Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Friday, March 14, 2008

History of ABC in Newcastle

The following story on the history of the ABC in Newcastle is drawn from ABC Newcastle as first step in developing a history of the media in New England.

Adrian Jose arrived in Newcastle in late 1930 to set up radio station 2NC for the Australian Broadcasting Company. He had joined joined the broadcasting company just two months before, September 1930, as a record library assistant and announcer-in-training.

ABC Newcastle was Australia's first regional station and went live-to-air for the first time on December 19th 1930. Standing in front of the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra, conductor Mr J. Stanley Hurn raised his baton and launched them into the William Tell Overture. The sounds of the Newcastle Orchestra were carried across the country and into homes in Sydney, Newcastle and Melbourne.

A large audience attended the Newcastle Town Hall to listen to the first broadcast and the Acting Prime Minister, J. E. Fenton, spoke to the Newcastle audience from a Melbourne studio.

This new station is the first to be erected outside the capital cities, as portion of the construction program of the National Broadcasting Service. There is quite a large population within range of 2NC and it is evident that the establishment of the local station will benefit listeners. Listeners may rest assured that everything possible will be done to give satisfactory programmes.

The first broadcast came out of the new studios above a billiard room behind the Old Strand Theatre in Market Square, off Hunter Street Mall. A transmitter at Beresfield was set up and connected the Hunter Street studio by landline. The current transmitter is still located at Beresfield.

The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate wrote about the broadcast the following day:

Representing an important link in a chain of national broadcasting stations, and a development of considerable importance to the people of the Hunter River District, station 2NC Newcastle went on the air lastnight.

The paper's article about the first broadcast was bordered by advertisements to buy radios:

Read's Radios: Made in Newcastle for Newcastle for good reception. 27 pound 10 shillings complete with speakers, valves and installed in your own home and ready to listen in.

This was a lot of money in prices at the time.

There was no obligation under the national broadcasting scheme for the Australian Broadcasting Company to supply more than one hour a week of local Newcastle content. The local content that was provided consisted of Newcastle news, market reports, church services, and other important Newcastle activities.

In 1932 the Australian Broadcasting Commission took over the operations of the Australian Broadcasting Company.

The first broadcast for the new ABC reached every state in the federation and was opened by Conrad Charlton and the then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. Opening day programs included the first Children's Session with Bobby Bluegum, the first sports program - "Racing Notes" with W.A. Ferry calling the Randwick races, British Wireless News received by cable from London, weather, stock exchange and shipping news. There was also a talk on goldfish and their care, a slot called "Morning Devotions", music the ABC Women's Association session, which included topics such as commonsense housekeeping and needlecraft.

In the first few years, 2NC would broadcast intermittently in the morning and would often shut down for intervals during the day. At the time, there was no concept of continuous broadcasting.

With the outbreak of World War II, strict censorship was imposed on the ABC and most programs had to be submitted to censors three weeks before broadcast. For the first few months of the war, even weather reports were not broadcast due to the censorship restrictions.

At the end of June 1940, the Department of Information took control of the 7.00pm nightly national news. However, after listeners expressed their preference for independent news presented by the Commission, control of the news was returned to the ABC in September 1940.

Many ABC staff members joined up as the war continued, giving the opportunity for women to become announcers, supervisors, and musicians. The first woman announcer, Margaret Doyle, was appointed in 1940, and by 1942, there were 19 women announcers across Australia. During the war, women also became sound effects officers, technicians and journalists.

On September 1st 1946, there was a shift in ABC broadcasting when the network split into two distinct networks, the ABC Interstate Program and the ABC National Program. The Interstate Program had lighter content while the National network was more serious. Newcastle was the first station outside the capital cities to have two transmitters and Newcastle listeners could choose between 2NA and 2NC.

Regional stations with only one ABC transmitter were provided a mix of both National and Interstate programming. But the Newcastle and Hunter residents could tune into 2NA for the light entertainment and 2NC for news and national issues. That later changed with 2NC becoming the frequency for local radio 1233 ABC Newcastle and 2NA the network for Radio National in Newcastle.

Some of the earlier voices on the Newcastle airwaves were Hal Hooker and Hec Scott.

Mr Hec Scott began sports broadcasts directly after World War II and continued doing so for 34 years afterwards. Before that Hal Hooker, who was a former NSW Shield cricketer, was the voice of sport on 2NC, he also took part in the first "synthetic" broadcasts from London in the 1930s.

Hec Scott was most renowned for his rugby league commentaries; he once said his most memorable time as a broadcaster was calling the game where Newcastle team defeated a St George team, which had 11 test players in it. But his experience at 2NC was also diverse, going from sport commentator to emergency broadcaster to acting regional manager.

