Because of the vast distances involved in Australia, radio provided a lifeline for rural and regional Australia, and an invaluable link to Europe and the rest of the world.

Australians took to the new invention immediately and enthusiastically, and it soon became an inextricable part of Australian life.

World War One

With the passage of the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905, radio came under the control of the new Federal Government, and it has remained with them to this day.

World War I brought all radio use under strict Federal Government control. This halted private development until the war ended.

Early Experiments

By 1919 there were over 900 amateur and experimental radio users in Australia.

The invention the Regenerating Receiver and the Superheterodyne Receiver (both created by American genius Edwin Armstrong) had made long-distance broadcast transmission of voice and music possible.

The development of radio took off again at a rapid rate.

The first official Australian radio broadcast took place in Sydney on 19 August 1919. Mr Ernest Fisk, then the head of AWA, organised for a performance of "God Save The King" (then the Australian National Anthem) to be broadcast from one building to another at the end of a lecture he'd given on the new medium to the Royal Society of NSW.

As broadcast radio took off in the USA in the early 1920's, it proved to be tremendously popular and vastly profitable. RCA sold a staggering $80 million dollars worth of its Radiola receivers, even though they were priced at a whopping $75 each, which was several weeks' wages for the average worker in those days.

Companies like AWA and other interested parties lobbied hard to get broadcasting officially established in Australia.

The Sealed Set

In 1924 Ernest Fisk (later Sir Ernest) of AWA suggested the introduction of the Sealed Set scheme.

The Sealed Set was designed to be used to listen to one station only, to which the listener would have paid a licence fee. Its purpose was to fund radio broadcasting by selling receivers tuned to a specific station.

This was seen as preferable to the British situation, where the Government backed a monopolistic service (the BBC) and collected a single licence fee from each household with a receiver.

There appears to have been little attention at the time paid to a third possible model - that of the licensee charging for advertisements, as was done in the USA.

Unfortunately, people did not buy the Sealed Sets. They were expensive and could only listen to one station. It was also easy to avoid the licence fee by building your own set, or modifying an existing set.

As a result, the Sealed Set scheme was highly unpopular. Only 1,400 licences were issued in the first six months.

The Sealed Set Scheme came to be regarded as an abject failure. The radio industry was regarded as having "shot itself in the foot" with a scheme that was "ill advised".

Radio in Australia had got off to a bad start. But it would quickly recover and thrive in the years ahead.

AWA Radiophone Sealed Set 1923-2023.2.
The two valves are Marconi Type DEP410,
but are not original according to a label attached to the set.

Class A and B licences

In July 1924 the government announced a new two tiered system, with class "A" and class "B" licences.

"A" class stations were to be government subsidised. "B" class stations were permitted to earn revenue by charging for advertising.

The first set of "A" class licenced stations included the four original Sealed Set licencees, plus one other station in each state capital.

This arrangement combined features of the British system (where the government-controlled BBC had a complete monopoly) and the American system, where "market forces" determined the overall structure of the industry and stations were predominantly privately owned.

The American radio industry had already proved that there was a significant amount of money to be made in commercial radio. The first radio advertisement was broadcast on WEAF in New York in February 1922; a ten minute talk by the advertiser cost $50 but recouped $27,000 in sales - a staggering 540% return on investment.

The new scheme was spectacularly successful compared to its predececessor. At the end of 1924 40,000 listener licences has been issued and this doubled to 80,000 by the end of 1925.

The oldest surviving "B" class station is 2UE in Sydney, which went on air on 26 January 1925.

The Establishment Of The ABC

The only other structural change at this time was the nationalisation of the twelve "A" class stations and the subsequent establishment of the Australian Broadcasting Commission on 1 July 1932.

The new national broadcaster was initially permitted to carry advertising, but this was dropped from the final Bill.

The ABC was funded in part by direct government grant, but drew most of its revenue from listener licence fees. Licence fees were only dropped in the 1970's.

With the airwaves now divided between the ABC and the commercial sector, the two-tier system became the structural foundation of the industry, and was used as the model for TV in the 1950's.

This arrangement would not change significantly for the next 40 years.

Short Wave Broadcasting

It is worth noting that Australia was a leader in the use of short wave broadcasting to transmit overseas. In 1927 AWA conducted a series of transmissions to Britain.

These regular broadcasts were heralded by a kookaburra's laugh - a practice that is still used by Radio Australia today.

Radio Australia was formally incorporated as part of the ABC in 1939.

FM Radio - Not

In the USA, Edwin Armstrong had invented FM broadcasting in the early 1930's.

FM had better fidelity, could broadcast in stereo and was not subject to electrical interference like the AM band.

After much frustration FM was introduced in the USA in the late 1930's in the frequencies of 42 to 50 MHz.

In Australia, experimental FM broadcasts were commenced in 1948. However, after an inquiry into FM in 1957, where little interest was shown, the Government authorised the use of the international VHF FM band for television in 1961.

But not everyone agreed with the Government's decision. In the 1960's, there was dissatisfaction with the Government in not introducing the quality of FM broadcasting. This emanated mainly from people who want fine music on the airwaves.

The Golden Years Of Radio

By the early 1940's the Australian radio broadcasting was well established.

There were about 130 commercial stations and an equivalent number of ABC stations.

