Opinion

Radio wars – while Melbourne fights, Sydney celebrates

As Fifi Box said to Mumbrella this week, “I’ve never seen radio talked about more.”

This week saw Kyle and Jackie O launch into Melbourne for the first time and both Fifi’s show (the #1 FM show at the moment) and Christian O’Connell’s programme (formerly the #1 FM show) launched splashy new TV/billboard/side-of-public-transport campaigns to fend off their attack.

Channelling Kyle’s mean-spirited on-air nature, KIIS FM parked a bright pink bus emblazoned with Kyle and Jackie O’s face across the street from a meet and greet with Nova’s new breakfast team Jase & Lauren – who angrily pointed out that KIIS fired them to make way for Kyle and Jackie O. 

Meanwhile, Steve Price has been trading barbs with Sandilands, SCA’s chief content Dave Cameron officer compared the “extreme content environment” of certain un-named radio shows in contrast to the “really brand-safe environment” of FOX FM, and even Delta Goodrem and Brian McFadden’s sex life was dragged into the fray, as Kyle delivered some pipping hot gossip direct from 2005. You’ll notice there’s no link for that last one. 

For those who watch radio as sport (or commentate on it as such) it has been a very fun week, albeit often in a jaw-dropping, Bachelorette-type way. It is also nasty and petty and silly and reeks like politics – of course, given Melbourne radio is a $220 million advertising market, there are definitely politics involved.

But enough of that. Where are the heartwarming radio stories? Luckily, here in Sydney, where pints are the proper size, you don’t have to look very far for them.

Sydney’s top community radio station 2SER is celebrating 45 years of being on air this weekend, with a series of live events and the like around the city. Funded by two universities – UTS and Macquarie, the SER stands for Sydney Educational Radio – 2SER is the perfect example of community radio’s power to amplify voices – shows such as Gaywaves, launched in 1979, gave the marginalised a platform decades before mainstream media, while pioneering Indigenous broadcasters such as Tiga Bayles and Maureen Watson broadcast shows on the station in the 1980s.

There is a lot of heritage at 2SER. Back To Funk has been broadcasting an eclectic blend of funk, soul hip hop, reggae, Latin, jazz, and blues since 1980. It is one of the longest running radio programs in Australia – and was vital in the spreading of hip hop in Sydney during the 1980s and 1990s. 2SER even broadcasts Jailbreak, a show aimed at the 10,000 prisoners in NSW jails, which shares health information, broadcasts letters and poems from inmates, and even takes requests.

2SER is also crucial to the DNA of triple j, with Robbie Buck, Richard Kingsmill, Tracee Hutchison and Helen Razer all starting at the station before moving to the ABC to help build triple j into the national institution it has become. Steve Ahern, current manager of ABC Radio Sydney also started at 2SER – as did Tanya Plibersek; whether or not this can be seen in her campaign song choices is a matter of opinion.

If 2SER is largely responsible for the success of triple j, then it must also take a lot of the credit for double j, which is basically triple j for those who still wear Jebediah tee-shirts and involuntarily grimace when 90s music is referred to as “old school.” 

Double j is triple j with the brim curved and greys in the beard. As if to hammer home the point, each year they play the Hottest 100 countdown – from 20 years’ prior. They brought back ’90s series The J Files, and produced a new radio documentary series about the Big Day Out. I’m pretty sure they are currently Y2K-proofing the double j studio.

Or, as double j’s Dan Condon puts it, a little more charitably: “We wanted to make a radio station for music lovers who no longer felt completely at home with the youth-focused triple j.” 

Easy jokes aside, double J celebrated its tenth birthday this week, which is quite an achievement. Ten years ago last Tuesday, double j launched with the Nick Cave song, Get Ready for Love, and critics launched with the predictions of its demise. Ten years ago, few people knew what digital radio was, and even fewer knew how to listen to it. “This will never work”, was the consensus surrounding double j, and I agreed. Even if it sounded cool, and was directly aimed at me, it was a pain to access.

At the time, I worked for The Music Network, which back then, was a weekly print magazine about radio and what is played on radio. This meant we were regaled time and time again with tales of how the big digital radio revolution was juuuuust around the corner. If you crane your ears towards the future, you can almost hear the static busting through, about to drown out those dominant FM stations. Of course, it won’t be static though, DAB+ is too high-quality. DAB+ was the catchy name that never caught. And as you may have noticed, the DAB+ revolution didn’t happen.

Digital radio is yet to fully arrive as a mainstream medium and it probably won’t now – with podcasting largely usurping it in that regard. Nowadays, the digital radio space is controlled by digital streams of analogue broadcasts from the major radio networks. Those who dominate the space see digital radio as an adjunct, not as the focus. 

Digital radio has largely remained where it began; as a Wild West medium with a low bar for entry, largely devoted to niche programming, populated by hobbyists, and housed on websites made back when GeoCities ruled the internet (such as Radio PsyBrazil – currently playing a terrible song named The Boundaries of our Fears that serves as its own anti-drug ad). 

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, it’s great. But surely, after ten years of proving itself, double j deserves to be on ‘proper’ radio now.

The ACMA manages the radiofrequency spectrum in Australia, and there are regulations and rules and licensing agreements in place too complicated to enter into in a frothy Saturday morning column – but I’m sure the ABC has already tried and failed to get double j onto “old-school” radios (you know, from the 90s) and that there are a run of hurdles. But as the national broadcaster, surely, they deserve more of the spectrum. After all, 100 years ago, ABC Sydney was literally the first — and therefore only station — broadcasting on the spectrum. 

Giving double j a proper home on the airwaves would boost the station’s listenership overnight, especially considering their target demographic still thinks of ‘the radio’ as a physical object. Isn’t this something Anthony Albanese can weave into his electioneering over the next year? He always bangs on about Midnight Oil. Double j loves Midnight Oil. Albo could get double j on the airwaves.

The ABC has a new chair in Kim Williams, and, as of this week, a new head of music in Emily Copeland. This might be a good agenda for them to push in order to win some early public favour from the most cynical demographic in the nation. 

They won’t, of course: it would completely undermine the full court press they are currently doing for the ABC Listen app if they started insisting on the importance of twiddling radio knobs – but it’s true. Double j is being forced to exist in a liminal space between the past and the future called digital radio.

So, how about this?

Let’s just swap out triple j with double j.

On the dial. Same frequency in each region, a direct trade. Pick a change-over date, pick a symbolically appropriate song to launch with (I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff by Regurgitator, obviously), and just swap it.

It would be the most popular thing ABC did all year. The kids listening to triple j (if, indeed, they are) certainly aren’t doing so on a wireless, goshdarnit! Anyone streaming double j online, however, will already have the triple j frequency burned into their brains. What a swap! Radios with antennas and knobs and crackles are built for the double j crowd. They’ll love tuning back into that old frequency, sinking into it again like an old, comfortable sofa.

The kids aren’t even using that tatty old frequency, anyway – why not give it back to the old triple j listeners? Give the frequency back to those of us who haven’t physically tuned it in for decades. #Givethefrequencyback to those of us who misuse hashtags. Give the frequency back to those of us who still think of Jet as being one of the new bands. 

Thanks for tuning in this week.

Enjoy your weekend.

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