Research Projects

Monday, December 28, 2020

A Student Radio History of Australia


I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a fellow radio researcher, Rafal Alumairy.  She is the author of the first Student Radio History of Australia. The book is forthcoming and I am eagerly looking forward to reading it. We talked about research, politics, radio and the very nature of perception itself. She is one of those insightful and vibrant, young people that could well be running the world some day.

I have changed some spellings, punctuation and formatting ever so slightly to placate my American spell-checker. Other than that, the below is almost a verbatim transcript of our emails. Read on, and then read her book.


1. Can you tell me about the genesis of your book? When did you first think you'd write about this and why?

I became involved in Radio Monash sort of accidentally when I was at uni, first as a News Presenter, then as News Editor, then as Vice-President. During that time I was heavily involved in all things Radio Monash, and I became curious about the history of the station. The official biography on the website said that we originated with a pirate radio called 3DR Draft Resistance Radio, how cool is that, so I went away to do my own research out of curiosity.

Looking up history of student radio – nothing. History of pirate radio? Nothing. There were a few hits on 3DR, but not substantial or consistent. Eventually I went to the State Library to have a look at some of the newspapers from the 3DR incident, since I was able to pick up the dates from the bits online. I found lots of news articles on the pirate radio incident, but many of the contemporary articles contradicted existing accounts, so I ended up with more questions than answers.

Eventually this curiosity morphed into a wider project, and on a personal note in 2017 I decided I had to pick one writing project and see it all the way through if I wanted to be a Writer writer. For the fusion of my personal interest, the fact that there was a clear objective value in producing this work, and the positive career implications of publishing something so substantial, I decided to write the first history of student radio in Australia.

2. How far back have you traced the history of student radio in Australia?

The oldest records of importance are from 1936, where the University of Sydney engaged in “radio for students, of students, for students”. This began with “The Broadcast”, a part of an annual festival of sports and other recreational activities, where students would produce programs and music to be broadcast on cooperating commercial stations. Coral Lansbury, a student actress, was one of the first women on student radio during these broadcasts, as part of a student theater production on air – Coral Lansbury later went on to marry Bruce Turnbull and give birth to baby Malcolm!

In the 1940s, there was (probably) the first push for an actual operating campus radio station in Australia, which they already had in the US. The effort was very organized, and reflected almost eerily the efforts by the successfully established campus stations from the 1970s. The effort included students covering the radio tech, broadcasting, involved student clubs producing shows, and a concerted effort from the student union itself.

This station might have changed everything; the Australian media landscape may be completely different today if it had been allowed to continue without interference. But of course, the old must hold back the young; the University of Sydney admin said that they doubted the students could run as much as a PA system, let alone a radio station, and they doubted the quality of the programs that might be put to air.

Hundreds of successful youth-run shows around Australia on commercial radio and on youth community radio like SYN and FBi prove them wrong, but there was nothing the students could do at the time. The community radio license did not exist and they were not allowed within the existing structures of the university and the union to proceed without the permission of the elderly admin and their lack of imagination.

This is the beginning of the book, and the beginning of the story of young people with spirit, imagination, passion and vitality trying to start new things; being squashed down by members of the older generations, because of prejudice against the youth and little else.

3. You were interviewed on the program Art Smitten on SYN last year. How has the work on the book progressed since then?

My goodness! Since the interview a significant amount of work has been done in consolidating the information collected on research trips, and the wider image of “student radio in Australia” as a whole has emerged. There is also a clear distinction between student radio eras; the 1970s and the beginning of community radio, the 1980s where student radio really built on its foundations and became influential in many places, especially in the alternative and local music scenes; the 1990s and the push for a real “Youth” community station, which was strongly related to the dance music movement, and the consequent smackdown of those young people by commercial interests; the 2000s where alternative was Queen and student radio embraced its independent spirit; the 2010s where most stations had settled into internet broadcasting and a focus on podcasts.

4. In your 2019 Art Smitten interview you expressed a strong, political definition of student radio. You said "Any time a young person expresses themselves, even if the content is not political, it's always a political act." Can you tell me more about that idea?

Picking up on that idea is insightful; it is the basis of the book, the foundation of youth media itself, and why I would bother with it at all. I believe this is a fact of life. Older people are imbued with the benefits of experience, the wisdom that comes along with it, the benefit of having time to think about stuff. But for exactly the same reason, they are also hampered with all the prejudices of their age, their generation, their understanding of a world that have left the building 20 years ago. Young people are an inversion of this; we may not have all that experience, and I think we definitely benefit from listening to the older people with that experience, but we are naturally more open to new ideas; we are naturally more able to understand the world around us because we are native to it; technology is the obvious example of this, but from my perspective this is about social progress. 

