Off the dial
January 12, 2005
Photo: Craig Golding
When Triple J launched 30 years ago as 2JJ, Gayle Austin was there. She looks back at that first crazy year.
It started with a flashback, a reference to the possibilities of the ’60s. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … Houston, we have lift-off” exploded into You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good In Bed by Skyhooks. That Double J’s first song was Australian was our first big political statement. The fact that it was banned on commercial radio?
Well, things were about to change.
It was January 19, 1975, and it seemed all of Sydney was glued to the radio that day. Over at 2SM, the undisputed leading station for young people, DJ Charlie Fox couldn’t believe his ears: “The actual outrage of it. But we loved it. JJ was so radical, because 2SM at the time was playing American formats, which were 20 records over and over again, and that was it.”
Dan Arthur, a listener who later became a record company rep, says: “From day one, Double J was an incredible signifier of hope. Counter-culture at that stage in Australia had really been unfocused, and all of a sudden we had a crucial and central gathering point.”
The idea behind Double J was to set up a collective co-ordinated by Marius Webb and Ron Moss. They were given the job after a meeting with ABC management in October 1974 during which it was explained that the ABC had been given two licences, one of which was for a “youth-style station”. Webb recalls an ABC executive saying: “You’ll be on the air by January. Thank you very much, I’ve got another meeting.”
Word was the Whitlam government wanted to set the station up to woo young voters. We also heard that the ABC was worried about its audience dying off and wanted a station for young people who would grow up to be ABC listeners.
Towards the end of 1974, the first recruitment ads appeared in papers, stressing that a sense of the ridiculous was required. Producer Ted Robinson says: “There was a bit of concern about breaking down what was considered to be ‘an announcer’ in terms of finding ways other than the traditional approach.” Staff were chosen from across the country, with Webb and Moss ensuring a good mix of ABC and commercial people.
I heard about the new station in November, from a colleague at 2UW, where, as the co-ordinator of the talkback callers for John Laws, I had hit the glass ceiling. Radio in those days was like secret men’s business and I was the only woman who applied for an on-air position at Double J. I was given one midnight-to-dawn shift a week, a move so radical that I was the cause of much negative comment after our first survey of listeners. “Why do you have a woman on air? What do women know about music?”
On that first day, TV news cameras, photographers, well-wishers and staff crowded around what later became affectionately known as “The Bunker” – Studio 206 of the old ABC building in Forbes Street, Darlinghurst. A former bomb shelter, it was the perfect birthplace for the ABC’s alternative to Top 20 radio and the first Australian radio station to open in 43 years.
The location of the offices and production booths in William Street was ideal. We were down the road from the squatters, around the corner from the film-makers’ co-op, within walking distance of the inner city’s alternative community. We were in a building that already housed some of the most radical people working for the ABC: the feminists in the Women’s Unit and the radio current affairs show Lateline, headed by former Four Corners renegade Allan Ashbolt. They were generous with their advice on how to stay on the right side of the broadcasting guidelines and still push the barriers.
The aim of Double J was to put our own culture centre-stage. We wanted genuine dialogue with our listeners instead of talking at them in manufactured voices. Our station would be by young people for young people. We wanted to reject the cultural cringe that we had grown up with and which was still very much part of our national identity in 1975. The coffin had been nailed shut on the White Australia Policy only two years earlier.
Our brief was to provide an alternative to the mainstream, with a heavy emphasis on Australian content. We were to provide opportunities for live and recorded performances by young Australian musicians, and play (shock! horror!) album tracks from all the genres of music that weren’t being heard on commercial radio.
Colin Vercoe, who worked for two big record companies, CBS and Festival, before becoming one of Double J’s first music programmers, recalls going to radio stations in the early ’70s with American black music. “In those days it was the early disco stuff and if it was black they just wouldn’t play it.”
Chris Winter, Double J’s original on-air guru, recalls: “There was enormous breadth of music around at the time that one basically heard at parties, or if you scoured the new import stores, or you could read about it in import magazines, but you certainly couldn’t hear it on the radio.”
So we played everything we could get our hands on. We raided the ABC library for our back catalogue, played demo tapes from our listeners, brought records in from home, haunted the import stores and encouraged the ABC’s overseas correspondents to scour the back alleys of the capital cities around the world for treasures.
Double J’s eclectic playlist made the station appear radical, but it was in the talk area that the really radical work was done. Comedy acts such as Chuck Chunder and the Space Patrol, Captain Goodvibes, Nude Radio (Graham Bond and Rory O’Donoghue’s show, which launched Norman Gunston), Fred Dagg (aka John Clarke) and the legendary “anti-ads” informed future program-makers on how humour could be used on radio.
Our documentaries, under the guidance of first-class journalists and producers, made such an impact that at times they threatened to have us taken off the air. On February 23, the documentary The Ins and Outs of Love, by former 2SM producers Carl Tyson-Hall and Tony Poulsen, was aired to a barrage of press, religious and public criticism. We had dared speak about first sexual experiences and had apparently “breached community standards”.
