Opinion

Will triple j rue the day it dethroned the King?

This week saw the retirement of triple j group music director Richard Kingsmill, who curated the playlists of triple j for 35 years. In doing so, he played a vital role in shaping the culture and sound of Australia.

In his many roles across the station, Kingsmill directly helped launch the careers of thousands of Australian musicians. His impact on the country’s culture cannot be overstated. He might be the most important single figure in the history of Australian music – with the likes of Molly Meldrum and Michael Gudinski the only clear competitors.

Like Gudinski, he was a fierce champion of homegrown talent, and dedicated his life to the promotion of it. Unlike Gudinski, however, he never made millions from his slavish devotion to Australian music and youth culture. Just to help elevate it was enough.

Like Molly, he used the national broadcaster to shape the faddish devotions of the national youth by having his finger on the pulse, both riding and steering the zeitgeist with his musical selections.

Also like Molly, who saw Countdown unceremoniously axed in 1987, it would appear that Kingsmill didn’t exit his throne voluntarily – but was pushed.

Despite the chirpy farewell message from triple j that announced the end of  “a legendary run”, listed his numerous achievements at the station, and signed off with “we love you Richard”, the sad truth is that Kingsmill was made redundant – part of a restructuring at triple j overseen by ABC’s head of audio, Ben Latimer, formerly of the Nova network.

Given ABC’s aggressive move into podcasting over the past few years — the scale of which was aptly highlighted this week when the station landed 33 different podcasts in the Australian Podcast Ranker charts — it’s not too surprising they are starting to renovate – but are they knocking down the wrong walls?

Kingsmill started at the station in 1988, a pivotal year for Australian culture. The Bicentenary had highlighted the growing division in our nation, with Indigenous rights in the spotlight, and radio central to the debate (sound familiar?).

In the lead up to January 26, 1988, 2GB was loudly, proudly fundraising for a First Fleet reenactment in Sydney Harbour, after the Hawke Government refused to pay for such a display, correctly reasoning it would offend and upset Indigenous Australians.

A few kilometres inland, Radio Redfern was playing a key role in mobilising some 40,000 protestors, including First Nations people from all around the country, who staged the biggest march seen in Sydney since Vietnam. There’s a fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary named 88.9 Radio Redfern that chronicles the blend of hope and despondency those at the radio station felt in the hours leading up to both the march – and the invasion of Tall Ships into the Harbour, a gun-shot echo of the recent tragic past.

One scene in the document has legendary DJ Tiga Bayles relaying a story of friends marvelling at how they can listen in from Brisbane to a broadcast made in Redfern, thanks to a simulcast. The distance was vast, and radio was still aggressively local.

The next year, Triple J went national. Radio was still local; the country suddenly got smaller.

Once triple j went national, Kingsmill launched the Australian Music Show, through which he unearthed and highlighted numerous local artists that would go on to shape the sonic landscape of the coming decade.

In 1996, he launched a Sunday night new music show, furthering his role as a discoverer and nurturer of new Australian talent, before taking over curation of the entire station in 2003, as triple j’s music director.

It’s commonly accepted that Nirvana’s Nevermind album, released in September 1991, was the dam-buster that resulted in the flood of ‘alternative’ music into the mainstream during the 1990s.

Richard Kingsmill, however, argues the tipping point in our country was a few months earlier, when fuzzy punk band Ratcat held both the #1 album and #1 single – the first time an Australian act had achieved the feat.

That was a high watermark, sure, but Richard Kingsmill arriving at Triple J in 1988, coupled with the station going national the next year, is the true reason that the Australian alternative music scene was able to thrive and survive in such a way throughout the 90s, and the 00s. We were ahead of the curve, in a lot of respects.

When I worked at music magazines (back when there was money in both music and magazines) artists from overseas would often be shocked by the idea of a government-run, tax-payer funded, alternative music station aimed at young people, and broadcast nationally. It really is a singular model – especially when reflected back by incredulous musicians from overseas who would die for such a platform. But that’s just the medium – someone had to make sure it delivered the right message.

Take Grinspoon. The fact that a band from Lismore could win a national radio competition, sign to a major label, and sell 140,000 copies of a debut record, back when CDs were still selling for $30 a pop, without any commercial airplay at all, seems remarkable these days. This is because Richard Kingsmill, among others, launched the Unearthed brand and concept in 1995, which is still launching careers for the likes of G Flip, and The Kid Laroi.

Even acts that aren’t officially ‘Unearthed’ by triple j are still adequately uncovered by receiving heavy airplay from the station. Over the past 35 years, dozens of Australian bands have sold hundreds of thousands of albums each, through triple j play alone.

But does triple j still wield this level of power? Is it still a tastemaker? Is it still relevant? What’s a radio, grandpa?

One argument often heard is that Kingsmill is too old to be programming a youth station.

It is true that, even if his first day at triple j was the day he was born (an OH&S nightmare), he would still be older than triple j’s target demographic.

But it’s doubtful they will be replacing him with someone in their early 20s, especially considering Lamiter told triple j staff that Kingsmill’s role would be taken by someone “more familiar to the commercial radio industry” – which is cause for concern.

If people are worried triple j has lost its power to talk to the cool kids, dropping someone in from the commercial radio sector is unlikely to assuage those fears.

