When you’ve been broadcasting internationally for more than 80 years, there’s a lot to celebrate. The newly released official history of Radio Australia, Australia Calling by Dr Phil Kafcaloudes, traces the remarkable story of one of the national broadcaster’s flagship services. Beginning as a wartime anti-propaganda service, RA has endured many ups and downs but continues to play an important role today in Australia’s commitment to regional democracy, especially in the Pacific. This review is by the Alumni’s Peter Marks.
by Dr Phil Kafcaloudes
Reviewed by Peter Marks / 22 November 2022
Radio Australia was founded in 1939 by Prime Minister Robert Menzies to project the perspective of Australia during the second world war. At the time propaganda, what we might now call “fake news”, was being broadcast in our region by the Japanese, Russians and Germans.
Shortwave transmissions could be received with low cost, low power receivers and were difficult to censor locally. It was estimated that millions of suitable radios were in the field.
After the war, Radio Australia pivoted to sharing Australia’s outlook and appealing to people who might like to do business with Australia or even migrate here.
Radio Australia was relatively free to run programs sometimes critical of the Australian government and thereby demonstrating the freedom of independent media in a democracy. This freedom of reporting was, at times of conflict or coups, very annoying to local strongmen. The fact that Radio Australia had programs in local languages gave it a direct line to the people.
The book, Australia Calling – The ABC Radio Australia Story, by Dr Phil Kafcaloudes includes many accounts of times when balanced information, from an Australian viewpoint, played a part in informing people on the ground in places like Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Bougainville and notably Fiji.
Australia Calling is an official history commissioned by ABC International. The frequency shown on the receiver was used for Radio Australia’s shortwave transmission, and is now occupied by China Radio International.
The broadcaster’s favour with our government has ebbed and flowed and funding levels have changed over time, leading to many changes in resources and programming.
While brand recognition of Radio Australia was very strong and positive throughout the Pacific, the service was virtually unknown within Australia and despite strong support by some politicians, it came to be seen as disposable by those wielding the razor.
Looking back, the glory days of high power shortwave broadcasting seem like a golden era but at the time we despaired at the difficulty of measuring the audience, many of whom were isolated and unable to even write in (although millions did). Today, with internet streaming and local FM relays, measuring the audience is easier but the vulnerability of local transmission or internet-based delivery to being cut either by natural disasters or local politics is surely a step backwards.
Phil Kafcaloudes’ book is a fine piece of work, brimming with high quality photographs of smiling staff. Stories of people who have learned English by listening and the avalanche of letters that arrived at times are tempered with tales of dramatic changes in direction and the trauma of savage cuts.
For me, a shortwave listener since childhood, most moving is the story and image of Nigel Holmes who “seems to be equally proud and distraught as he presses the last button on a huge panel and watches the light go out [on shortwave transmission], ending nearly 80 years of Australian broadcasting history”.
Long-time RA technical engineer Nigel Holmes had the melancholy duty of turning off RA’s shortwave transmission in 2017, marking the end of an era. Pix: David Stuart
At the ABC Friends Victoria Christmas dinner in November, I took the opportunity to ask the Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, if there were any plans to re-invest in shortwave. She reminded us that it was the ABC’s decision, under MD Michelle Guthrie, to end that mode and that it would be considered as part of future plans. The decision to cut shortwave broadcasting was, of course, in the context of cuts to the ABC and additional costs required to roll out DAB+ transmissions in major population centres.
Even if Radio Australia’s direct influence has waned in recent years, it has had a lasting influence on journalists and media in the region. Many RA staff have trained and mentored the current generation of program-makers throughout the region and the standards and practices of our programs have set an example to emulate.
Phil Kafcaloudes moved from domestic ABC duties to present the breakfast program on Radio Australia for almost a decade. He seems genuinely proud of what he was a part of and presents a warm and engaging account.
Australia Calling – The ABC Radio Australia Story was commissioned and published by the ABC.
Peter Marks is a software developer and technology commentator. He has worked on and off for the ABC over many years, beginning at Radio Australia briefly in the 1980s. He’s an active ham radio operator with an interest in short wave propagation. Peter has appeared as a guest on ABC radio more than 300 times including a decade as technology editor on RN Breakfast.