During the Maitland and Hunter Valley floods in 1955, Hec Scott stayed on air overnight to keep listeners informed. At this time, the ABC Newcastle music record library was limited and the station was trying not to repeat any songs. In the early hours of the morning during the Maitland flood Hec unwittingly played Ole Man River. He immediately began receiving phone calls from listeners in the flooded region complaining about his poor choice of music.

After mostly relying on part-time presenters for the local time slots, it was not until the late 1960's that ABC radio in Newcastle hired its first full-time radio presenter.

Geoff Moore's appointment as presenter at 2NC was the beginning of the stations role as a true local radio station rather than primarily a relay station for Sydney. Soon after there were three full-time presenters at the station including Libby Saunders, Leigh Wallis and Geoff Moore and two part-time announcers, David Patterson and John Clarke. Moya Talty was the first female announcer at 2NC and Marjorie Biggins followed soon after.

At midnight on November 23 1978, most of the AM frequencies across Australia changed to enable the allocation of more broadcast channels. Station 2NC was set at 1233 and 2NA 1512 as they remain there today. Later 2NC was known as the "Hunter's 2NC", then "2NC 1233" as national market research found that radio consumers wanted to identify their station with the frequency. Recently the 2NC has been dropped, the station is now known as 1233 ABC Newcastle.

By 1980 2NC was a lively radio station and a serious news provider with six full-time news journalists on staff and programs filling 92 hours if airtime. The Newcastle Morning Herald praised 2NC on its 50th birthday saying:

It gives its listeners a wide range of programs, ranging from good local news coverage to bright breakfast and drive-time programs to a very popular gardening talkback show.

With the take up of FM stations around the country, 2NC decided to scale back its music content in 1982. The head of the national ABC Radio 1, as it was known then, Arthur Wyndham said:

People who want music will stick to FM and AM stations are more likely to concentrate on developing news, current affairs and information services.

Mr Wyndham described ABC Newcastle as one of the success stories within the national ABC network:

2NC is a good example of the way in which a local ABC radio station with a dedicated, enthusiastic staff can achieve very good results with limited resources

ABC Newcastle has defined itself by providing important local news and information daily but it has also become the destination station during local events or disasters. One of the most memorable events covered by ABC Newcastle was the 1989 earthquake.

Margaret Lewis was presenting the morning program when the earthquake shook Newcastle. Talking about a US Senate Committee at the time, Margaret stopped talking when the earthquake hit, rumbling and studio damage can be heard and soon after transmission was broken. When the transmission was reconnected, it was switched to Sydney briefly, until Newcastle was able to get back on air.

There was much confusion throughout Newcastle and at the station immediately afterward. Margaret Lewis came back on air saying:

We apologise for the interruption to transmission, it appears we've had some sort of explosion and when we find out what the situation is, we certainly will get back to you but at the moment we have quite a few people that are shaking just a little in their shoes.

Soon after, it became clear what caused the shaking. A 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit Newcastle at 10:27am on Thursday the December 28th 1989. Felt as far away as Canberra, the earthquake killed 13 people; nine died at the Newcastle Workers Club, three people were killed in Beaumont Street, Hamilton and one person died of shock. Over 160 people were hospitalised, 300 buildings had to be demolished, and a thousand people were made homeless.

Amid the confusion and power outages, Newcastle turned to 2NC 1233 Newcastle for information. The main instruction was not to re-enter any homes or building, as there was the danger of an aftershock or another earthquake. ABC News was quick to broadcast a special current affairs program two hours after the earthquake hit:

Emergency crews in Newcastle are now accessing the damage inflicted by an earthquake which rocked eastern New South Wales less than two hours ago. First reports say that one person may have been killed and there's been widespread damage to large areas of the City of Newcastle.

Another natural disaster covered by the station was the June long weekend storm and floods in 2007. A severe low-pressure system caused severe storms to hit Newcastle on Friday June 7th and widespread flooding to Newcastle and the Hunter Region throughout the weekend. The storms also battered coal carriers waiting off the Newcastle coastline and the bulk carrier "Pasha Bulker" was grounded on Newcastle's Nobby's beach and remained there until salvage crews were able to refloat her a month later.

The Hunter and Central Coast regions were lashed with severe weather conditions that weekend and the NSW Premier declared it a natural disaster. The storms caused flash flooding, and grounded a bulk carrier the Pasha Bulker on Nobbys Beach. 1233 ABC Newcastle went into emergency broadcasting mode for 72 hours. Listeners sent in photos of the damage, and stories of amazing heroism, survival and courage. The 1233 ABC Newcastle team worked in shift work around the clock to keep listeners, many of who had no power, informed.

For its efforts over the long weekend, the station received a Newcastle City Council Commendation, a State Medal for service and a Walkley Award for its continuous multimedia coverage during the long weekend.

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