This is the International Section of
The Broadcast Archive

Maintained by:
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Updated: 11/26/00

Australian Broadcasting:

  • History
  • Regulation
  • Station Identifications

Australian Broadcast History:

The first station in Australia was 2SB in Sydney, NSW. It was developed by Earnest Fisk of AWA (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia), a radio company which had been conducting experimental radio broadcasts since 1920.- Fisk's company desired to sell sets sealed and tuned to only one frequency, and to provide the programming. His company held many patents which other set builders would need to license from AWA, who were keen to see multiple sets per home.

Against objections by the Wireless Institute which represented experimenters' views, the Fisk proposal was accepted and "sealed-set" broadcasting started on November 13, 1923 with 2SB (later to become 2BL). 2FC (also in Sydney) followed on December 5, 1923. (2SB only passed on the 10 shilling PMG license fee, as it was being subsidized by retailers selling the sets. 2FC however charged 3 pounds and three shillings (approx $6.30).)

The two Sydney stations were followed by 3AR in Melbourne (Victoria) on January 26, 1924, and 6WF Perth (Western Australia) on June 4, 1924.

Public acceptance of the sealed-set system was best described as "underwhelming." Sets were scarce - fixed tuning made set design more difficult and unpopular. By mid 1924 there were only about 1200 sealed-set licenses issued, but over 5000 people had applied for an Experimenters License. Furthermore, it took the ingenious Australians about two days to figure out how to jimmy open the 'sealed sets' and rig them to receive anything they wanted to hear....

The 1927 Royal Commission into wireless broadcasting came about from listener dis-satisfaction with the programming and coverage of the manufacturer/retailer driven services. It recommended the licence fees be pooled, and that the larger stations (Class A stations) should co-operate to provide better services and wider coverage. The tactic would "equalize" the service across the country, with larger capital-city stations effectively subsidizing the smaller country-town stations. Of course, the larger stations refused to agree to this Government scheme.

In mid-1928, to break the impasse the Government established the National Broadcasting Service to provide the service and coverage the existing stations were unwilling to provide. This service was funded by a compulsory license fee, chargeable to all owners of radio receivers. As licenses for the larger (Class A) stations came up for renewal they were cancelled and reissued to the National Broadcasting Service - with their transmitters and studio equipment being purchased by the Government. (Imagine that happening today!!)

The Postmaster General's Department was given the responsibility of running the new service. (At that time the PMG provided postal and telephone services.) To complement the license-fee funded Class A stations, a Class B was established for privately run stations which would not have access to license-fee revenue but would be allowed to carry advertising.

Back to the past ... it became politically difficult to sustain the PMG's running of the National Broadcasting Service, so on July 1, 1932 the Government established the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) to run the National Broadcasting Service. The ABC still exists today as the prime National radio and television broadcaster and still operates (amongst many others) those stations "snatched" from the early entrepreneurs ... such as 2BL, 2FC, 3LO, 3AR. With radio, television, and the Home and Community Broadcast Satellite Service (HACBSS - pronounced "hack-bus" - ) ABC radio & TV signals are available to all Australian residents.

For sample episodes of some Australian radio gems in RealAudio see Clark Sinclair's the Golden Days of Australian Radio.

In 1975 the Government established "ethnic" broadcasting. The aim was to provide broadcasting in the "homeland" language of migrants to provide important settlement information. The catalyst for this was the start of a universal medical health-cover scheme called Medibank - and the need to get the necessary information to non-English speakers. It was cemented into Government policy by the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in 1977 to run 2EA and 3EA as multi-lingual radio stations. The SBS was later to expand into "multicultural" FM and TV broadcasting.

In 1980, the ABC became a Corporation - The Australian Broadcasting Corporation by Act of Parliament. This provided more flexibility in staff practices, fund-raising and operation. For example staff are no longer tenured Commonwealth Public Servants with all the inflexibility entailed, and it is able to engage in some entrepreneurial activities for fund raising (concerts, merchandising, facility hire etc), but is still prohibited from accepting advertising. The AUD500 million taxpayer funding is a source of continuing debate in Australia.

Their fortunes of the commercial "Class B" stations have waxed and waned. Often, when viewed purely as businesses they have been poor performers, with many stations in major markets running at a loss for long periods. Yet, they have always managed to survive as an important part of Australian Radio Broadcasting.

AM stereo came in the early '80s, when Australian AM'ers were being creamed in the ratings by the FM stations. AM stereo was viewed as a potential savior in the face of FM competition. The DOC chose Motorola C-QUAM as the standard. Regular operation stated in about 1985.


Through the fifties and sixties there was some experimentation with FM broadcasting, but no significant activity. Towards the end of the '60's imported audio equipment with FM reception capability was becoming common -fuelling a demand for the "HI-FI" performance of FM transmissions. The Government held an inquiry into FM broadcasting, recommending in 1972 that FM broadcasting be introduced.

