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'JJJ: radical radio?'

Jonathan Dawson

Continuum:
The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
vol. 6 no 1 (1992)

Radio -- Sound

Edited by Toby Miller


"Rock can be the language of cultural radicalism" (Rosenbloom in Inglis 1983: 375).

"The studio had been left in an extremely disreputable condition, with many cigarette butts stubbed into the carpet, empty beer cans, bottles and wine flagons. The stench of sour liquor was very obvious." (Internal ABC memo)


Though the terms under which the ABC was set up were comprehensive, they perhaps never envisaged such an entity as JJJ. The successive Acts and policy statements all record a dedication to a representation of the Australian 'community' as a whole, such a term taking into account everything from publishing, opinion, education - all the standards of liberal education.

What was excluded until the 'youthquake' of the late sixties, was, simply, the cultural power of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Indeed, even had the country been overrun by Taoist sex disciples, the potential has always legally been there for the broadcasting of the most extreme, even anarchic material. In this legislative context, the rise and rise of JJJ (borne from JJ) was surprisingly late. For, in the very fact of the inevitably perceived oppositional or alternative stance of the ABC in regard to the commercial stations, lay the potential for the construction of a more 'cultural' version (High or Low, take your pick), of the dominant youth culture.

In September 1974, after the Whitlam government priorities review, staff had produced a somewhat utopian vision of minority and access media (Report on Radio, 1974), the ABC was given two new AM station frequencies, one in Sydney, one in Melbourne. 2JJ and 3ZZ were born on a wave of 1970s euphoria. What happened to 3ZZ is described in Joan Dugdale's Radio Power, but 2JJ was, from the start, the darling of the ABC, if not of the older listeners and critics like Clement Semmler, who found the Henry Rosenbloom/Moss Cass (succeeding Douglas McLelland as Minister for the Media) equation of rock and independence, absolute anathema.

The Commissioners had decided that 2JJ would be managed by the Contemporary Radio Unit, and would be largely self-managed along the lines of (now lapsed) experiments in new universities and independent schools in the 1970s. The ABC was now really between a rock and a hard place.

Marius Webb, later to co-ordinate the transformation of 2JJ into a national network, was one of the key co-ordinators along with Ron Moss, who'd produced Room to Move, an AOR (album oriented rock) show, and the AOR style, now a staple with heavy rock commercial stations, was to be the hallmark of 2JJ. On a budget of less than a million dollars a year, 2JJ set up camp at 171 William Street, Sydney. If the studios before the move to Ultimo looked more like a hip advertising agency than an ABC studio complex, it was due to those early days of heady freedom. Senior staff were, of course, horrified. Semmler, who'd noted somewhat gloatingly that 3ZZ was really closed down because it had broadcast political propaganda (it was an access station), still cannot believe what happened to a fraction of his beloved ABC.

"As for 2JJ - the people who ran this station by and large took the law into their own handsÉ (they) thumbed their noses to the management of the ABC É Four letter words were used with abandonÉ I waged a lone battle against the way in which the station was run and especially its program philosophy" (Semmler 1981: 33-34). In spite of Semmler - or perhaps energised by his attitudes - 2JJ, from 19 January 1975, ran for twenty-four hours an increasingly original blend of satire, broad comedy (much, like the Naked Vicar Show, later hijacked by the commercial media), popular culture, and of course live rock and roll, giving the station a unique profile and offering a real chance of public exposure to new, struggling or avant garde groups.

Little argument is required to see the genesis of the current spate of television comedy revues - and their style - as firmly rooted in the university revue traditions of the 1950s and 1960s that 2JJ recalled from desuetude. Such long standing styles were hardly original in their satirical appropriation of popular culture and High Cultural absurdities, but they made them readily accessible to an audience outside the academies, as only Barry Humphries had before them.

The excesses and shock-horror stories about 2JJ have been well documented (and not just by Semmler or - still today - by Quadrant magazine) but the results were clear. 2JJ was reaching a new ABC audience, and holding it - even if the reception for half of Sydney was appalling, due to a defective transmission system. But as 3ZZ ran into heavy flak (as well as a planted 'spy' according to Joan Dugdale) and received little support from Sydney management, 2JJ seemed to live the life of a golden child.

Allan Ashbolt sees the station's mixture of 'satire and rock' as "genuinely ground breaking" (Ashbolt 1987: 111), and the goodwill was not just from elderly progressives, but from a broad spectrum of the community - not least actors and musicians who got the chance to try out the new and different on a broad, partisan and involved, if not high rating, set of listeners with real brand loyalties (see Davis 1988: 22).

In fact, though 2JJ by 1976 never rated like a commercial rock station, to the publicly stated concern of GM (Radio) Keith Mackriell, Ellis Blain was not surprised: "from the beginning 2JJ was geared to a maturing Australia with a positive and forward-looking concept of itself - a nationÉ able to laugh at its own foibles. But the political and social climateÉ was so reactionary that it became the antithesis of such a bold and adventurous concept" (Blain 1977: 103).

