Monday musings on Australian literature: World Radio Day

2021 marks the tenth anniversary of World Radio Day. Hands up if you knew that? I didn’t, even though I like listening to the radio, and do in fact listen to it most days.

Some background

An initiative, apparently, of the Spanish Radio Academy, World Radio Day was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2011, and was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations in 2012 as a UN Day. February 13 was chosen because this was the date, in 1946, that United Nations Radio was established.

The Day’s aims are to raise greater awareness among the public and the media of the importance of radio, to encourage decision-makers to establish and provide access to information through radio, and to enhance networking and international cooperation among broadcasters.

On its page for this year’s World Radio Day, UNESCO says:

Radio is a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic discourse. At the global level, radio remains the most widely consumed medium. This unique ability to reach out the widest audience means radio can shape a society’s experience of diversity, stand as an arena for all voices to speak out, be represented and heard. Radio stations should serve diverse communities, offering a wide variety of programs, viewpoints and content, and reflect the diversity of audiences in their organizations and operations. 

2021 themes

As with most UN Days, World Radio Day is celebrated each year through specific themes. In 2020, it was Radio and Diversity, while in 2021 it is New World, New Radio – Evolution, Innovation, Connection:

  • Evolution. The world changes, radio evolves: focusing on radio’s resilience and sustainability.
  • Innovation. The world changes, radio adapts and innovates: focusing on radio’s need to adapt to new technologies to remain “the go-to medium of mobility, accessible” to everyone, everywhere.
  • Connection. The world changes, radio connects: focuses on the service radio provides, in times of, for example, natural disasters, socio-economic crises, and epidemics.

In a blog post promoting the day, Being Agency discusses the state of radio in Australia, particularly regarding the impact on radio of “the rise of on-demand audio.” It’s worth reading, if you are interested, but essentially they argue that, just as video didn’t kill radio despite all prognostications that it would, nor is podcasting and on-demand audio doing so now:

The problem with assuming that on-demand audio (like podcasts) is replacing radio, is the idea that the two formats are mutually exclusive. As a medium with more than a century of history, radio is known for evolving, innovating and adapting as the world changes, and the global shift to digital is no exception.

… radio shows are the most popular podcast category in Australia, accounting for 101.3 million downloads in 2020 out of a total 420.8 million, according to the Australian Podcast Ranker.

AktiMateMini Speaker (1 of 2), with iPod and Internet Radio

They also note that, given its ability to serve society “at times of crisis”, radio (particularly local ABC radio) was a crucial source of information during Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season, and then through the current COVID-19 pandemic.

They discuss radio’s embracing the digital world, saying that people are listening to radio on a wide variety of devices. They have no crystal ball -“who knows what will happen tomorrow”, they say – but “the industry is definitely doing what it has done for decades and adapting in response to rapid technology changes”.

For more on radio in Australia, check out the National Film and Sound Archive’s page.

Radio and Australian literature

From its early days, radio has had a relationship with “literature”, first through radio serials and plays, and gradually also through book readings. There were also stories created especially for children, such as Ruth Park’s The muddleheaded wombat. Radio was, in its heyday, a major source of entertainment as well as of information. Jacqueline Kent, whose latest book is the biography, Vida, wrote a history of Australian radio, Out of the bakelite box (1983, revised 1990). She devotes a chapter – “You have to write your head off” – to the writers, noting that

… the people who wrote radio scripts for a living in the days of the bakelite box didn’t spend any time musing about their craft. People like Kay Keavney, Richard Lane, Peter Yeldham, Sumner Locke Elliott, Morris West, Eleanor Witcombe (see my Monday Musings), James Workman and dozens of others just put their heads down and worked at the typewriters or dictating machines. The result was that Australian radio produced some of the fastest and most professional radio script writers in the world.

I’m not sure on what she bases that final assessment but it is certainly the case that Australia produced many, many serials and plays in radio’s heyday. Many of these writers – some of them you’ll have recognised – went on to write in other forms, including novels, for the stage, and of course for television, but they told Kent that writing for radio provided an excellent training ground. Peter Yeldham comments that it taught “discipline … and the ability to create stories” while Kay Keavney said that for a writer, “radio was a marvellous medium” because it demanded so much of the imagination.

As well as providing entertainment for audiences, and work for writers, early radio also actively encouraged creativity, particularly in children. The ABC’s Argonauts program is best known for this. Kent writes

Many people who are now well known in the arts submitted their first poems, drawings, paintings or musical pieces as Argonauts. It’s a long, long list, and it includes poet and reviewer Fay Zwicky, critic and author Humphrey McQueen … Michael Dransfield, who was one of Australia’s most talented and promising young poets until his tragic death in 1973, was a senior prize-winner in the literature section of the [Argonauts’] Commonwealth Awards.

