Melbourne had 31 radio stations in 2003, compared with a mere 19 under the regulated system before 1987. New services have been established in all sectors: public service (with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation [ABC] and Special Broadcasting Service [SBS]), commercial and community (including six low-powered community suburban services licensed during the 1990s).
The media-regulation system was reformed in 1992 with the passing of the Broadcasting Services Act. The local planning processes of the Act were intended to bring about competition structurally, with some duplication across the different sectors to ensure diversity beyond the mainstream commercial services. Nine years later, in 2001, NOVA 100 commenced operations, but its entry to Melbourne airwaves signalled important changes: more competition in popular music radio, the relaxation of foreign-ownership restrictions (NOVA 100 is owned by the English Daily Mail Group) and the end of the old comprehensive services ('something for everyone') in favour of new targeted services (aimed at specific audience demographics). Structural competition means that ethnic, youth and fine music stations, for example, can be operated in any or all of the public, community and commercial sectors - the intention being to produce diverse approaches.
Changes to the system began in the early 1970s as a result of the confluence of many social, cultural, political, economic and technological forces. New expatriate national and cultural groups emerged in Melbourne following the postwar global diaspora; the cultural needs of women's, gay and lesbian, and Aboriginal groups were increasingly seen as politically important; cultural industries such as advertising, film, music and television were acknowledged by governments as the new sources of economic growth, and the opening up of FM services on the VHF broadcast band was enabled by a mix of old transmission technology, new political will, falling costs and technical improvements, resulting in the multiplication of services.
Development of new services in the mid-1970s brought about diversity in Melbourne radio. Starting inside the ABC in 1975, ethnic access station 3ZZ was renamed 3EA and taken over by SBS in 1977. The same year, community radio 3MBS FM commenced a dedicated fine-music service, and in 1976 the ABC's fine-music network, ABC Classic FM, commenced operations so that Melbourne listeners gained access to two new classical music services within a year. The radical broadcaster 3CR, which had been doing trial broadcasts for some time, commenced as a Left and trade union service in 1976 (licensed under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905 as 'limited commercial'). The ABC's youth network, Triple J, was extended to Melbourne in 1989.
During the 1970s, Melbourne was the site of two radical radio projects, which drew on student and anti-war activism, and on critical analysis of the media's role in democracy - the Alternative Radio Association produced several influential papers at this time. Australia's only pirate stations were set up in 1971: 3DR (Radio Draft Resister), at the University of Melbourne, and 3PR (People's Radio), at Monash University, both unlicensed broadcasters. 3DR's equipment was later smashed by police, and 3PR was electronically jammed, but they were important in demonstrating both the absence of, and the demand for, alternative media channels. The election of Gough Whitlam's Australian Labor Party Government in 1972, and its commitments to ending the war in Vietnam (immediate) and democratising the media (much slower progress), probably forestalled more experiments of the kind.
With few changes since World War II, commercial radio began to expand again in 1980, when 3EON FM was licensed as Australia's first commercial FM station. 3EON FM's rock music format established the mould for the popular-music FM stations of the 1980s, and they quickly came to dominate both ratings and advertising revenue. After the one-station-per-market rule was changed to allow two stations per market, and after the abolition of network limits in 1992, Austereo acquired Hoyts Media and Village Roadshow stations both in Melbourne (FOX FM and 3EON, rebadged as Triple M) and nationally, making the new rock network the undisputed market leader until NOVA 100's challenge after 1997.
The development of commercial FM services in the 1980s was not without its problems. FM conversions organised under the National Radio Plan 1988 provoked much animosity in the industry because of high auction prices, and five of the 14 proposals for AM-to-FM conversion collapsed between 1988 and 1992. 3KZ, Melbourne's labour station, bid a staggering $31.569 million for its conversion, saddling the station with a crippling debt at a time when interest rates were soaring, and resulting in many job losses.
An especially interesting chapter in the history of Melbourne's experiments with FM broadcasting was the development of the volunteer youth station HITZ-FM, which ran a series of test broadcasts from 1993 onwards, attracting a commercial-scale audience of 16.1% among 13-17-year-olds, and 12.8% in the 18-24 age group, a phenomenal performance that shocked the established stations and demonstrated the possibilities of programming aimed at younger teens. Not since the 1960s, the days of Stan Rofe and Bert Newton at 3XY, had there been a station targeted solely at kids. Attacked by the commercial stations, HITZ-FM was unsuccessful in its attempts at gaining a permanent community licence: the Australian Broadcasting Authority deemed its programming to be commercial in character, rather than 'community', though no commercial station has since occupied this niche. HITZ built on innovative music programming at community stations 3RRR and 3PBS, both of which are acknowledged as training grounds for public and commercial radio.
