Are Australian views about aid changing?
PNG's 6,000 years of sustainable agriculture

The fickle, unsteady history of Radio Australia

RA book receiver
The frequency shown on the receiver dial was used by Radio Australia until its closure when it was quickly grabbed by China Radio International

| ABC Alumni

Australia Calling - The ABC Radio Australia Story by Phil Kafcaloudes, commissioned and published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2022, paperback, 224 pages $27.75. ISBN 0646852434, 9780646852430. Available here from Booktopia for $27.75

MELBOURNE - Radio Australia was founded in 1939 by prime minister Robert Menzies to project the perspective of Australia during World War II.

At the time propaganda, what we might now call ‘fake news’, was being broadcast in our region by the Japanese, Russians and Germans.

Shortwave transmissions could be received with low cost receivers and were difficult to censor locally. It was estimated that millions of suitable radios were in the region.

After the war, Radio Australia pivoted to sharing Australia’s outlook and appealing to people who might like to do business with Australia or even migrate here.

Radio Australia was relatively free to run programs sometimes critical of the Australian government and thereby demonstrating the freedom of independent media in a democracy.

This freedom of reporting was, at times of conflict or coups, very annoying to local strongmen.

Australia Calling coverThe fact that Radio Australia had programs in local languages gave it a direct line to the people.

Australia Calling, an official history commissioned by ABC International, includes many accounts of times when balanced information from an Australian viewpoint played a part in informing people on the ground in places like Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Bougainville and Fiji.

The frequency shown on the receiver on the image above, previously used for Radio Australia’s shortwave transmissions, was quickly occupied by China Radio International when Radio Australia ceased broadcasting.

Radio Australia’s favour with the federal government has ebbed and flowed over time, as have funding levels, leading to many changes in resources and programming.

While brand recognition of Radio Australia was very strong and positive throughout the Pacific, the service was virtually unknown within Australia.

Despite strong support by some politicians, it came to be seen as disposable by those wielding the razor.

Looking back, the glory days of high power shortwave broadcasting seem like a golden era.

But at the time we despaired at the difficulty of measuring the audience, many of whom were isolated and unable to even write to us (although millions did).

Today, with internet streaming and local FM relays, measuring the audience is easier but the vulnerability of local transmission or internet-based delivery to being cut either by natural disasters or local politics is surely a step backwards.

Phil Kafcaloudes’ book is a fine piece of work, brimming with high quality photographs of smiling staff.

The stories of people who have learned English by listening and the avalanche of letters written to the station are tempered with tales of dramatic changes in policy and the regular trauma of savage budget cuts.

Veteran Radio Australia technical engineer Nigel Holmes shuts down shortwave transmission in 2017 (David Stuart)

For me, a shortwave listener since childhood, the most moving story is that of Nigel Holmes (pictured right) who “seems to be equally proud and distraught as he presses the last button on a huge panel and watches the light go out [on shortwave transmission], ending nearly 80 years of Australian broadcasting history”.

At the ABC Friends Victoria Christmas dinner in November, I took the opportunity to ask communications minister Michelle Rowland if there were any plans to re-invest in shortwave.

She reminded us that it was the ABC’s decision, under then managing director Michelle Guthrie, to end that mode and that it would be considered as part of future plans.

The decision to cut shortwave broadcasting was, of course, in the context of cuts to the ABC and additional costs required to roll out DAB+ transmissions in major population centres.

Even if Radio Australia’s direct influence has waned in recent years, it has had a lasting influence on journalists and media in the region.

Many RA staff have trained and mentored the current generation of program-makers throughout the region and the standards and practices of our programs have set an example to emulate.

Phil KafcaloudesPhil Kafcaloudes moved from domestic ABC duties to present the breakfast program on Radio Australia for almost a decade. He seems genuinely proud of what he was a part of and presents a warm and engaging account.

Peter Marks is a software developer and technology commentator. He has worked on and off for the ABC over many years, beginning at Radio Australia in the 1980s. He has also appeared as a guest on ABC radio more than 300 times including a decade as technology editor on RN Breakfast

Dr Phil Kafcaloudes is an author and broadcast journalist who presented the breakfast program on Radio Australia for nine years. He has worked in 12 countries for the ABC and hosted the corporation's first English-language program from China. Phil lsoa taught journalism at La Trobe University and RMIT University in Melbourne


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Ah, Ian, you should read the book.

