Radio Australia was founded in 1939 by Prime Minister Robert Menzies to project the perspective of Australia during the second world war. 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, low power receivers and were difficult to censor locally. It was estimated that millions of suitable radios were in the field.
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. The fact that Radio Australia had programs in local languages gave it a direct line to the people.
The book, Australia Calling – The ABC Radio Australia Story, by Dr Phil Kafcaloudes 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 notably Fiji.
The broadcaster’s favour with our government has ebbed and flowed and funding levels have changed over time, 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 and 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 in (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. Stories of people who have learned English by listening and the avalanche of letters that arrived at times are tempered with tales of dramatic changes in direction and the trauma of savage cuts.
At the ABC Friends Victoria Christmas dinner in November, I took the opportunity to ask the Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, if there were any plans to re-invest in shortwave. She reminded us that it was the ABC’s decision, under MD 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 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.
Australia Calling – The ABC Radio Australia Story was commissioned and published by the ABC.