AUSTRALIA CALLINGThe ABC Radio Australia Story
A book review by Rob Wagner
Many years ago (in the late 70s or early 80s? – I forget!), I toured the studios of Radio Australia here in Melbourne along with other Australian Radio DX Club members. This was during what could be called the heyday of shortwave broadcasting. Radio Australia (RA) reputedly had millions of listeners around the world. Indeed, the audience numbers throughout Asia were huge, especially in Indonesia and Japan. I remember the tour guide telling us that listener letters from Indonesia alone numbered not in the hundreds but literally in the thousands each month! Such was the global impact of this radio station in those days.
So, I was eager to purchase a copy of Australia Calling – The ABC Radio Australia Story by respected author and former ABC/RA broadcast journalist Dr Phil Kafcaloudes. The author provides a highly readable account of the history behind RA and the role that it was to play as a significant world shortwave broadcaster. The book describes all the drama, and the many twists and turns in the Radio Australia story.
In his six-page Introduction to the book, Kafcaloudes sets the tone by reflecting on the station’s founding in 1939, radiating the Australian voice out to Europe and Asia during the Second World War and throughout the Cold War of the 50s. Indeed, when the Australian government was considering shutting down RA in 1950, the British Secret Service made a public plea not to go ahead with the closure! In the 60s, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and its concern over the Sukarno government’s actions in Indonesia saw a major refocus towards Asia with the inclusion of broadcasts in Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesia, Japanese, Thai and Mandarin.
The 70s saw conflicts in Cambodia, Laos, and Timor-Leste (East Timor), along with Australia's moves to initiate Papua New Guinea’s independence. And from the 80s through to the 2000s, there were coups in Fiji, plus ongoing issues in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste, resulting in another refocusing towards Pacific broadcasting. Then in 2017, the RA shortwave services closed, defeated by budget cuts and the massive trend towards digital platforms and FM services to the Pacific.
The book’s eight chapters are arranged chronologically, reflecting the station’s powerful reporting of Australian and world historical events. Chapter 1 – Genesis (Australia Calls the World) describes the early days of radio. The focus is on RA’s beginnings in 1939 and the influence of then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies, while also highlighting the early transmitter sites. Chapter 2 – A Testing Time (Wartime Diplomacy) is a fascinating look at how Australia Calling (the original name for RA’s first shortwave services) dealt with both the European and Asian theatres of World War II. Highlights here are the discussion on the line between real news-gathering and propaganda, government censorship or self-censorship, and the opening of the Shepparton transmitter site in 1945.
Chapter 3 – Post-War Resettlement (Cuts, Commies, MI5 and the Moon) is a detailed chapter underscoring the early peacetime name change from Australia Calling to Radio Australia, and the struggle for control of the station between the government’s Department of Information and the perceived independence of ABC. Some interesting observations on the size and complexity of the Shepparton site, the growth and popularity of RA’s worldwide audience, and much more conclude the chapter.
Chapter 4 – Unintentional Bias (1965-1995) discusses RA’s reach into Asia with new transmitters located on the Cox Peninsula (near Darwin) in 1968, its subsequent destruction at the hand of Cyclone Tracy at Christmastime in 1974, and the stop-gap introduction of the Carnarvon transmitter site in Western Australia. Also raised were the problems and machinations of beaming broadcasts into the politically-charged environment in Indonesia at a time (1980) when it was claimed that RA had an audience of 30 million in that country. Towards the end of the chapter, there is an excellent summary of the gradual, forced reductions to RA’s operations, including the abandonment of the Chinese and French services.
Chapter 5 – Precarity (Enter Mansfield) is a short chapter that reveals the precarious situation that ABC, in general, and RA, in particular, faced under the return of a conservative government in the second half of the 90s. A government review of the ABC recommended the closure of RA. According to one RA Indonesian announcer, listeners were greatly concerned about the impending closure of the service. The station received “….7000 letters and hundreds of phone calls from anxious Indonesians.” Eventually, lifelines were thrown to continue the service, but alas, at the expense of the powerful transmitter site on the Northern Territory’s Cox Peninsula.
Chapter 6 – Going with the Flow (1999-2012) outlines many conflicts and political issues in neighbouring regional countries across Asia and the Pacific. The chapter covers RA’s experiments with an international TV service and the hefty task of developing partnerships with local FM stations in many Asian and Pacific countries. Chapter 7 – The Deepest Cut (2012-2017) outlines the conservative government’s significant budget cuts to the ABC, affecting established programs and closure of various language broadcasts. The chapter concludes with the eventual silencing of the Shepparton transmitters, and, thus, the end of all RA shortwave services.
Chapter 8 – Rebirth: Pivoting to the Pacific (2018-2021) highlights China’s growing presence and influence in the Pacific, causing RA to refocus and double down on its digital platforms (including Facebook) and continuing partnerships with local FM stations in the Pacific. Soft diplomacy, countering “fake news”, and providing reliable information programming have become the thrust that drives Radio Australia into the future.
The book is replete with many marvellous photos from the Radio Australia archives and other sources, plus a photo gallery towards the end of the book. There are photos of announcers, studios, on-location shots and more. The translucent radio waves graphic emanating across the front and back covers are a lovely touch!
At 224 pages, this soft-cover publication is beautifully printed on semi-gloss paper and is well-bound. First published in July 2022, the book was released during celebrations for 90 years of broadcasting by the ABC. Highly recommended for shortwave radio enthusiasts with an interest in broadcasting history.
Available online and in Australian bookstores
NOTE: Currently, there appears to be difficulty in buying the book if you live outside Australia. The site that the ABC is promoting (Booktopia) does not sell internationally. And Amazon Australia is predicting stock to arrive between January 17 and 24. There is another online site, Fishpond.com.au, that indicates it has stock and says it ships overseas. However, you will want to check on the price of shipping before ordering from that site. Here is the link:
NOTE #2: I have just read that as of February 3, 2023, Tecsun Radios Australia are now selling the book. More details at:
Rob Wagner VK3BVW
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© Rob Wagner, Mount Evelyn DX Report, and contributors 2012-2022
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