10. Modernity, Intimacy and Early Australian Commercial Radio

Bridget Griffen-Foley

On its relaunch on 23 March 1936, the Sydney Daily Telegraph declared itself ‘thoroughly modern’—as modern as television, wireless and airmail.[1] While it was to be another two decades before television arrived in Australia, broadcasting, in the form of radio, was already an entrenched part of the Australian media and entertainment industries. Marshall Berman asserts that the maelstrom of modern life has been fed from many sources: great discoveries in the physical sciences, the industrialisation of production, immense demographic upheavals, rapid urban growth, systems of mass communication, increasingly powerful national states and bureaucracies, and mass social movements of people.[2] In this schema, and in the views of the radio and advertising industries, radio—or, to use the more evocative term, wireless—was the quintessence of modernity. Its ability to send through the ether signals and pulses, music and words, banter and instruction seemed a marvel of science and, in the 1920s, the radio tower, like the skyscraper, began to dot the skylines of Australian cities.

As a director of the Australian arm of the powerful advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, W. A. McNair, observed in a pioneering study in 1937, radio was truly established as ‘a mass medium’.[3] But, as the American cultural historian Roland Marchand has noted, ‘radio surpassed all others in its capacity to deny its own status as a mass medium’.[4] This chapter considers how the Australian radio industry welcomed radio’s growing reach and economic power while exploiting its potential for intimate contact with its audience. This chapter is, in other words, about how early Australian radio blended the rhetoric of modernity with compensatory varieties of ‘personal’ contact.

From 1923, when broadcasting began officially in Australia after a series of fits and starts, wireless was addressed in the same terms of scientific wonder as had greeted moving pictures and the gramophone. The modernist magazine Home predicted that the technology would ‘creep into every phase of your existence. It is the Radio Age.’[5] In an editorial entitled ‘The March of Science’ in 1927, Sydney’s leading radio periodical, Wireless Weekly, traced mankind’s efforts to gather and disseminate knowledge from the Greek philosophers, physicists and physicians, to scientists during the Renaissance and the wonders of industrialisation: the steam engine, the telescope and the electric telegraph. ‘No scientific achievement, however, seized upon popular imagination’ like wireless, declared the editorial: ‘The profound mystery of ethereal voices and messages provoked the interest of a vast mass of people.’[6]

For years, expectations of radio had been particularly high in Australia, and it was not just Wireless Weekly that believed that the medium could, and would, prove to be ‘a power for good’.[7] Sir Ernest Fisk, managing director of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), enthused that no ‘scientific discovery offers such great possibility for binding together the parts of our far-flung Empire’. Former Prime Minister W. M. Hughes asserted that by radio’s ‘magic the vast globe shrinks to compassable dimensions, distance is annihilated, isolation banished…Wireless will make [imperial ties] still stronger’.[8] Radio, it was confidently thought, would draw the mother country and the dominions into the imperial family, the citizens of the city and the outback into the national family, and members of the household into a family circle.[9]

In 1925, Wireless Weekly insisted that Australia’s geography should help, rather than hinder, radio’s development as ‘those people separated by distance from centres of amusement and education must directly benefit’. Indeed, radio, like aviation, would help to overcome the problems of a sparse population defending such a vast area. The publication which did so much to portray wireless as a symbol of modernity and progress and a consumer necessity believed that radio would help to bring ‘city joys to country lives’.[10]

In the late 1920s, as the regulatory regime stabilised and the number of radio licences taken out by households grew, there was a discernable shift in the style of presentation on Australian radio. For many early listeners, the great fascination of radio had been in its outside broadcasting as it brought the wider world—big sporting contests, political gatherings and the exploits of aviators—into the privacy and comfort of listeners’ homes. But, as Lesley Johnson shows, by the end of the decade industry leaders and periodicals were convinced that radio was most successful when intimate, human and personal. If radio had begun by exploiting the extraordinary, by the 1930s, it was conjuring up a world it shared with listeners—the everyday, ordinary, intimate world of home life.[11] Many individual station slogans elected to draw on notions of companionship rather than on regional characteristics: 2HD Newcastle was ‘The Voice of Friendship’, 2MW Murwillumbah ‘The Friendly Station’, 4WK Warwick ‘The Listener’s Companion’, 6AM Northam ‘The Happy Station’ and 6PM Perth ‘The Cheery Station’.[12]