Like all media, of course, radio has had to change with the times. Gradually the serials and the plays decreased but book readings – a radio version of the audio-book – continued for some time. These days – in terms of spoken (not music) radio anyhow – information is god it seems, so now, instead of hearing plays and stories, we hear “about” them through programs like the ABC’s The Book Show, The Stage Show and Bookshelf. Instead of having opportunities to practise their craft, writers get to spruik their output! Better? Worse? Or, just different?

Finally …

I’ll end with Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director-General, who said that “More than ever, we need this universal humanist medium”. It supports the right to information and freedom of expression. Without radio, fundamental freedoms and cultural diversity “would be weakened … since community radio stations are the voices of the voiceless”. 

 What do you think? Is radio important to you? Is it living up to its potential?

36 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: World Radio Day

  1. Radio is certainly not as important to me as it was. I listened to ABC local radio and then Radio National non stop in the 1980s and 90s. When I resumed truck driving in 1998 I would listen to RN by picking up 107.5 or similar 10 km outside each town and then listen till I was 10 km the other side. (I had a long list of all the towns and their FM signals)

    Now I just listen to books and get my news from newspaper and newsletter subscriptions on the internet.

    • Oh yes, I bet that was frustrating for truck drivers Bill. Now you can listen to RN anywhere via the Listen App on your phone or tablet. I can understand though your change to books and newspapers.

    • I remember a drive across western Pennsylvania one Friday night many years ago. That part of the state is mountainous, and radio transmissions don’t carry far. My recollection is that we got five or ten minutes each of a number of high school basketball games.

  2. I fell in !ove with radio when I saw an early transistor radio (tranny), in the late ’50s? I now own a bedside clock radio, an AM/FM tranny, two battery digital radios, and radios in the car, on my tablets, and in combined CD/DVD players (and the digital channels of the TV). And I don’t listen to any of them. I used to listen to the football while weeding, but that stopped five years ago. And I used to listen to the news and AM, but that stopped when I retired. About the only time I listen to radio now is sometimes at night in hospital when I can’t get to sleep.

    So sorry, radio, but I’ve moved on, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back…

      • I spend far too much time reading news articles on my tablet. I always peruse the ABC “Just in”, and like to score above average on their weekly news quiz (doesn’t happen every week). For variety I read Google News articles. I know far too much about the foibles of the American political system and the doings of the British royal family (like, get a life, who cares?) For entertainment I read books and blogs on books, and play games online, and tackle the occasional jigsaw. I watch TV only for sport – tennis, cricket and AFL. In hospital I sometimes get a newspaper, but find I’ve already read most of the articles online a day or two ago, so the main benefit of the newspaper is the cryptic crossword, word search, and sudoku.

        I have very fond memories of listening to the Argonauts, and the test cricket. But that was a while ago!

        • Sounds like quite a variety there Neil. Mr Gums does the Sudoku but I also buy him sudoku books. We buy Cryptic Crossword books which I carry around for us to do when out having coffee. It’s hard finding good ones though, since I favourite SMH-based one dried up. We then did a Mungo MacCallum one Saturday Paper one, but that seems to have been a one off. Now we are doing a Times Quick Cryptic one which seems ok, but we have to think English!

        • Sigh. Yes, I know what you mean, thinking English. Even worse doing a standard US one. “Baseballer Ed”?! I did some creative Googling looking for Australian cryptics. Not much on offer, and I suspect those that were tended to be in the easy category. Not very satisfying. (Mind you, nowadays I have my app for word patterns or anagrams. Tends to speed up the process.)

        • Yup, sure is. Would you like to know the name of the app? (It’s not really cheating – I paid for the app!)

  3. I remember “The Cat Scratches” – an enthralling, chilling Cold War drama – and listening to it huddled around the radio (the wireless!). And now I can download all 104 episodes for $45 if I wish. I may just stay with the memory.

  4. Diverse audiences seem to me to be exactly what American radio does not aim at. Now, the local news station, which carries “Traffic and Weather on the 8s” (eight minutes after the hour, and then every ten minutes) is an exception, but maybe not what UNESCO is thinking about. You will rarely hear a conservative point of view on National Public Radio or Pacifica in the US. You will rarely hear anything but on Clear Channel stations. And if you feel like paying for XM radio, you can achieve a narrower focus.

    Maybe things are different in Australia.

    • Probably not hugely George, though our national broadcaster tries for the oft-mentioned ”balance”, certainly they do it better than the conservative commercial stations. We do have an active community radio network . They offer more diversity I think, particularly in trying to reach different ethnicities.

      Maybe you could argue you have diversity across the stations even if no particular station offers it? That could be a debate question!

      Love your quip about Traffic and Weather spots!