Recent additions to Melbourne's airwaves are SYN FM, licensed in 2001 and aimed at the 10-17 and 18-24 demographics (Triple J, NOVA, Triple M and FOX FM all have older, more affluent audiences), JOY Melbourne (Australia's first full-time gay and lesbian community radio), and 3KND ('kool n deadly' - an innovative indigenous broadcaster). News radio and talk are strongly supported formats in Melbourne, with long histories of both industry expertise and audience support. 774 ABC Melbourne has a history of much higher ratings than its ABC Local Radio peers in other capital cities. By 2004 Jon Faine, its morning talk host, was highly regarded and influential, occasionally winning the ratings against the market leader 3AW's Neil Mitchell, doyen of Melbourne talkback.
The ageing of the population and the increasing affluence of older listeners have resulted in new uses for AM radio, with many converting to news, talk and sport formats. 3AW, a major hub in Southern Cross Broadcasters' national network, has been the most successful of these, dominating commercial radio talk over many years, with some sources claiming it as the originator of Australian talkback radio in 1967. Rarely challenged at the top of the AM ratings, 3AW has frequently beaten Melbourne's FM stations as well.
Melbourne is often described as Australia's sports capital, and the broadcasting of sport descriptions, sports news and sports gossip occupies many hours on most stations, including the rock stations; Triple M, for example, broadcasts major football commentaries, and NOVA 100 added the Collingwood Football Club captain, Nathan Buckley, to its morning-show team in 2004. The migration of sporting stars to major roles in the television and radio industries - often in roles unrelated to sport - is a distinguishing feature of Melbourne's media culture. An interesting example is AM station 3AK. At the bottom of the ratings for years, 3AK moved at the beginning of 2004 to an all-sport niche format, complete with an all-star sports on-air line-up. Renamed SEN (Sports Entertainment Network), it has since made big ratings gains, apparently confounding industry fears that, with heavy sports programming by established commercial operators, additional sports programming by the new narrowcasters, and the increasing proportion of sport in television schedules, the sports market would be oversupplied. 3AW and Sport 927 (formerly 3UZ, a sports specialist station established with 3DB as the city's first 'B'-class stations in 1927) devote very substantial programming resources to sporting coverage, providing Melbourne listeners with arguably the nation's richest array of radio sport.
This is a very different scenario from the time when radio first came to Melbourne. The city played a central role in the early development of national radio, telegraphy and telephony. Its early history provides many examples of technical innovation: Australia's first telegraph line, from Williamstown to Melbourne, opened in 1854; the Melbourne Telephone Exchange, Australia's first, was established in 1880, and not far from Melbourne, the Marconi Company's two-way radio station opened at Queenscliff, Victoria, in 1905, another Australian first and a model for subsequent developments by the Commonwealth. Rich archival resources abound from this long local media and communications history. As the site of Australia's first federal government from 1901, Melbourne was also home to the Postmaster General's Department, which was to have regulatory control over broadcasting.
The city's first licensed 'A'-class station, 3LO (later 774 ABC Melbourne), received a cautious welcome when it commenced operation in 1924. Initially Melbourne press-owners saw radio as a threat. While publicly opposing moves by the ABC to establish an independent news service, they moved quickly to establish their own radio holdings, beginning with the acquisition of 3DB by Keith Murdoch's Herald and Weekly Times Group in 1929. Contemporary concern about monopoly control of both old and new media has its genesis at this time, and in a bitterly ironic twist the Lyons government (generally seen as Murdoch's own creation) legislated for limits on radio-ownership. The decision in 1925 by the Herald and Weekly Times Group to begin publishing The listener in, the first Australian program guide and magazine about radio, signalled the rapid transformation of radio from communications to broadcast medium, and the imminent development of a substantial radio market. As local programming developed, presenters became 'personalities', their lives a matter of public interest. Live drama, popular quizzes, comedies and children's programs, many demanding a studio audience, became a part of the city's life.
In the early days of radio, the press jealously guarded their access to sports coverage, fearing that radio's immediacy might put them out of business. A ban on the broadcasting of all football and horseracing in Melbourne, which lasted from 1930 to 1936, produced some extraordinary responses: Jacqueline Kent notes that 'race callers and commentators could be seen climbing trees and light poles in a desperate attempt to update listeners'. In the 1940s this all changed, and broadcasts of the Melbourne Cup and cricket tests brought the excitement of live sports coverage to listeners.
Although sport broadcasting survived the introduction of television in 1956, the rest of the weekly format was dramatically changed. Drama, comedy and children's programming moved rapidly to the new medium. So too did the variety shows and many of their presenters, whose star status was magnified on the small screen. Compelled to find a new niche, radio capitalised on its strengths, developing the broad spectrum of talk, sport and music stations that is available in the city today.