As early as 1926, the radio ‘Uncle’ and ‘Aunt’ were a feature of several ABC and commercial stations. Adopting a position of benign superiority, these announcers appealed to adults as well as children. One listener wrote to a radio station in 1928: ‘I have a very old Aunt…When the children’s hour comes on, I place the loud speaker beside her…I caught her the other day using it as a telephone to talk to the aunts and uncles.’[13] Although women performed in dramas and comedies, most were confined to the role of Aunt in sessions aimed at women and children. Radio was geared to the rhythms dictated by work, housework and school: in the morning, the whole family was included; by 10.30 or 11 am, programs were designed for housewives; sessions that began about 5 pm were tailored to children; and, from about 6.30 pm, came music, variety shows and serials. An Uncle or Aunt might reappear to read a bedtime story.[14] John Dunne, studio manager of 2SM Sydney and leader of ‘Uncle Tom’s Gang’, came to dislike how most Australian stations followed the BBC’s example of closing down with a bald ‘goodnight’. He introduced a nocturnal benediction for 2SM listeners: ‘And so to bed. Sleep in peace, wake in joy, good angels guard thee. And goodnight. God bless you.’[15]

Refining their populist styles during the Great Depression, radio’s Uncles and Aunts carefully ministered to their audiences. The first edition of the Listener In for 1930 featured a photograph of a pretty, smiling young woman with the caption, ‘Start 1930 with a Smile’. Readers were advised to pull together cheerfully and help each other in the face of the economic malady, and to use radio to ‘tune out the gloom’.[16] In her 1930 Christmas message, ‘Auntie Goodie’ (Goodie Reeves) of 2GB Sydney urged her nieces and nephews to ‘specially appreciate your presents this year, because most Mummies and Daddies have not had too many pennies to spend’.[17]

‘I like you—I’m your friend!’ declared the ‘Cheerio Man’ (Captain A. C. C. Stevens) on a promotional postcard issued by 2UE Sydney in the mid-1930s.[18] The providential ambiguity of the second-person pronoun in English—the ‘you’ that embodies the intimate, singular tu and the impersonal, plural vous—allowed the broadcaster to use a form of address that was both mass delivered and highly personal.[19] ‘Elva’ wrote to Wireless Weekly in 1931 to praise the ‘personal touch’ of radio; her favourite announcers all had ‘a friendly, cheerful way of making one feel that in many ways a friend is chatting’.[20]

The successful announcers of the 1930s exploited the technology of radio to create a world of the every day and the ordinary and to produce personalities for themselves ‘just like you and me’. The most popular male announcer in Victoria, Norman Banks, set himself up as a friendly advisor in programs such as Help Thy Neighbour and Husbands and Wives.[21] One broadcaster who specialised in presenting advice programs was Sydney’s Frank Sturge Harty, whose appeal to the individual through a mass medium was captured by the Wireless Weekly’s label, ‘The Man Who Knows the Confidence of TEN THOUSAND WOMEN’. Interviewed about his new 2UE advice program, Between Ourselves, in 1938, Harty asserted that it was ‘designed to be intimate, so that every woman, sitting alone, will feel that it belongs to her individually’.[22] Comedy programs and soap operas with titles such as Mr and Mrs Everybody (networked from 2CH Sydney) and Mrs ’Arris and Mrs ’Iggs (networked from 2UW Sydney) conveyed a world familiar to listeners.

Before the advent of talkback radio in the 1960s, there were many ways for Australian listeners to be drawn directly into the world of radio programs and to engage with on-air personalities. Listeners were encouraged to ring in and talk to a studio operator or presenter off air, and to have their stories, jokes or musical requests relayed on air. Commercial radio, in particular, drew on music-hall traditions of audience participation in Community Singing broadcasts, which were a popular feature of radio stations around the country, and programs such as 2UW’s enormously successful Australia’s Amateur Hour.[23] Uncles and Aunts sent birthday calls to individual children, with John Dunne reasoning: ‘Call a youngster and that kiddy remains a listener for life.’[24] Radio announcers took their shows on the road and presided over excursions and tours. By the mid-1930s, the private lives of station ‘personalities’ were very public, with periodicals such as Radio Pictorial of Australia reporting on announcers’ interests, idiosyncrasies, families, working days and office romances. The radio bachelor even became an identifiable figure in the pages of radio periodicals, with the implication being that you, too, could snare yourself an announcer.[25]