However, it was not in the internationally accepted VHF band, but in the UHF band. This was seen as a way to promote local receiver manufacture; also, a big chunk of the 88-108 MHz band was already in use for a couple of TV channels and Air Navigation aids.

There was not a lot of interest in FM broadcasting by the existing AM'ers, so it was offered to fledgling community broadcast groups for non-commercial (subscription and limited sponsorship funded) broadcasting. Commercial ("mainstream") broadcasting was planned for the future, and it was understood that before this could happen the 88-108MHz band would have to be cleared of its non-radio users. Over the years the mantra of "Band II Clearance" was heard around the radio industry.

In 1975 the concept of community broadcasting on the FM band was launched, with licenses granted to organizations who would fund their operations by listener subscriptions and limited sponsorship on-air mentions. One or two frequencies were available for each state capital city, and typically they went to a fine-music society, and a Student's Union. (e.g. in Brisbane, Queensland's capital city there was 4MBS (licensee - Music Broadcasting Society) programming classical music, and 4ZZZ (licensee -
University of Queensland Students' Union) programming wild progressive rock and left-wing political commentary - as you might find in a University student body of the 'seventies.

After a few years of community broadcasting, the Government announced plans for commercial FM stations. In July 1980 the first commercial FM station 3EON (now 3MMM) in Melbourne took to the airwaves, followed closely by 2DAY-FM and 2MMM in Sydney, 3FOX in Melbourne, 6NOW in Perth and 4MMM in Brisbane in August, and finally SSA-FM in Adelaide in September.


The National Broadcaster - The ABC:
The ABC (AKA "Auntie") took much of its style (and programming) from the
BBC (hence the affectionate nickname). Whilst it crasser commercial
neighbors were taking their style from the US stations, the ABC was very
much an "outpost of Empire" broadcaster. Any programming not originated
locally would typically be bought in from the BBC. The ABC took its charter
of providing radio services for all Australians very seriously. In each
metropolitan centre (State Capital) it provided two radio services, best
described as one mainstream (drama, quizzes, sport, variety music) and one
highbrow (classical music and drama, speeches and debate, and Federal
parliamentary broadcasts!) - but both were very different from the
commercial stations.
These services beamed out on MF at 50KW omni for the mainstream and 20KW
omni for the highbrow. They were well engineered services, with the best
low-end frequencies and 5/8 wave top loaded (capacitive-hat) masts for
maximum groundwave coverage .. and they covered wide areas(and still do).
As well as their metro stations the ABC had regional stations in major
provincial centres (3 or 4 per state) which together with the metro
stations blanketed most of the country with at least one ABC service. The
"regionals" took selected parts of the two metro stations and combined them
into one program adding their own local material for their region - usually
news and rural affairs material. Sometimes in the smaller towns a "relay"
station was set up. This was just a low power (200watt to 500watt)
transmitter fed by landline with the same program going to air on the
"regional" station.

FM broadcasting and another tier of broadcasting:


Television broadcasting started in Australia in September 1956 - although it took about ten years for TV to reach all areas of Australia. Each regional center had at least one commercial station, and one national station (run by the ABC) per market.


Early regulation of broadcasting had fallen under the jurisdiction of the Postmaster-General's Department (the PMG). Mr (later Sir) Earnest Fisk of AWA (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia) - successfully lobbied the PMG to mandate a system of "sealed sets" - fix tuned to one frequency.

For listeners there was a 10 shillings (approx $1.00) Govt license fee, plus whatever subscription charges the broadcaster levied - then you had to buy/rent the "sealed-set" ... and repeat the process for each station you wanted to listen to. (However there was an experimenters clause which allowed experimenters to build multi-station sets for a license fee of one pound (approx $2.00)-but they were also expected to pay the stations' subscription fees.)

In July 1924 the PMG's Department abandoned the sealed-set rules, permitting open tuning sets to be manufactured and sold.

In 1927, a Royal Commission created the National Broadcasting Service, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). The ABC held Class "A" licenses, the commercial stations had Class "B" licenses. This set in place two tiers of broadcasting - (The designations Class A and Class B have disappeared from use - now they are just known as ABC stations and commercial stations) - which still exist today. In the early 1970's "Community" stations (funded by voluntary subscriptions and grants) were added. And in the 90's, a narrow-cast class of stations was developed, usually commercial but licensed to target only a defined audience - business, tourist, ethnic group.

The current regulatory body is the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), a division of the Department of Communications and the Arts.

Station Identification:

Call letters: Australian stations have call signs that identify the state by number:

  State Example
2 New South Wales 2BL, Sydney
3 Victoria 3AW, Melbourne
4 Queensland 4BH, Brisbane
5 South Australia 5DN - Adelaide
6 Western Australia 6PR - Perth
7 Tasmania 7LA - Launceston
8 Northern Territory 8HA - Alice Springs


My sincere thanks to Peter Smerdon for his large contribution to this page.