Ex-triple j presenter Bridget Hustwaite certainly thinks replacing Kingsmill is a terrible idea – taking to social media this week to deliver a spray at her former employer.

After highlighting the crummy, sudden way in which the ABC severed his role – Kingsmill was unable to even farewell his radio audience on air; after 35 years of service, this is particularly shabby – Hustwaite took aim at the faulty logic in removing such a load-bearing beam from a crumbling structure.

“You need someone with experience, knowledge and his work ethic?” she asked.

“Unmatched. Good luck filling that void. Good luck.”

She also noted her “this is a shared feeling” among ABC staff, which was certainly borne out from the numerous triple j staffers who immediately leaked Lamiter’s staff-only speech to The Age.

Kingsmill’s officially sanctioned pull-quote from the top of the official triple j announcement now seems loaded, in light of learning he was made redundant.

“I’ve given my heart and soul to everything I’ve done here,” he wrote.

“The best feeling now, at the end of all that, is knowing how much I’ve still got left in the tank in continuing to contribute to the Australian music industry.”

That doesn’t sound like a man ready to step aside. Or a man who made the decision to do so.

When Kingsmill stepped into the group music director role in 2017, his remit widened to oversee triple j, triple j Unearthed, Double J, ABC Local, and ABC Country.

In practice and reality, Nick Findlay has been the triple j tastemaker for the past decade – and excels in the role. He worked closely with Richard for years, and officially stepped into the triple j music director role when Kingsmill jumped to group music director. Findlay also shares the same enthusiasm, and canny ear for an emerging artist. Successful bands like Spacey Jane, Gang Of Youths, San Cisco, DMA’s, and Courtney Barnett (not strictly a band) have careers due primarily to triple j play received since Findlay took the reins. And when a musician is added to high rotation on triple j, it can still change their life.

Another major development during Kingsmill’s time at triple j was the Hottest 100.

Now, he didn’t invent the Hottest 100 – that was his fellow producer Lawrie Zion, who came up with the idea by ripping it off from Brisbane station 4ZZZ.

In a masterstroke of timing, the same week that Kingsmill was made redundant, the ever-marching youth station also announced voting for the Hottest 100 had opened.

Now, if ever there was any doubting triple j’s relevance, the hype and hubbub around the Hottest 100 every year puts those doubts firmly to rest.

The statistics alone regarding the countdown are mind-boggling. The Hottest 100 is, by a long stretch, the world’s biggest poll; where else is there a democratic vote in which 2.4 million people willingly take part? Also, where else on Earth does a huge swath of one country reliably tune into the same radio broadcast at the same time? That’s WWII stuff!

Last year’s countdown also raised $1.2 million for partner charity Lifeline – another way in which it reliably, annually impacts culture.

And, like any good ordered list should, each year the Hottest 100 causes controversy. The most heated and important of these issues was put to bed in 2017, when the countdown moved from January 26 to a less divisive day. Like in 1988, when it looked like the Tall Ships weren’t coming into the Harbour, people were furious at the date change.

A lesser controversy emerged in early 2015 when Taylor Swift was disqualified from the impending Hottest 100 countdown, after a quickly sprouting trolling campaign with roots in a BuzzFeed article and a catchy hashtag (#Tay4Hottest100 – 2014 was a simpler time) threatened to send Shake It Off to the top reaches of the chart, much to the chagrin of the indie purists.

Not that the countdown is the bastion of cool, mind. Like all youth fashion, sometimes the kids get it very wrong. Novelty song Asshole by gruff comedian Denis Leary topped the 1993 Hottest 100, ahead of Radiohead ‘Creep’ and ‘Linger’ by The Cranberries, while 2021 saw The Wiggles take pole position with a cover of a Tame Impala song about an elephant swinging its trunk. Kings Of Leon landed #1 and #3 in 2008, while just last year, Ben Lee introduced his song Cigarettes Will Kill You at a Sydney concert by snidely noting how it came second in the 1998 Hottest 100 to The Offspring’s Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).

Although the Hottest 100 is an institution, and a sonic time capsule of taste (or lack thereof), as agreed upon by millions, it is also a sign of change – a steady replenishment of new talent coming through, year after year after year.

So maybe those selecting the talent should also change. Maybe Kingsmill had to leave triple j for the station to keep serving its remit, to keep aiming at the youth.

It’s doubtful this was the actual reason for his departure, and, regardless, it doesn’t sound like he was ushered from the empire he built with any sense of grace.

I hope his sacking puts a fire under him. He says he still has petrol in the tank. He still wants to contribute. It will be exciting to watch what he does next.

ABC said they will replace Kingsmill with someone “more familiar to the commercial radio industry” – maybe that means there’s now an opening in commercial radio for a passionate and encyclopaedic audiophile with 35 years of relevant radio experience and a proven drive and ability to advance Australian music.

I’m sure there are plenty of people willing to write him a reference, too.

 


Well, this is the final Weekend Mumbo of the year.

And while we are wrapping up 2023, let’s take a look at Mumbrella’s 50 most-read pieces of 2023.

If that seems a lot to tackle, maybe you’ll enjoy hearing industry leaders on the biggest talent gets of 2023, or perhaps reading about the top creative account and talent moves of 2023.

The biggest media pitches of 2023 might be more your speed – or possibly the top 15 features on the Mumbrella site for the year. Or, you can recap the year with the latest Mumbrellacast.

Enjoy your holidays.

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