In 1928, the 2UW humorist, Jack Win, noted that each year thousands of letters were received by each station.[26] As one American commentator remarked, radio programs made ‘thousands of people feel free to sit down and write a friendly and personal letter to a large corporation’.[27] By the mid-1930s, Australian radio periodicals were gleefully running photos of piles of fan mail, which seemed to attest to the medium’s popularity and importance. Station managers and announcers liked them, too. Each day an employee was required to sift through the mail and scrutinise every line in case the letter was in response to a competition. Ardent notes of appreciation found their way into folders to show prospective advertisers. As Wireless Weekly put it, ‘[N]o mail, no proof for manager and advertiser, no job.’[28]

The letters received by radio stations—from children, housewives, invalids and the elderly—were variously sad, amusing, affectionate, business-like, critical or libellous. Some of the signed letters yielded replies, either on or off air. A number of listeners appear to have been quite content to write to their favourite radio personalities confiding intimate details of their lives, including the meanderings of husbands and the misdoings of offspring, with no expectation of a reply. Letters could take serial form, or be accompanied by photographs or gifts. At 2UW, ‘Uncle Jack’ (J. M. Prentice) received innumerable queries, all of which he tried to answer, no matter how bizarre, as well as compliments, requests and invitations to dances, dinners and tête-à-têtes. By 1936, he had presided over the funeral of one listener and been in touch with another for more than a decade. ‘It has helped through many a minor crisis to know that such faithful friendship has been evoked,’ he opined. ‘Were it not for the friendly word, the appreciation of the fact that an announcer has to work long hours, under great strain, that he must always be cheerful…the job of announcing would be likely to develop into a nightmare.’[29]

Radio stations and networks worked hard to turn their personalities and their endeavours into popular social movements. That 2CH had a ‘Fairy Godmother’ (Margaret Herd) suggests that the radio family performed benevolent, as well as social and promotional, functions. Radio was represented as a means of escape and fun, of solace and support. The Depression was rendered part of the outside world, with radio clubs emphasising private charitable endeavour and neighbourly help in a depoliticised, personalised realm.[30] Although there were differences between how the ‘star’ system developed in the film and radio industries, there were also some clear synergies between the social and commercial endeavours of the two most public media of popular culture and communication in the inter-war years. Film and radio interests set up clubs for fans in order to enhance the industries’ civic reputability, insinuate themselves in the lives of consumers, engender goodwill and facilitate tie-ins with businesses. From the late 1920s, just before the anticipated arrival of talking pictures, American film interests set up clubs through local radio stations: the MGM Radio Movie Club was established in April 1928 through 2GB; 2UW opened the Fox Movietone Radio Club in 1930; and the Fox Hoyts Radio Club in Perth had evolved into the 6ML Cheerio Club by the mid-1930s.[31]

Probably the most notable of the clubs launched in the early years of Australian radio was the 2GB Happiness Club. The founder was Mrs W. J. (Eunice) Stelzer, a music teacher who had been involved in wartime fundraising. She began performing on 2GB, where her husband worked, shortly after its formation, and joined the permanent staff in 1929. Her women’s session drew letters from listeners confiding their worries and seeking advice. As the volume of mail increased, Stelzer organised suburban branches to assist with replies. In September 1929, she announced her intention to form a club to gather together the branches.[32] Two hundred and fifty women attended the meeting at the station’s headquarters that spawned the 2GB Happiness Club.

The club’s motto was ‘Others first’, its signature verse Pull Together: ‘We are helped by helping others; if we give we always get.’ Stelzer’s brand of self-help, selflessness and sisterhood struck a chord with listeners during the bitter early days of the Depression. The club was non-political and non-sectarian and free to join. Wearing their membership badges, women chatted about the club on the train. Sixty-four branches, each officially opened by Stelzer on 2GB and featuring its own colours and social secretary, were formed across Sydney and beyond.[33]

Like the members of film clubs, Stelzer’s ladies had enormous fun doing good.[34] Afternoon teas, ‘musicales’ and ‘conversaziones’ were held at David Jones and Mark Foys. Monthly branch meetings usually began with Advance Australia Fair and featured singing and dancing. Sometimes 2GB personalities such as ‘Uncle Frank’ (Frank Grose), host of Cheer-Up and Gloom Chasers sessions, along with the Radio Sunday School, put in an appearance. When one member was thrown a birthday party in 1930, she recorded simply: ‘I’ll never forget the Genuineness.’ The club formed ‘Younger Sets’ and a vocational training arm for boys, organising aeronautical, electrical and life-saving classes, and tours of manufacturing and engineering works.[35]