  5. Radio is our life, or at least Mr Books career, so yes, we listen to radio all the time. Even pre-Mr Books, I always had JJJ on my radio. By our mid-40’s we switched to ABC Local, but in the car, we tend to listen to commercial radio, so Mr Books can keep up with what’s happening on each station.

    We loved the West Wing podcast in the car too (still haven’t finished it all though after 3 yrs) & I occasionally listen to a bookish one when ironing.

    I almost watch no tv, just the ABC news a few times a week and the occasional Netflix, or the like, series/movie. If anything, it’s the tv (esp. free to air) that has lost it’s way. Or maybe it just doesn’t cater to 50+ women?!

    • Love hearing your radio listening practice, and the switch to ABC local in your mid-40s! I’ve been an RN girl most of my adult life.

      You iron! You must be a dying breed, haha.

      We still watch some free-to-air TV, mostly ABC and SBS, unless it’s tennis time. We are watching less though.

      • I iron stuff for when we Airbnb our place – haven’t ironed a shirt or dress in years!!!
        Thanks to mr books, in the last 10 yrs, there probably isn’t a radio station I haven’t listened to!!

        • Ah, that’s a relief Brona. You had me worried there for a minute – haha.

          I think I could miss getting to know every radio station, though I imagine that if there’s a professional interest you listen with different ears which could add value.

  6. Aha ! – that’s why everyone’s passing around that Google Earth thing full of radio stations you can actually listen to. I did wonder ..
    Peter Yeldham was a frequent script-writer for Crawfords. I have no memory of thinking “Thank goodness, a Yeldham script !” as they were handed out to crew-members. But maybe I’m being bitchy ..
    I don’t have a radio. I never found a station on the ABC (I don’t listen to or watch any commercial station|channel, as I loathe and detest commercials to the point of rage) I could listen to for more than somehwere between ½hr and 1hr without having to switch the radio off. Too much talking that didn’t interest me.
    I think I must be weird.

    • I don’t think you are weird M-R, and I suspect you are not alone.

      We are currently watching the Australian Open on commercial TV, and the ads are driving us spare. We try recording and time shifting our viewing by 30 mins or so to escape them.

      BTW Peter Yeldham was very generous to the NFSA, and aways provided excellent provenance and background to his well-organised donations! I loved receiving stuff from him. 🙂

  7. I’ve always loved radio programmes, I’m a bit of a BBC fan and I think it’s such a false economy when governments make them cut back on the World Service due to lack of funding as the programmes were so popular all over the world. I seem to remember that in the past children in remote parts of Australia were schooled via the radio.

    • Yes, you are very right Katrina. I’m impressed. It’s called School of the Air, it used shortwave radio technology for several decades, until the internet took over.

      Pleased to find another radio lover!!

  8. I enjoy PBS in Melbourne. The shows are completely different to anything else available unless I’m listening to radio through the internet. I found PBS because of a rockabilly program which is sadly no longer on the air, then discovered all sorts of music I’d never thought I would hear on radio (banjo, doo wop…)
    As soon as I saw your topic I started singing Video Killed the Radio Star, hope it won’t be stuck in my head for the next week 🙂

    • Oh dear, Rose, sorry to cause an earworm though I’m glad I did because that’s a great contribution to the discussion.

      You are right about community radio stations providing great specialist music options.

  9. I used to listen to RN every day on the daily commute… until Fran Kelly. Generational change has been a disaster for the ABC across all forms of its media. Shallow programming, and shallow presenters. It’s really sad.
    These days I listen to PBS-FM or Classic FM depending on what kind of music they are playing, and very rarely I listen to podcasts of the Book Show but that’s mostly a disappointment.
    My favourite thing to listen to is silence, but I have my CD player in the library cued up to play some nice classical music so that I can drown out the screaming of the neighbour’s children if necessary.
    But I should mention that The Spouse has his own shows on community radio, 3CR and 3RPP. He plays jazz which is not my thing except for #VeryNiche 1930s big band jazz, so I don’t listen to it. However I have occasionally stepped in for him when he had other commitments in the days when it couldn’t be pre-recorded and just recently did a guest show for him featuring all women jazz musicians of the era. We recorded it at home using a whizz-bang microphone and some impressive software which makes editing so easy!

    • Oh good for you Lisa. And how nice to be able to do it at home. This sort of technology is wonderful.

      I don’t completely agree with you regarding the ABC. I can still find programs that interest me – the Minefield, AWAYE, and many of the Arts Shows contain items of interest, for a start. It is trying to be all things to all people, which is a challenge, and I don’t listen anywhere nearly as rigorously as I did – in fact mostly it’s just when I’m driving these days – but I don’t find it all bad by any means.

    • PS I’m enjoying silence more and more too. While I know there are many podcasts I’d be interested in, I never walk with ear-buds, preferring to enjoy the peace of my environment and the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s