A month later, after a Bulletin report by David McNicoll, the Broadcasting Control Board decided to talk to Aunty about her recalcitrant child. Webb spent a lot of his time in those first years shielding us from such attacks, arguing in this case that the station itself had received a request from a high school for the tape to help students in a personal development program.
It seemed we were always being threatened. In August, the NSW police commissioner, Fred Hanson, filed for $1 million in damages. He declared that a July broadcast claiming he had a financial interest in a gambling club near his home held him up to public hatred, ridicule and contempt. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court and in February 1976 he won the case. The terms were not disclosed but were rumoured to have run to tens of thousands of dollars.
One of my most bizarre memories of 1975 was discovering that our phones were tapped. We also noticed a van permanently parked out the front of the station with darkened windows and two men seated in the front. One of the news team approached them one night and asked who they were. Looking in the back of the van, he noticed a huge amount of recording equipment. The van disappeared the next day, but we still noticed strange clicks on the telephone whenever we rang out, and some of the more high-profile announcers noticed vans parked outside their homes. We were later told by a young person who worked at ASIO that there were files on all of us.
In that first year we had a station policy of access all areas. In early March, women took over the station as announcers to celebrate International Women’s Day. The listeners owned the station, too, and if they wanted to come to the meetings and join the debate, they were welcome. This attitude led to some interesting moments, such as when Holger Brockman’s shift was hijacked by three Aboriginal activists. They entered the studio and said they were armed and hijacking the station. Brockman said: “Oh, OK. Well, that’s the microphone there, and here you are, have my seat.” Brockman says they were really polite. “They said their bit, which took about five or 10 minutes, and then politely handed back to me – ‘And now back to Holger.’ Respectfully, like family.”
Two months after Double J launched, Bob Baeck, the general manager of 3XY, described it as “the lowest form of radio this country has produced”. However, by this time the station had already captured 5.4 per cent of the Sydney audience and 17 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds. It was quite a feat, considering the station’s faulty transmitter meant it could not be heard in many suburbs.
The reception issue was taken up with ABC boss Talbot Duckmanton and officials of the Broadcasting Control Board, but they refused to fix the transmitter. As a result, Double J repeatedly broadcast a recording of Bob Hudson singing Roll Over Duckmanton to the tune of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven (“I’m writing this letter, going to mail it to Double J. There’s a crackle in my trannie and it just won’t go away. Roll over Duckmanton, get a better transmitter today”). In July, staff threatened to strike unless the transmitter was strengthened but the BCB refused to discuss the issue with station representatives.
As it turned out, we had to wait until we went to FM in 1980 before we got a reasonable transmitter, and that was only about half the strength of those for the new commercial stations 2Day and Triple M. It was only when we were forced to go national, beginning with Melbourne in October 1989, that we were in a position to demand better reception.
By the ’90s, ABC management regarded Triple J as a loose cannon that could sink the struggling ship and rethought its approach to the station.
In 1990, Barry Chapman was brought over from Triple M as general manager and, on August 24, all senior announcers, myself included, were told they would not be keeping their jobs. There was a passionate public response, with protesters holding a 105.7-hour vigil outside the station. An independent inquiry was held, but to no avail. Triple J had moved on to a new chapter and we could only hope the foundations we had built would be strong enough.
Today the Triple J National Youth Network has, arguably, the largest reach of any radio station in the country (apart from Radio National.) It broadcasts to all capital cities and most regional areas, providing a lifeline for Australia’s youth.
Gayle Austin worked at the Jays until the purge of 1990. She has a BA in media, communications and culture studies and is completing an MA (Hons) at Macquarie University. Her thesis is an analysis of Triple J’s first 16 years; feedback from readers would be appreciated to firstname.lastname@example.org
Triple J Timeline
January 19, 1975
2JJ launches in Sydney on 1540AM.
May 25, 1975
First free concert, at Liverpool, with Skyhooks and Dragon.
September 19, 1979
Marius Webb broadcasts live from Newcastle’s Star Hotel during the infamous riots.
While on the run, prison escapee Raymond John Denning communicates via 2JJ.
August 1, 1980
The station becomes 2JJJ, at 105.7FM.
April 1, 1984
Triple J reports that Queensland has seceded from the rest of Australia.
January 13, 1985
Midnight Oil performs at Goat Island for the station’s 10th birthday.
Triple J broadcasts questions from stolen HSC papers.
March 5, 1989
The Hottest 100 begins (Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart wins).
Triple J launches in Melbourne, beginning the roll-out of the national network.
Seven high-profile DJs lose their jobs. Protesters storm the building; a 105.7 hour vigil is held; 4000 people attend a protest meeting at Sydney Town Hall; benefit concerts are held.
Regional roll-out begins. Unearthed kicks off, with the first winners being Lismore’s Grinspoon.
Spiderbait becomes the first Australian band to win the Hottest 100.
Pauline Hanson takes out an injunction against the ABC to stop Triple J airing Pauline Pantsdown’s satirical song I’m a Backdoor Man.
April 1, 2000
Breakfast duo Adam and Wil, with the help of NSW Premier Bob Carr, convince many that Sydney has lost the Olympics to Melbourne.
Real Appeal for young refugees raises $405,000.
Arnold Frollows, the last of the original 2JJ DJs, steps down as music director.