A conga line of politicians, both left and right wing, tried over many years to turn Radio Australia into a propaganda wing of Foreign Affairs but the good people at the ABC resisted.

Radio Australia's strength lies in its non-partisan approach and refusal to follow foreign affairs jingoism.

Ian Poole

Aren't all you guys missing the point in this whole Radio Australia fiasco?

The funding of Radio Australia should long ago have been shouldered by Foreign Affairs, period.

Instead, the poor old ABC - public enemy nambawan of the pathetic conservatives, their raucous shock jocks, think tanks and the Murdoch press in general - has suffered budget cut after budget cut over the years.

In my opinion, this has also impacted directly on cuts to Radio Australia.

Who, in fact, has been batting for Radio Australia? Hmm, bit late now.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Two interesting reflections on the cuts to Radio Australia that appear in the book:

"The Tok Pisin service, which had been a focus of Radio Australia for 40 years, was reduced to two broadcasters, Caroline Tiriman being one of them. She remembers the effect the changes had on one group of listeners in PNG:

"One day just before the cuts, Kene [Kala} and me were in the studio, and Paulus Kombo saw this text from the highlands, saying, 'Can we do fundraising up here to send money to Radio Australia so it doesn't cut the service?' We had tears running down our faces.

"These poor people have nothing, and they are going to have special fundraising nights to save Radio Australia. It still breaks my heart that they so loved the service that they were willing to do that.

"The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd laments the ABC cuts and subsequent Radio Australia service closures as a lost opportunity for connection with South-East Asia:

"These budget cuts have severely undermined the ABC's coverage of these countries, reducing Australia's overall engagement and understanding of issues in our region.

"For Australia to thrive this century, we should aim to be the most Asia-literate society in the Western world, and reliable news and current affairs is no small part of the picture."

The Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments and the partisan bureaucrats they appointed to important roles in the public service have been disastrous for Australia.

Paul Oates

Lateral thinking was never a strong point in the Canberra bubble. Wasn't it Abbott that made the decision to let the Chinese take over the Radio Australia frequencies?

This was a decision of ABC management, which shuttered Radio Australia in January 2017 for budget reasons.

As part of this slash and burn exercise, the ABC relinquished the shortwave frequencies it had been allocated by the UN's International Telecommunications Union.

Not being a particularly strategic organisation, the ABC failed to consider it might want to resume shortwave broadcasting at some future time, nor that a 'bad actor' may see a use for the frequencies, as China did when it immediately grabbed them.

The ineffectual CEO of the ABC, Michelle Guthrie, was given the third degree by a hostile Senate Estimates Committee in February 2017, but it was too late to change the decision or get back those frequencies - KJ

Chips Mackellar

During the 1950s and 1960s, Radio Australia boomed in loud and clearly across the vast interior of PNG.

I remember Russ Tyson's 'Hospital Half Hour' and the serial 'Blue Hills' with episodes which never seemed to end.

During a visit I made to Indonesia during the Suharto era, an Indonesian doctor told me that most Indonesians who understood English would tune in to Radio Australia's news broadcasts.

He told me Radio Australia's Indonesian news was "the only news about Indonesia which we could trust."

And some Indonesians who spoke a reasonable brand of English told me they learned it by listening to Radio Australia.

One man told me that, when uncertain about a particular construction of English (for example, the correct tense to use in a particular sentence), he would listen to the radio for hours until by chance the Radio Australia announcer used that particular tense in that particular construction.

I also remember Radio Australia's 'Calling Antarctica' programs. They weren't targeting us, but we could hear them clearly in PNG.

Ah yes, in those days before the internet, laptops, desktops, smart phones, Facebook. Twitter and all that, for some of us in remote parts of PNG our only daily link with the outside world was Radio Australia.

What a pity it no longer exists.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Canning Radio Australia was another stupid decision by the bean counters.

One day we'll realise that economics shouldn't be the first criterion when considering such services.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)