Standing Stupidly
‘We’ll learn from you,’ PNG tells China

How colonial radio came to PNG

Nellie Exon (Lawrence)
Radio Rabaul's Nellie Exon, the first Tolai woman broadcaster


NOOSA - The first government broadcasting station in Papua New Guinea, Radio Rabaul, was opened in a hurry in October 1961.

There were no adequate production, transmission and office facilities – a demonstration that there had been little planning behind the bold decision of the colonial Administration to enter the broadcasting field.

But the Administration, and the Australian government, had one goal in mind: the show its annoyance at the failure of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, as it then was, to provide effective broadcasting services for Papua New Guineans.

After some years of unsuccessfully trying to convince the ABC to do more for the then Territory’s indigenous people, the Administration had decided to act alone.

The ABC’s service in PNG was poorly resourced in technical terms and its programming aligned largely at expatriates.

The Australian government found a legal basis to license Administration stations by exercising its authority under the Wireless Telegraphy Act, a piece of loosely-worded legislation intended to facilitate the transmission of wireless messages for educational purposes.

There was some doubt as to whether this Act was ever intended to authorise the operation of radio broadcasting stations. Fortunately for the Administration, the Act was silent on programming generally, including the broadcast of political material.

Late in 1961, Administrator Sir Donald Cleland formed a Broadcasting Services Committee of senior government officials to consider all aspects of broadcasting in PNG. It was to get to work in a hurry and delivered its report in February 1962.

The report stressed the importance of broadcasting as a prime means of communication in PNG.

It pointed out that foreign radio transmissions (it was particularly worried about Radio Peking) could have an adverse effect on the indigenous people and, to counter this the Administration should greatly increase the number of programs available to Papua New Guineans.

Although probably not influential, “foreign propaganda broadcasts” caused an extraordinary degree of consternation among colonial officials and the politicians of the early 1960s.

Paul Mason, the elected member of the Legislative Council for the New Guinea Islands told the Times-Courier newspaper in March 1963 that, “It is remiss of the Australian government to broadcast to Asia and Indonesia while they leave the Pacific Islands unattended.         Bougainville, for instance, listens to Radio Peking - we cannot get Rabaul."

The same article quoted the elected member for the Highlands, Ian Downs, as saying that many mainland New Guineans listened to the radio station located in Hollandia (now Jayapura) in what was then Netherlands New Guinea.

“This is the station they get and which, I am afraid, they prefer,” Downs stated. “Also near that same position on a wireless set is Radio Peking.”

He added that these stations were far more powerful than the ABC shortwave station in Port Moresby.

The committee’s report came to an even more important conclusion than competing with China. It stated that the overriding policy of Administration stations must be “to obtain understanding and acceptance of what the government was trying to achieve”.

Radio programs should also assist the work of field officers by initially arousing the interest, and then attempting to influence the attitudes, of the audience.

In his book Broadcasting in Papua New Guinea, Ian Mackay writes that the committee believed:

“….that Administration purposes could best be served by local programs, utilising local languages and presenting a blend of news, information, educational and cultural matter, including propaganda, to obtain understanding and acceptance of the policy and activities of the Administration and of the Australian viewpoint"

The committee also included a firm put-down of the ABC, stating bluntly that if it were to provide what the committee wanted, it would need to build small local stations, include a considerable propaganda component in programs, and comprehensively orientate these programs towards the indigenous people.

The report urged the immediate expansion of Administration broadcasting. Until then it had been supposed that, when the ABC established itself in Rabaul as it intended to do, the government station Radio Rabaul would cease transmission and be relocated elsewhere.

This process would be repeated until ABC coverage in the territory was as comprehensive as desired.

And the report stated plainly that Radio Rabaul station would not be closed down even when the ABC opened its station in the town.

All of these proposals were totally unacceptable to the ABC, which responded accordingly. Mackay noted that such a response had been “anticipated by the committee”.

The screw had been turned on the ABC. The Administration recognised that the policies it wanted could not be adopted by the ABC because of its need to safeguard its independence and political neutrality.

The ABC station in Rabaul did eventually open, but it was the first and last regional station the ABC built. Broadcasting throughout the Territory would become the exclusive domain of Administration stations.

The Administration specified the major aims of government broadcasting, including the acceptance of what the government was trying to do, the development of national consciousness, creating political, social and economic awareness, and assisting government officers in the field by influencing the indigenous people’s attitudes.

In the colonial context, this was a worthy-enough list. But there was no real understanding of how it should be implemented or, indeed, whether it could be implemented as envisaged.

So developed a characteristic of colonial bureaucrats and politicians in PNG to regard radio as a universal panacea for the correction of ignorance and ‘bad’ attitudes.

There was no early realisation that radio was worthless as a tool of communication if its programs were ill-conceived or poorly put together; a radio signal from a transmitter was not enough.

This then was the framework in which Administration broadcasting developed. The succeeding 12 years before the establishment of the National Broadcasting Commission saw these policies expanded, shrunk, redefined and sometimes abandoned.

But an underlying principle remained constant until the early 1970s: the Administration would use its broadcasting stations to propagate its own objectives and beliefs to the exclusion, if necessary, of all others.

By the time independence came to PNG in 1975, there were 16 of these stations on air and another two under construction.


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Dr John Christie

I remember when Radio Rabaul first went on air in 1961.

Prior to that event we would try to listen to 9PA from Port Moresby or, to my father's horror, Radio Peking, which had a very strong signal.

Radio Rabaul had a strong clear signal with the transmitting mast at Kurakakul (Banis Pik) in Talili Bay and, as I remember, actual locally produced programs were non-existent, just music for several months.

However all that rapidly changed and excellent locally produced, informative programs were soon being transmitted.

As a doctor working at Nonga Base Hospital in the early 1970s, Radio Rabaul's Tok Save Singaut program was used to recall patients for follow up to the hospital.

It always amazed me that the patients always returned when called. Just shows how much Radio Rabaul was listened to by the community.

A great asset that I presume has been lost?

Hi John - Radio Rabaul re-emerged as Radio East New Britain, broadcasting from studios in Kokopo after the previous facilities were wiped out in the 1994-99 Matupit eruption.

It is part of the regional Kundu Service, which bears the name I originally gave it in the NBC's first five year plan of 1976-81.

I was last there in 2006 and it was probably the best managed station in PNG. It is now transmits on FM not HF (shortwave) so the signal (on a frequency of 98.3) doesn't travel much out of the province - KJ

Arthur Williams

Keith - I seem to recall a Sophie Exxon...was that a different lady? May have been on New Ireland's 'Maus Bilong Solwara Antap'.

Hi Arthur. Nellie was variously Exon, Lawrence and Cox (after she married Radio Rabaul station manager Paul Cox, who later edited Lae News, the boisterous former Vietnam war correspondent who made PNG his home). As for Sophie, the name rings a distant bell - but she was not Nellie - KJ

Wills Motz

Thank you for sharing this history about the establishment of Radio Rabaul.

I was born in 1965 in Rabaul and grew up listening to Radio Rabaul. I learnt about all types of music listening to the radio. Mostly songs from bands from Europe, Australia and the US.

These make sense to me now that I've grown up and travelled, worked and lived around the world.

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