DAVID JAMES COLLABORATES WITH MAX BENYON ON GETTING TO AIR
This was the question asked of the fledgling broadcasters 2MBS-FM and 3MBS-FM by Miles Wright (then chair of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board) when offering licences to broadcast under the cutely named Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905-1973.
In 1971 The Australian Broadcasting Control Board recommended the introduction of frequency modulation broadcasting on the UHF (ultra high frequency) band, a spectrum unfamiliar in other countries. The international FM band was 88 to 108 MHz and that’s where almost all receivers were set at manufacture. To adopt any other would be akin to installing an odd-gauge railway system. Just as well we persevered in promoting the international band rather than one that would make the government’s ‘mates’ happy. I’m sure other FM broadcasters were grateful to the Music Broadcasting Society!
The MBS core committee of Trevor Jarvie, Michael Law, Max Benyon and Grahame Wilson were instrumental in convincing the government that Australia should have FM in line with the rest of the world and to not put it on an inaccessible part of the broadcast spectrum.
Our formal licence was offered on 27 September 1974. We were on air five weeks later. One might suggest that ‘string and sealing wax’ contributed to the hasty assembly of a broadcast studio. USB, Bluetooth, CDs and anything remotely ‘digital’ was still far in the future. It was all ‘plug and pray’, according to Founder and station technical ‘wiz’ Max Benyon. Max was one of a handful of enthusiasts who assembled the first transmitter and the early broadcast studio. The transmitter was a modest affair, placed atop the all-important fridge on the wall of our ‘donated’ premises adjacent to Alexander Lane in Crows Nest. The site for the fridge and transmitter was important because the transmitting antenna was mounted on the roof peak directly above with the cable dangling out the window.
Assembly of a ‘studio’ began quite late. In fact it wasn’t until the day before planned on-air broadcasts that we started to think seriously about how it would all work. We had some donated equipment: turntables that were so highly ‘sprung’ that they shook in any breeze, a mixer borrowed (from me), a microphone and stand borrowed (from me), a chair and tables, purloined from somewhere, some rudimentary sound insulation and acoustic treatment. Wall mounted egg-cartons were not acceptable; too ‘common’.
Our first challenge was to wire the microphone circuit so that the studio monitor speakers would ‘mute’ when the microphone was ‘live’. Yes, we had two speakers because we knew that soon we would be ‘radio for both ears’ and that the drought of good quality FM broadcasts would soon be broken by a bunch of ‘amateurs’. Several of the early ‘techies’ had broadcast experience. Three stalwarts, with the unknowing help of large institutions, would design and assemble a low-power transmitter, later to be used as the ‘exciter’ for a larger transmitter, both purpose-built because the market in Australia for FM transmitters was pretty slim. Other assistants were drawn on for their specific expertise, mostly incognito because their employers might have objected to their involvement.
With the low-power transmitter humming away on the fridge and the studio nearing completion there was great anticipation at testing time: 2am Sunday 15 December 1974. Ten hours to go. “I heard that,” someone called our single telephone line in response to an open-mic expletive. Great! We were ready to broadcast on our allocated frequency at that time of 92.1 MHz.
In a parallel universe (the programming room next door) David Rumsey, Vincent Plush and a small team were working to create the iconic first broadcast of a modern FM radio station. We had acquired a few handfuls of vinyl from the record companies who were only too glad to have their classical repertoire publicised for free. This content was augmented by more specialised material from private collections. Where else would one find Le jeu de Robin et Marion by Adam de la Halle? The opening work was Overture to a momentous occasion (1957) by John Antill and the first voice on air was David Rumsey.
A momentous occasion it was indeed! The first opera we broadcast was Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. All we had to do now was to assemble programs for the rest of our days. Easy? We encouraged music lovers to become programmers and presenters to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. There were fewer other avenues for people to listen to classical music and certainly no other radio station encouraged such participation. Our volunteer force was born and was most likely the model used by other community radio stations.
The rest of December and January (1975) was ad hoc. On 16 January 1975 we enabled ‘stereo’, the first such licensed transmissions in Australia. Listeners phoned in great excitement when they saw the stereo light come on their radios.
On 1 February the official opening took place with goodwill messages from Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the Premier of New South Wales, Tom Lewis, which were arranged by Foundation Chair Professor Neil Runcie. This was the start of itemised programs that were printed in our new ‘Guide’.
February programs didn’t go down well with many listeners, nor the hi-fi industry who saw us as the means by which they could flog receivers, amplifiers, speakers to enthusiasts. They expected ‘light’ classical music as the best way to demonstrate the ‘oomph’ of their wares. The Board of the day decided a part-time paid programmer would be an asset to the ‘balance’ of the programming so a young upstart by the name of Philip Scott (later famous for collaboration in The Gillies Report, The Republic of Myopia, and the Wharf Revue) was engaged to ‘fix’ the balance; and indeed he did. Our music balance improved rapidly and an invitation for people to subscribe to the station bore fruit in the form of cheques, cheques and more cheques. The hi-fi industry was somewhat appeased. The audience grew to realise that we were here to stay and 2MBS-FM was a radio station for music lovers.
The need arose for jazz and contemporary music to be represented. We were a bit surprised when a ‘DJ’ asked us for air-time from midnight. Andrew Davies arrived with his bundles of well-cared-for LPs (in a milk crate) and proceeded to wrest the ears of the post-midnight listeners. Thence followed Tom Zelinka and we gradually filled the midnight-to-dawn ‘graveyard’ shift. I believe that Andrew’s relentless playing of Autobahn by German electronic group Kraftwerk was the reason why they became successful in Australia at the time. No other radio station would play it. How would they squeeze in the commercials?
Our volunteer base has been steady ever since that first influx. We have always maintained that we are a radio station run by volunteers and supported by a small team of staff.
Early in December 1975 we commenced a move to larger premises at 76 Chandos Street, a former film-sound studio. It took three weeks to establish a temporary studio and move office administration. In 1976 we started construction of our two on-air studios which were finally commissioned and officially opened by Jill and Neville Wran in May 1977.
ABC-FM began broadcasting on Australia Day 1976, closely emulating our style (printed program guide detailing works as we have done since 1975) and we greeted them with mixed emotions. Were they a complement, or a competitor? We were always the ‘music lovers’ station’.
We moved our transmission site to the AMP Centre, and changed to 102.5MHz on 30 March 1978 thereby giving greater coverage of the Sydney area.
2MBS-FM can be credited with launching or sustaining the careers of many household names. Of course we kicked off with David Rumsey and Vincent Plush assisted by Martin Wesley-Smith and Wesley Want. Martin Hibble was dragged from behind the counter at Tarantella Records and was eventually poached by ABC Classic FM, as it was known then. We also claim Mairi Nicolson, Belinda Webster and several recording engineers. 2MBS-Fine Music is unashamedly a training ground for music lovers who wish to kick-start or advance their career. We’ve also taken professionals under our wing who have become disgruntled in the wide world of radioland. We don’t purposely push people to other radio stations, nor do we knowingly steal them.
Fine Music has flourished for 45 years, kept afloat by a steady band of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers and donors.
Max Benyon is the station’s senior technical adviser and one of the founders. Max will be profiled in the January magazine. David James, also a founder, was the original station manager from 1 October 1974. He is still hanging around as a volunteer and you can read a short profile in this edition
DAVID JAMES COLLABORATES WITH MAX BENYON ON GETTING TO AIR