Stelzer became the darling of Australian radio periodicals, which delighted in celebrating radio’s good works. Her neat dark perm, matronly figure and floral frocks were a familiar sight to readers. In 1932, with membership of the club at 4000 and still growing, 2GB decided to formalise its charitable activities. It established a Charity Board, chaired by G. A. Saunders (‘Uncle George’), which included Stelzer, 2GB’s managing director, A. E. Bennett, head of the Bluebirds Club for children, Muriel Valli (‘Auntie Val’), and Dorothy Jordan. Proceeds from parties, concerts and Community Singing were to be donated to the Dalwood Health Home for Children and, in time, many other institutions. Members of the 2GB Happiness Club visited the sick, repaired shoes and donated and collected clothes for the needy.[36] Its origins in working-class Campsie, its spread to areas such as Wollongong and Woy Woy, and the range of its activities suggest that the club was not directed at a purely middle-class audience, preferring, instead, to speak as if all women were one and the same.[37] And at the centre of this community was 2GB.

While the 2GB Happiness Club formed branches in Exeter and New Zealand, and made arrangements for members travelling to Ceylon to be met at the dock,[38] other clubs proliferated, if on a slightly less ambitious scale. Six months after its formation in 1933, the 2GF Smile Club in Grafton had 1800 members, all of whom pledged to smile three times, and make someone smile, every day. They were given badges and membership certificates showing that ‘Uncle Col’ (Charles Coldwell-Smith) was president and ‘The Smileman’ (AWA executive Roger Fair) was patron. Members had their own session on Saturday mornings and, through 2GF, donated flowers and books to the Grafton Benevolent Home. In 1934, Fair introduced the Smile Club to two other AWA stations, 2AY Albury and 3BO Bendigo.[39] The organisers of established clubs were often persuaded to start up clubs elsewhere: in 1939, for instance, Betty Errington went from 3BO to Cairns to establish a women’s club, and host the women’s and children’s sessions, at 4CA. The club rooms at the RSL were surely more salubrious than the studios located in a ‘funny, little brown house on stilts’ lacking toilet and fan.[40]

Most of the clubs that spread around Australia were christened with upbeat names: the Cheerio Club, the Friendship Circle, the Joy Club and the Look Up and Laugh Club.[41] Feeling that the field was becoming a trifle crowded, Jack Davey formed the Miserable Club in 1934. His first news session facetiously reported on suicides, murders and funerals, and announced the launch of the Back to Long Bay Jail Week and a new serial, How to Murder in Your Own Home.[42]

But still the clubs came, including the 5DN Kipling Boys’ Club (in Adelaide), the 3SH Women’s Club (in Swan Hill) and the 7LA Women’s Association (in Launceston). Founded in 1935 by Gordon Marsh, general manager of Hume Broadcasters, the Kipling Boys’ Club adopted as its creed Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. Don Bradman was recruited as president and helped to persuade Kipling himself to be club patron. Under the direction of ‘Uncle Bert’ (Bert Woolley), 18 000 members worked to raise money for stoves, pianos, prams, clothing, wheelchairs and radio sets for the needy.[43] The 3SH Women’s Club was formed in Swan Hill in 1937 to ‘promote a bond of friendship’ between members, who were approved by the ‘senior lady announcer’ and selected their own club name. The club hosted debutante balls and a ‘Microphone Ball’, entered a float in the annual street procession and supported the local hospital.[44] Established in Launceston in 1938, the 7LA Women’s Association promoted the station’s Community Singing and dances, hosted afternoon teas in its club rooms, raised money and goods for hospitals and orphanages, visited hospital patients and distributed canteen orders to disadvantaged children. Members also joined in activities with the 7HO Women’s Association.[45]

