Detail from cartoon on public broadcasting Education and Broadcasting

More about the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the pre-war period and during World War Two

The airwaves in Australia had been under government control since 1922, offering licensed broadcasters their own particular frequency. Originally each station was allowed to charge a fee to listeners whose wireless receivers were sealed so they could only pick up the stations for which they paid. This was monumentally unsuccessful and the government changed to a system of A (for non-commercial) and B (commercial) class licences for stations, with listeners paying a licence fee to the government but able to listen to any station. By 1928 the radio was part of everyday life. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was founded under the Labor Scullin Government (October 1929 to 6 January 1932) which was committed to public control and operation of broadcasting. In a twist of irony, on the day the Bill was introduced for the ABC's formation as a public company the Scullin Government was defeated in the House of Representatives. However, after some amendment the Lyons Government (January 1932 to April 1939) passed the Bill. (10)

The ABC came into operation on 1 July 1932. The five Commissioners were responsible for appointing a General Manager and staff to run operations and the ABC's brief was to broadcast programs suiting a range of community interests, collect news, encourage local talent and in general to be educative as well as entertaining. It was not allowed to advertise; instead all its funding was to come from a portion of the licensing fees.

The government had the power to intervene in the ABC’s broadcasts and in fact did so several times. One of the most controversial was the prohibition of two talks which were scheduled to go to air in 1935 discussing the Western Australian secession movement. Far from being an instrument of ‘independence’ the ABC’s Commissioners actually supported the decision in spite of a policy of ‘non-interference in political questions.’ (11)

The ABC excelled in ‘actuality’ broadcasts with reporters standing on the tops of cars, climbing trees or whatever was available to get the best vantage to describe anything from ANZAC Day marches to the London to Melbourne air race celebrating Melbourne’s centenary in 1942.

The radio was also a means of strengthening ties with Britain and the ABC relied heavily on Brithish Broadcasting Commission programs such as King George’s Christmas message, Empire Day broadcasts and descriptions of the Changing of the Guard as well as musical comedies and dramas.

Sports broadcasting was in a league of its own. Horse racing and cricket were two early staples of the ABC. The first English-Australian test cricket matches to be broadcast by the Commission were the famous ‘bodyline’ games under English captain Jardine. From then on test cricket took precedence over all other ABC programs with reporting of English games proceeding from 8.30 pm until 3.30 am. Sports commentators sitting in recording studios would describe the game as if they were in attendance reading from detailed cablegrams, checking on maps of field positions and noting scores which were posted on a board. Commentators could embellish action with imagination while a sound effects man would simulate crowd noises and the tap of bat against ball. This was termed ‘synthetic cricket’.

During elections, the ABC gave equal time to all parties, however in 1937 the Commissioners decided that time should be limited to the party leaders’ addresses only with no other parliamentary members being allowed to talk about anything at all. Both Lyons as prime minister and Curtin as the Opposition leader denounced the action and the Commissioners backed down.

It was not until 1939 that the ABC appointed its first staff correspondent for the ABC News and this was to cover Canberra events. Although independent news broadcasting remained limited throughout the war, a full-time London correspondent was appointed, a supply of cables from New York and Singapore were organised, and a Canberra news bureau was established. Australian news began to be promoted as the war in the Pacific became more significant and the ABC supplied commercial stations with material throughout the war. The wartime Department of Information soon imposed censorship and a guiding hand to present information that would increase the war effort. Together the Department and the ABC assumed responsibility for overseas short wave broadcasting until the ABC was given full control in 1942.

Curtin intervened in the affairs of the ABC to have reappointed Charles Moses as General Manager, having him recalled from active duty to fulfil the role. Curtin told Moses to provide an ‘adequate entertainment service for the fighting forces’ (Inglis p.111). He declared there was too much talking and serious music. Among the amendments made by Moses was a new ‘Forces Programme’, a regular series of features about the nation’s wartime efforts both on the battlefields and on the homefront and a dramatic serial aimed at rural listeners.