How can a 76-year-old understand the idea of "gender is a construct" when their entire lives have been built on a gender binary, when they automatically regard a person as "young man" or "that woman"? We can do our best to educate, and that 76-year-old may even be willing to learn and listen, but it's fundamentally more difficult for them. Therefore, it obvious to me that young people ought to be the leaders of social progress, and they are. When we are discussing let's say the running of a particular company, and someone is on the panel who has been with that company for 40 years with various success, they are most likely an expert and they will be the best person to listen to. When we are discussing social progress, the voices of the youth should be elevated among anyone else, because WE ARE THE EXPERTS. We are not hampered with the same prejudices, we are the perfect fusion of rationality and open mindedness. Of course that won't last; we'll get older too, and our own prejudices will be become more and more clear, and that's why we need to be sharp and pay attention to what the young people tell us, not only when we agree, but ESPECIALLY when we realize we're starting to disagree. 

Raising up the voices of the youth means raising up the voices for social progress, for innovation, for new ideas, new perspectives, change, experiments, moving forward for the better!

5. There are already numerous Australian radio history books by authors like Lesley Johnson, David Dufty, Albert Mora, Bruce Carty, and Bridget Griffen-Foley to name a few.  Why do you think no one before you has attempted to write a book focused on student radio?

There are a few reasons, most based on the fact that virtually every single person involved in youth radio throughout the years has been a volunteer and the stations have run on a shoestrings and bits of old rubber. The fact that these shows went to air was a miracle; the idea that they would’ve been recorded, or archived, or memorialized in anyway may be asking too much of history.

Plus, it’s unlikely there is as strange as I am would have bothered with the massive hassle. I work three days a week as a Receptionist and I’ve funded my travels around Australia myself, which is an enormous endeavor. I’m not doing too bad but also not exactly flush either, not something everyone would choose! Fingers crossed I will make some money back on the book to at least break even, so buy the book when it comes out!

6. Have you found any good reference material to help the work along? It sounds like you are doing a tremendous amount of original research.

Haha, tell me about it! There are some bits and pieces scattered all over, which are so much fun to find, and are usually from blogs like yours; independent, done for the love. Some notable more-or-less comprehensive histories that have been written include:

  • Ryan Egan put together a brief history of RMIT student radio which is still online
  • 4ZZZ History book
  • Radical Radio Celebrating 40 Years of 3CR
  • Radio City the first 30 years of 3RRR
  • 40 years of PBS Radio
  • Territory FM history book
  • 4TTT history book

The books generally don’t discuss youth or students specifically, with the notable exception of the 4ZZZ which can’t really avoid it. Often the writers of these books may not even be aware of the relationship. Remember that these books are based heavily on memories of the surviving members of the station rather than on primary research like my book, and they are more for posterity than for scholarly consideration.

For example, while Radio City the first 30 years of 3RRR is a really awesome book and I’m so glad it was written, there are several clear and glaring errors in the early chapters when Mark Phillips is documenting the early days of 3RRR and its conflict with the existing student station at RMIT, called 3ST. They are also present when he discusses the pirate radio experiments of the 1970s, for the same reasons I described earlier. This is hardly Mark’s fault as he can only work with the information he has. Hopefully once my book is published histories like this can be clarified for the better of all histories.

7. Are you planning to self-publish or do you have any publishers engaged with the project yet?

Self publish baby! In the spirit of independence that guides student radio, I am going all out independent, self-publishing. This aligns with my personal values about writing. I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold out forever; in practicality I will probably need to sign up with a publisher sometime if I want to be a full time writer. But right now I’m young – if not this project, then which? If not now, then when?

8. You seem to have taken a break from your Student Radio History Wordpress blog. Do you have further plans for that?

The blog will return very shortly! I just did not have the funds readily available when the renewal time came up (I recently bought a car, which I will be taking on my Australia-wide trip to promote the book). The website will be up and running hopefully by next week if not sooner.

9. You were a member of the Student radio station Radio Monash, What can you tell me about your time there?

I would describe my time at Radio Monash as a perfect stereotypical experience of student radio; awesome, formative, incredibly dramatic.

10. I understand you did a radio program for young Muslim women on 3CR. Can you tell me about that show?

That was a training course rather than a radio program, and it was awesome. We covered the basics of radio training like cuing up tracks, microphones, media law, which I’ve covered extensively in my other radio gigs; but the program was run by some very clever women of color from 3CR and from the Muslim Women Association who really opened my mind up to interesting social and political issues.

11. How has your personal experience in student radio influenced your work on the book?

Mainly in that I realize that many of the scenes from student radio history repeat themselves over and over, whether it’s 1938 or 2014. This offers a really positive perspective I think on some of the stressful social interactions that occur within student radio, just like they occur with all student groups, or all groups of any kind I suppose. That is, personality clashes happen, and people shouldn’t carry the world on their shoulders when they do happen. We need to learn how to heal those wounds, how to swallow our pride, and work together for the good of the station, and for the good of youth media. Knowing how student radio actually functions on the ground level will allow me to write the advice section of the book – how to avoid the pitfalls of student radio and make your station prosper!

It also means that this is the coolest type of history, community history. This book is not being written in retrospect or by a middle aged person speculating about the behavior of “the youth”, it’s being written by an actual young person who is part of the student radio scene they are writing about.

It’ll be electric and groundbreaking, I can’t wait for you to read it!

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