On Air: The magic of RRR

Keeping a community radio station on air for forty years hasn’t been easy, but Melbourne’s Triple R has endured thanks to the collective loyalty of its volunteers and subscribers. A current exhibition at the State Library of Victoria celebrates the station’s history.

Words Kimberley Thomson | Header image by Bre Teofilo | January 2017

When Stephen Walker first sauntered into the Triple R studios in 1980 he felt like a “hick from the sticks”. The station was still at its residence in Cardigan Street, Carlton: a sprawling two-storey former family home. Walker had been picking up a weak radio signal in his home in the Dandenongs and was visiting the station to claim a listener prize (a Snakefinger album and tickets to a concert at Melbourne Uni). 

He told journalist Mark Phillips in Radio City—an unofficial biography of the station from 1976-2006—that the trip left quite an impression: “I was just amazed at going in these tiny corridors of what would have been a family home [with] piles of magazines teetering and records piled hither and yon, and all these people wandering around and looking as if they had purpose, with pieces of paper in their hands, or tapes, in this beehive that was just so compact … it seemed like another world.”

Walker said he felt like an outsider: “For us to be listening way out in the Dandenongs seemed like an aberration rather than any intention on the station’s behalf to have people out there listening . . . it was like eavesdropping on this group of inner city people.”

But a year or so later, Walker found himself behind the microphone and he eventually adopted the moniker The Ghost Who Talks. His program the Skull Cave would become a stalwart of the station’s program grid (he celebrated thirty-five years at the station last Friday). Somewhere along the way he also pulled a fourteen-year stint as program manager, serving a defining if sometimes dramatic tenure.

Walker’s story is a common one; in the station’s forty-year history, countless people have stumbled across the Triple R broadcast, been lured in from the city’s outer reaches and become involved in the station in a very tangible way. This underpinning sense of communal ownership is a key reason the station has survived for so long. There have been some bumps along the road — ongoing financial crises in the 80s and more recently threats of federal funding cuts — but thanks to individual and collective loyalty and ingenuity, all storms have been weathered. 

From those of us who went prancing off to the big smoke, Smiths albums clutched tightly to our chests as we waved goodbye to the old folk, the bogans and the pub with whalebones out the front, we say, thank you 3RRR—you saved our lives.

The spirit of the station was defined early on. The seed was planted in the latter days of the Whitlam Government. Media Minister Moss Cass had floated a plan to make use of the relatively new FM band and grant licences to 12 educational radio stations — to become known by the mainstream media as “Cass’s Dirty Dozen”. An experimental licence was granted to 3RMT, which would broadcast out of RMIT University and reach a tiny radius in Carlton and Fitzroy. The very first broadcast in 1976 featured an address from the president of the university’s council and 25 minutes of literature reviews.

A 26-year-old Sue Matthews became station manager and over time contemporary music started to encroach on the schedule. When the university began to question the “educational” merit of such programming, Matthews delivered an unofficial manifesto that would define a philosophy which is still evident across the grid today. She wrote to the university board: “We are not a would-be commercial station and our presenters should not be would-be disc-jockeys… We should offer an alternative to the inanity of high-powered and raucous commercial presentation.”

Early broadcast ephemera from the station's early years. Image: Patrick Rodriguez.

Early broadcast ephemera from the station's early years. Image: Patrick Rodriguez.

In stark contrast to the commercial radio world, women became a key part of Triple R’s operation. Nadia Anderson, an influential volunteers coordinator, told Chris Hatzis in Triple R’s brilliant “40 years in 40 days” audio series, that the role of women at Triple R was unprecedented. “Back then there were hardly any female voices on radio… things have changed so much and it’s really hard to remember what it was like back then. We, on Triple R, made an unbelievable difference to commercial radio... Commercial radio was totally male. If they had a woman on it was to belittle her or make fun of her or treat her as a bit of fluff... Triple R did change that.”

Heading into the 80s, the station was staring down the barrel of a $100,000 deficit, and the prospect of the station’s closure loomed. Eventually the idea for sponsorship was conceived and as the subscriber base grew, financial trouble was staved off, but tensions ensued throughout the decade, often arising over internal disagreements over programming choices. The 90s, too, proved sometimes messy behind the scenes, but as Phillips writes in Radio City, “on air this is a period that many regard as a high water mark”.

In 2004, the station bought and refurbished its current premises, a squat brick building in East Brunswick and today, Triple R boasts a subscriber base of over 14,000 people and reaches about 440,000 listeners each week.

Earlier this year, a car struck a water main outside the studios, forcing the broadcast off air for two hours as the offices flooded. The station’s archives were salvaged, and damage wasn’t devastating, but the idea for an anniversary exhibition was well and truly reinforced. The result, On Air: 40 Years of Triple R, is currently showing at the State Library of Victoria and showcases some of the key memorabilia and recordings from the station’s history.

A highlight is a collection of letters from listeners both deploring and exulting the station’s decisions. One condemns the choice to run ads that veer a little too close into commercial territory; another is offended at a “disgusting” show that “promotes homosexuality”. Another still writes in with “a story about how 3RRR made the lives of untold young country people less miserable”. The writer decided to listen to the radio rather than get beaten up on the weekend or pretend to like football. The letter concludes: “From those of us who went prancing off to the big smoke, Smiths albums clutched tightly to our chests as we waved goodbye to the old folk, the bogans and the pub with whalebones out the front, we say thank you 3RRR—you saved our lives.”

On Air: 40 Years of Triple R is showing at the State Library of Victoria until 29 January. 

Swampland Magazine