By 1939, there were at least 117 clubs affiliated with Australia’s commercial radio stations. A list compiled by the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters for the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting in 1942 indicated that about 40 stations had established women’s clubs, with a total membership of nearly 150 000. The committee concluded that women’s and children’s clubs helped to ‘guard morality on the air’ and provided a valuable service to the Australian community. There were clubs designed for listeners bound together by age (such as the Call to Youth Club of 2UE, the Junior Country Service Club of 2GZ Orange and the Chatterbox Corner Chums of 3AW Melbourne), interest (the Fisherman’s Club of 3XY Melbourne, the Commander Singing Club of 4TO Townsville and the Gardening League of 7EX Launceston), and timeslot (the Night Owls’ Club of 2CA Canberra and the Breakfast Clubs of 3AW Melbourne, 3UL Warragul and 3YB Warrnambool), as well as gender.[46]

Like fan mail, radio clubs had commercial overtones and implications. In 1940, an executive with Western Stores, which advertised extensively on 2GZ, declared radio clubs were the ‘most useful sessions of any…Men’s and women’s apparel, domestic appliances, furniture, cosmetics, and foodstuffs can all be successfully sold by utilising the intimate appeal of these clubs’.[47] The Macquarie network catalogues of the early 1940s emphasised each station’s ‘personalities’ and their selling power. The 1942 catalogue boasted that Stelzer and the 2GB Happiness Club offered an audience of tens of thousands of potential customers, while the morning program associated with the 2WL Friendship Club in Wollongong was said to provide enormous ‘pulling power for all products!’.[48]

By now there were even clubs for listeners’ pets in Melbourne. 3UZ had the Tailwaggers’ Pet Club. 3AW’s Birmacley Pet Club, sponsored by a margarine manufacturer, had its own session on Saturday mornings and its own membership certificate: ‘I solemnly promise…to be faithful to my mistress or master…not to chew slippers or destroy anything in the garden.’ The club was headed by Nicky and Nancy Lee, two of Australian radio’s biggest stars.[49]

In 1932, Clifford Nicholls Whitta (‘Nicky’), a musician who had been working with 3LO in Melbourne, joined 3AW and teamed with Fred Tupper (‘Tuppy’) to host the breakfast show. The next year, Kathleen Lindgren, who sang and played the ukulele, was brought in to host the children’s show. Someone at the station suggested the ‘Chums’ who listened to Chatterbox Corner write in with suggestions for a stage name, and ‘Nancy Lee’ was born. Nicky hosted Chatterbox Corner with Lee, starring as a loveable, naughty boy the Chums and their mums took to their hearts. With its theme song, Being a Chum is Fun, it was regarded widely as the best children’s show in Australia. Nicky, Tuppy and Nancy Lee hosted fancy-dress and children’s parties, arriving in a monogrammed aeroplane, and conducted Christmas and hospital appeals. Their endeavours were hugely successful with audiences and advertisers, and inspired the Chums’ Club on another Macquarie station, 7QT Queenstown.

The public fascination with Nicky and Nancy Lee was heightened by their marriage in 1935. When Nancy Lee withdrew from radio to care for their children in 1944, and Nicky decided to leave 3AW in 1946, there was an outcry from listeners: ‘[W]e feel that we are losing a very close, personal friend,’ wrote one. Nicky went on to work for 2CH, 3KZ Melbourne and 3UZ, where he mentored the young Graham Kennedy. Sincere and personal behind the microphone, Nicky gave the impression that he was addressing himself ‘to that one person out there whom he liked, understood and felt for’. More than 100 000 people watched his funeral procession through the streets of Melbourne in 1956. When the Argus asked members of the great Victorian ‘family’ of Nicky and Nancy Lee to write in with their special memories, hundreds obliged. At the launch of Nancy’s memoir, Being a Chum was Fun, in 1979, many former Chums turned up wearing their old membership badges.

At the same time as the Australian radio industry presented itself as the embodiment of modernity, it sought consciously to offset the complexity and impersonality of modern life, fusing its mass appeal with apparent intimacy. With overseas research indicating that people wanted news and entertainment conveyed through the medium of personalities,[50] Australian radio deployed sophisticated devices to engage the audience and provide compensatory varieties of ‘personal’ contact. Its personalities strove for a warm, intimate, friendly tone as they addressed their audience as individuals or in small family groups, and tried to approximate a one-to-one relationship. They also reached out to their listeners by considering their problems, leading them in Community Singing concerts, establishing social and charitable clubs and appearing at special events. A modern mass medium—with its resonances of the inchoate, the mechanised and the impersonal—self-consciously transformed itself into a unifying, intimate and highly personalised mass medium, and a cacophony of sounds formed the basis of popular social movements.