The ABC had national commitments, including news, education, parliamentary broadcasting and culture (including five full symphony orchestras).

The commercial stations were much more focussed on the local community and local business. This broad division still predominates.

The Impact Of Television

From 1956 on, television rapidly supplanted radio as the main family entertainment medium.

Radio lost a massive share of its audience to TV in the first few years, and proprietors desperately cast around for new forms of programming to win listeners back. Two formats that were successful were music-based formats and talkback radio.

Under the influence of TV, radio had to abandon its traditional programming. Its former staples - drama, serials, comedy and quiz shows - were all being successfully transplanted to television.

Television had a profound effect on radio formats. As the popularity of TV increased, radio's "prime time" gradually shifted from night to day. Early morning "breakfast" and late afternoon "drivetime" shifts now became focal points. The car radio was instrumental in this, as listeners could hear these programs as they drove to and from work or school.

New technology also played a vital part in the way radio developed in the 1960's and 1970's. The availability of the transistor and cheap, reliable dry-cell batteries allowed manufacturers to build small, low-cost radio receivers. The arrival of vinyl disks and magnetic recording tape was also of benefit to radio.

Community Broadcasting

In 1961 the experimental FM stations were closed down as the VHF band had been allocated to television. This led Dr. Neil Runcie in Sydney to form the Listener's Society of NSW. Its major objective the establishment of subscriber-supported FM fine music stations.

At the same time, the University of NSW was given a licence under the Wireless and Telegraphy Act to broadcast lectures over a non-broadcast frequency.

These were two of the progenitors of a movement to provide more diversity in Australia's radio broadcasting. Ultimately this movement led to the establishment of a third tier of broadcasting in Australia, the Public or Community sector.

Some of the reasons behind the genesis of Community Radio were:

These groups had one thing in common - they wanted access to the airwaves.

FM Again

In 1971 and 1972, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board held another enquiry into the introduction of FM broadcasting. This eventually recommended the introduction of FM - but on the UHF band rather than the internationally used VHF band.

The commercial sector (as in 1957) was not interested in spending a lot of money on retooling for FM and it fought its introduction.

FM was eventually introduced on the VHF band - the internationally recognised FM band - rather than the UHF band as recommended by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board in 1972. This was regarded as a victory of common sense.

The Special Broadcasting Service

Ethnic community radio is a strong component of community radio in general with five full time ethnic community radio stations and about 45 others broadcasting some ethnic programming.

In 1975 Al Grassby, the colourful Minister for Ethnic Affairs, and later Consultant to the Government on ethnic issues, talked the Government into opening two experimental stations in Sydney and Melbourne to broadcast information to ethnic communities about Medicare. These stations, 2EA and 3EA, eventually stayed on air.

When the ABC showed reluctance to take them on board as part of its charter, the Fraser Government in 1976 set up the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) to run the EA stations. Later SBS television was also established.

Commercial FM Radio

Realizing that it had missed the boat with FM in the early 1970's, the commercial radio sector pushed for access to FM. It wanted all its AM stations to have the right to simulcast on FM. But this was not accepted.

Instead in 1980 the Government offered a limited number of FM licences - 2 in Melbourne and Sydney and one each in each other capital city. These "licences to print money" went to new players, including some eminent media people rather than the existing stations.

The first FM commercial stations very quickly became profitable and held high ratings leads in most markets. There was and still is a lot of discontent amongst the original AM stations.

Digital Radio In Australia

The Digital Audio Broadcasting standard, DAB, was developed in 1988 and formalised in 1993.

Continental Europe and the UK started broadcasting in 2000, and it's estimated that by 2006 around 500 million people lived in coverage areas for digital radio.

But the history of DAB is somewhat chequered, and that’s why we won’t be using it here in Australia. Instead, we’ll use the upgraded DAB+ standard. So what's the difference?

DAB predates most compressed audio devices such as personal players and even affordable home PCs, so it uses MPEG-1 Audio Layer II compression (called MP2). This was good enough in the early 1990's, but it had a major drawback: digital stations had poorer audio quality than FM!

DAB eliminates crosstalk and static, but it sounds a lot worse than a CD. Adding insult to injury, some stations broadcast their music in mono to save on bandwidth. Analog radio gets a slice of the spectrum to use, and has a KHz 'slot' on the band. Digital radio does too, but since it’s digital, the amount of content is actually measured in kilobits per second (kbps), just like when you encode an MP3 at different quality settings.

Here in Australia, digital channels will be given a maximum of 192kbps per channel. It's possible to split this bandwidth up, assign it to different sub-channels or use it for text, and that is part of what is great about digital radio.

But in countries that use DAB, not DAB+ like Australia, any reduction in bandwidth has a massive effect on audio quality, because of the MP2 compression.

DAB+, on the other hand, uses AAC+ compression, just like iPod. It’s more efficient, and it means a 64kbps audio stream sounds fantastic, much better than FM. DAB+ also has better error correction, and when it comes to a digital signal, error correction makes all the difference between uninterrupted music and constant dropouts.

Indeed, listeners are the whole point of digital radio, and Australia has no shortage of radio listeners. What's more, Australia has an unusually high proportion of AM listeners: 48 percent. This makes us ideal candidates for a switch to digital radio, as the advantages over AM are in many ways even greater than over FM.