Nevertheless, 2JJ survived, while 3ZZ went down the gurgler. Secretly, it seems, ABC management were proud to have actually found a new audience - what consultant Jacqueline Huie would call in June 1990 "another ABC out there" ( Huie, 22 June, National Broadcasting in the 1990s Conference 1990: author's transcript).

FM RULES, OK?

In July 1980, the Fraser government allowed the ABC to join the commercial rush to the gilt El Dorado of the FM band, and 2JJ became 2JJJ. One of the two co ordinators was the visibly less Abbie Hoffmanish figure of Marius Webb, and by now some of the presenters were from other public radio rock/alternative stations such as Brisbane's 4ZZZ. Indeed by the time 2JJ went FM, there was a sense that now, a dynasty of the radical had been formed, for Webb would soon become, in the post-Dix ABC, a Senior Manager (Human Resources), returning to plan the spread of 2JJJ to the rest of Australia. And the target group of listeners (eighteen to twenty-four) was a new target for the ABC.

By now 2JJJ was an established success, indeed, a Sydney institution. After all, according to Whitehead (1988: 71), it was serving more Australians and widening the ABC's base. Whitehead, who as the target of considerable 2JJJ satire, seemed to have no particular reason to embrace the station, but had in fact developed the not dissimilar 'youth oriented' ZM stations in New Zealand in the late 1970s.

Marius Webb, commenting on the radio conference held in July 1984, argued that "what is clearÉ is that only in Sydney is there a non-commercial station for young people, while there are three non-commercial stations for older people. In other states - excluding public broadcasters - there are no non-commercial programs to speak of" (Webb in Scan October 30: 22).

That it might be unfortunate - if now historically inevitable - that it would be Sydney who would, yet again, save the broadcasting public was an irony that escaped Marius. His essay did, however, allude to some interstate unease - though public broadcasters like 5MMM, 3RRR, and 4ZZZ who were later to argue that a national 2JJJ would cripple them, were not represented at the conference. Whatever their achievements, Marius Webb was "extremely flattered to think that we can provide some sort of model" (op cit: 22).

THE YOUTH NETWORK PROJECT - AND SOME NON EVENTS

The ABC Corporate Plan for 1986-1989 (1986: 24), presented an idea for a national youth network for which 2JJ would provide the basic 'bed', but each city would insert its own local materials into broadcasting 'windows'. Since this provision for local input would require extra staff it had already gone out its own 'window' well before the announced cuts of the 1990s. Australia would receive Sydney programming untouched in the new system for the foreseeable future.

From the perspective of 1991, the fact that a populist obsession: rock and roll, should be accorded such an extraordinary priority over another, more urgent, priority - giving a voice to Aboriginal and Islander history and life - reveals more about where the ABC is coming from (Anglo-Celtic head office) than any amount of pious statements and special Aboriginal traineeships.

Since JJJ was an ABC flagship, it would necessarily and inevitably remain a head office baby. Conversely, the token Aboriginal and Islander program Speaking Out, launched in the dead (metro radio) timeslot of Sunday 6.30pm, would be produced out of Brisbane as an el cheapo (though excellent) sop to regional cries of marginalisation. The same corporate plan that devoted so much space to the sacred mission of attracting a youth audience cheerfully limited itself to a cautious future 'coverage' of Aboriginal issues and concerns on the national network.

Speaking Out remains in 1991 the sole continuing production answering this corporate goal. In spite of Board member Neville Bonner's Board sub-committee on Aboriginal Programming, Speaking Out, and technical advice to such groups as CAAMA remain as tokens of the ABC's poor record in this area, despite Neville Bonner's well publicised field trips - one of which included Whitehead in a more populist mood. To give the managing director his due, he had (July 1985) visited Yellowknife in Canada's northwest to see how the CBC was doing. His comments on the visit don't make the findings exactly clear. As the catchphrase in the English satirical magazine Private Eye goes: "ÉÊer, that's itÉ "

But to ABC management, now under David Hill, the call of youth was proving irresistible. JJJ was moving out.

STATION TO NETWORK

The 1988-1989 Annual Report revealed a supremely confident 2JJJ, broadcasting live new music on its weekly programs, Live at the Wireless and New Noise . Youth-directed current affairs and news were clearly successful (the 'solid' audience increased from 206,000 to 241,000) as the station geared up for the now inevitable national networking. Sporting 'commentators' and opera buffo, Rugby League experts from the head office state, Rampaging Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson began to turn up on national radio - occasionally even mentioning other than local sports. In this they were much like The Coodabeens, now networked out of Melbourne, who still manage from time to time to hint at a world outside the suburban, the local and the arcane.

JJJ was now in favour, not least after chair and managing director David Hill took over as president of the North Sydney Rugby Club. Semmleresque mutterings about "mutinous" (190) behaviour, "universal execration" (205) and Sir Henry Bland's assertion that: "2JJ laces its output with offensively obnoxious items" (Bland, Sydney Morning Herald, I January 1977) now seem quaint - certainly within ABC management, where the station is one of the few cultural products in tune with a government obsessed with nostrums like Priority One and the promotion of Australian rock and roll out of a Canberra-based unit headed by the ex Labor parliamentarian and sixties survivor, Pete Steadman.

