped it might, but it had perhaps a thousand subscribers by the time it got up a head of steam.
Listening Post was always an important accompaniment to what we were doing in our broadcasts. Listeners, volunteers and other contributors to the station loved having a permanent record in such an impermanent environment as radio broadcasting.
I wrote its editorials to enable me to continuously discuss the rationale behind the sometimes controversial programming decisions we had to make, the stands we took on issues like freedom of speech and against government secrecy, and our forceful positions against racial, gender and other forms of discrimination.
Last year the National Library made the Listening Post archives publicly available. Those old radio programs have disappeared but the magazine is their permanent record. You can link to the archive here. Click the green ‘Browse in this collection’ button on the right to access this rich resource – every copy of Listening Post ever published in its 20 year life.
Dr Liz Giuffre of the University of Technology, who engineered the extensive 40th anniversary events of 2SER-FM, has told me:
“You so fiercely and wonderfully defended the alternative politics of the station. There were a couple of editorials that stuck out to me. There was one written in response to a complaint around Gaywaves, where you very eloquently, very clearly, said, ‘Here is our community; here are members of our community who are broadcasting; we want them to stay. There’s no reason to pull them off air.’ Do you remember much about that? I mean, Gaywaves went on to be such a pioneering piece of national broadcasting.”
Answering Dr Giuffre, I paid tribute to the two universities which owned the 2SER-FM licence, saying they sometimes would raise an eyebrow and ask me was I sure what I was doing was OK but they never intervened.
I also mentioned the students, constantly pressing to be allowed to go further – including breaking the law or breaching the conditions of our licence.
This irritated me sometimes but I understood. I too had been impatient and bolshy early in my career, and at 34 was certainly young enough to remember that.
I related to Dr Giuffre the case of Dr Albert Schram, the senior academic kicked out of Papua New Guinea for no good reason, who has written with considerable insight that students are critical in maintaining the essentials of democracy, especially where there are tendencies to authoritarianism or corruption.
At Macquarie University, and particularly at the Institute of Technology, the students kept me honest.
I didn’t like their strident impetuosity at times as they kept pushing me to give them more freedom.
But I sought to respond positively so long as they did not endanger the station’s licence or alienate too large a section of the audience.
Issues of equality, fairness, openness and greater freedom kept pressing me and in turn pushing the station forward into new creative experiments and more intense expo of social ills.
So, in the end, we had a station that was educational, pushed against the boundaries and stood for something.
It was the hybrid I’d discussed in the early months of my tenure, when we were still talking about what sort of station 2SER-FM should be and discussing what did education really mean in Australian society – not just in schools and universities but in life.
When we argued about education not just being curriculum-based but part of the broader learning that all humans are entitled to as we move through life, we weren’t debating abstractions but determining the tangible content of a radio station.
That is how developing a station with a liberal, pluralist agenda was established and it had been my job to maintain that as a guiding principle in my management.
After nearly four years at 2SER-FM, I felt it was time to move on. In terms of career progression in broadcasting, and not wanting to become an academic, I knew I had reached a dead end.
If there was a big challenge in public broadcasting, I had just experienced it.
Then a timely advertisement appeared for lecturers at the International Training Institute, the former Australian School of Pacific Administration, the colonial institution where I had trained as a teacher for Papua New Guinea 20 years before.
I’d been an occasional guest lecturer there in media and communication courses, so I thought a position at ITI might offer a neat halfway house that would enrich my curriculum vitae and provide me with more time to reflect, read and reconfigure how my career in broadcasting might move to another stage.
ITI was to do all that – and more. But before then, I was to have a crack at running for federal parliament.