In the light of all this, how could the ABC even bother to reply to the despairing documents (one, in 1987, from 5MMM, of monograph length) begging the ABC not to wipe out the tenuous grip underfunded public band youth stations had on their audiences outside Sydney? On 22 October 2JJJ went national, first to Melbourne and the following Sunday to Perth. As 2JJJ moved out into the nation, the ABC, in Sydney, celebrated.

Scan quoted Marius Webb, now guru as well as youth network project director: "there's a growing sense of anticipation. It's difficult to tell how quickly it will have major impactÉ but it's sure to provide an enormous cultural input everywhere. When the network's complete, kids in Hobart will hear Aboriginal bands, like the ones we recorded recently in Darwin" (Webb, Scan October 1989: 2). The 'we' is a bit of a giveaway, the we running 2JJJ is very much not in Darwin.

But, as David Hill in the ABC news release of 21 August 1989 had said: "as part of the ABC's charter we take a special responsibility to promote Australian music and culture. The government's decision allows us to fulfil this vital roleÉ " (ABC, No 28: 21 August 1989). What this statement signalled was the direct steamrolling of the work done (with little or no finance) by regional public stations. As had happened with the Australian Film Finance Corporation, the smaller players were being run out of town.

Marius Webb: "We are much closer to a commercial station (than the public broadcasters) simply because we have fulltime announcers just like any commercial station. No public station has got that, the only public station that came anywhere near was Triple Z in Brisbane. The public broadcasting argument tends to come from that understandable, but I think illogical, notion that they are competing against superior resourcesÉ the point is that the equation is the same for us. Our total station budget would be spent by the average major city commercial station in six months, just on publicity" (Webb, Interview, Communications Update, Issue 56, June 1990: 8-11).

Webb's statement is a typical one from a position of absolute power. The equation is not the same for the ABC - they already have a network, staff, legal backups, royalty agreements, 'free' phone calls, staff, economies of scale and the rest. The list of advantages is endless and it's hardly relevant to even mention commercial opposition - least of all when commercial stations are themselves networking and shedding staff. Against these realities, the claims of the ABC to be opening up a New World seem more than a little disingenuous. Sometimes it seems that even the most altruistic of ABC staff, especially those based in head office, cannot comprehend how limited their visions are.

The ABC is not competing against, nor disadvantaged against, the 'commercial' world that ABC managers so often invoke nowadays. The whole plan/idea/whatever, was that the ABC would be something other, different - even in crudely High Cultural terms - better . Marius Webb's statement shows that the ABC have truly mislaid the script. Commercial opposition is not, and has never been, the ABC's alibi for overpowering public radio initiatives. To invoke such a justification is almost a final admission of the ABC's failures.

However successful national JJJ will become (and in late 1991 the signs are otherwise), it is not the graceless and elitist arguments of the Semmlers by which it will be judged - nor by its own spurious invocations of commercial radio's advantages. If the broadcast product justifies the inbuilt arrogance of the ABC - and the now expected ignorance of the Department of Communications - then it deserves its network.

JJJ has done a lot of good. In new music, satire and sheer zest in broadcasting, it has caught the Zeitgeist . But it has also become very powerful. No memos are now received about sour smells or cigarette butts.

As the staff grow older, they too have grown expert in writing defensive or offensive memos. And there, precisely, lies the greatest danger for JJJ. Already it is being argued for as if it were a sacred institution . Empires normally start as did 2JJ and 2JJJ. It'll be interesting to see if the network can resist the clear symptoms of centralised power and become as exciting, free, sensible and, above all, self aware as it once briefly, was.

"The days of turning 27 and becoming a parent and stodgy and wearing a grey cardigan overnight, have really gone" (Webb, Scan, 56: 16).

In 1992, JJJ will only be eighteen - and a parent several times over. We shall see about the grey cardigan.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

ABC (1975+) Scan, Sydney: ABC (staff newsletter)

ABC (1986) ABC Corporate Plan 1986-1989, Sydney: ABC.

ABC News release, No.28, 21 August 1989.

ASHBOLT, A. (1987) "The ABC in Political Society" and "The ABC in Civil Society" in T. Wheelwright and K. Buckley (eds) Communications and the Media in Australia, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

BLAIN, E. (1977) Life with Aunty, Sydney: Methuen.

BLAND, Sir Henry in "Sydney Morning Herald", 1 January 1977.

DAVIS, G. (1988) Breaking Up the ABC, Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

ROSENBLOOM, H. in INGLIS, K.S. (1983) This is the ABC, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

SEMMLER, C. (1981) The ABC - Aunt Sally and Sacred Cow, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

WEBB, M. in "Communications Update", issue 56, June 1990.

WHITEHEAD, G. (1988) Inside the ABC, Melbourne: Penguin.


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Put up: 7 March 1996
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