I’ve never used those appalling buzzers or shrieking alarms to shock me out of my peaceful slumber in the mornings. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always elected to be gently awoken by the radio, just loud enough to rouse me without causing me to snort/yawn my way out of a where am I?/what’s going on? daze.
I’ve always been one for waking on the hour (or the half hour), so it’s provided the perfect opportunity to catch up on the day’s news, before eventually hauling my lazy arse out of bed.
For many years, turning the kitchen radio on was one of the first things I did each morning. Then, six years ago, I got into the nasty habit of tuning in to morning television… yuk! What a lot of vacuous rubbish. I never enjoyed any of the commercial offerings but, eventually, even the ABC’s News Breakfast became too much to stomach. Schmaltzy hosts and their awkward, semi-scripted and sick-making conversations, throwing to repeated readings of exactly the same news every half hour, or to interviews and so-called ‘reports’ on topics that they scarcely disguise their complete lack of knowledge, if not outright disdain, of. Frankly, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.
I managed to shake off the morning television habit but, sadly, over time morning radio became as unpalatable as morning television. Thankfully, though, at least there’s real choice when it comes to morning radio.
Maybe it’s just something that comes with age but, over the nearly sixteen years I’ve lived in Sydney, it’s fair to say I’ve been something of a radio station whore. Most recently, I settled on one of the higher-brow local offerings, yet I’m still not entirely satisfied.
Years ago, it was commercial FM radio all the way for me. For much of the 2000s, Nova969 was my station of choice. I’d wake up to a generally relevant news bulletin, followed by one of Sydney’s most popular breakfast programs, hosted by two (or sometimes three) largely inoffensive and occasionally amusing hosts, playing the current Top 40 pop music that I tended to enjoy.
Over the years, though, things changed. For one thing, the news bulletins between 6-7am got shorter and shorter, with an ever-decreasing content of actual news—as opposed to celebrity gossip and references to social media posts. Briefly, as my interest in the Top 40 also waned, I made the switch back to the ABC’s ‘alternative’ youth-orientated offering, Triple J.
Triple J had been my station of choice during the mid-to-late 90s; my hope, in 2007, was that it would reintroduce me to new and somewhat more ‘substantial’ music and other enlightening programming. But the time obviously wasn’t right. It just wasn’t the same station I’d last listened to seven years earlier, so after not very long I switched back to where I’d come from.
Then, one day about a year later, stuck in an eastern suburbs traffic jam on my way into the office, I suddenly realised I’d become my own grandmother. “That’s absurd!”, I found myself thinking, following yet another supposedly hilarious prank call by the hosts—grown men who, afterwards, sounded as if they were literally ROFLMAO-ing. The next song came along and, suddenly, my dear departed grandma was speaking through me again. “That’s not music, it’s just noise!”. And, with the song that followed shortly afterwards, “It all sounds exactly the same”.
This was greatly unsettling. Of course I could tell the difference between one song and another, but the sound-alike nature of virtually every other Top 40 hit of the day was such that I either disliked, or at very least was disinterested in, the majority of what I was hearing. “How did this happen?”, I wondered to myself. I’d been a diehard fan of Top 40 schlock since the day, when I was three years old, that I first sung ABBA’s Dancing Queen into the hose of our mustard-coloured barrel vacuum cleaner, which of course was my makeshift stage. How I’d come to dislike pop music was a mystery to me. I was genuinely shocked by this turn of events.
So I made the switch again. This time, I defected to WSFM. Yes, the former “Hits and Memories” 2WS from the AM band back in the day, now “Classic Hits” 101.7 WSFM, had become my station of choice. The hosts were older, the music was older, the news was serious and I even won a weekend away, just by calling in and correctly answering some very early morning (and fairly simple) quiz questions—what wasn’t to like?
After about a year, I knew exactly what wasn’t to like. Despite having 40 years worth of classic hits to populate their playlist with, I came to suspect that 101.7 WSFM only had 101.7 songs to play—and they played them over and over and over and over. Week in, week out, 52 weeks a year. If I never hear Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees or Midnight Oil’s Power And The Passion again, it will still be too soon.
And so, I made the switch back to Triple J. This time, I found the format, the hosts and the plethora of new music refreshing. By now, they’d taken to including many more ‘classic hits’ into their playlist, though still of the alternative/indie variety, as opposed to Top 10 hits from the 80s (WSFM) or the 2000s (Nova). But, as I’d seen happen so many times before, eventually the Triple J breakfast show started getting on my nerves too.
When I’d initially tuned back in, the two hosts of Triple J Breakfast were really into their content. They knew the music intimately, they knew the artists and bands they were interviewing and they were able to talk about pretty much anything of relevance. They were old school friends too, so they also bounced off each other really effectively, even though one of them was a little over-enthusiastic with his commercial radio-bashing. There was also a decent range of other programs on offer, many of which I enjoyed and, often, found quite enlightening.
Inevitably, though, as tends to happen in radio, there was a change of host and with that change came an entirely different vibe. While one of the original two hosts remained, the new guy—allegedly a stand-up comedian by trade—knew very little about any of what the old host had been so well-versed in. Plus, there was an ever-increasing focus on music festivals, legalising illicit substances, university fees, dole payments, student accommodation and 14-year-olds calling in while doing their homework—none of which grandpa here was remotely interested in. Not only had Triple J become the ABC equivalent of a commercial radio station, but I was now old enough to be the father of the vast majority of its target demographic.
So, what to do? Where to from here? Was there even anything left for me?
As a kid, there was always a ‘wireless’ in our kitchen, generally set to an AM station; the AM band was the only option for many years and was certainly what my parents’ generation was used to listening to. Our radio was almost permanently on and Mum would lock onto and loyally listen—intermittently at least—to whatever AM station was topping the ratings at the time (not because of the ratings, just because she liked the station). Dad, meanwhile, would move up and down the dial listening to whatever station was broadcasting football, cricket or horse racing, or to the ABC—options which, more often than not, weren’t mutually exclusive.
Despite the fact that FM radio had existed in Australia since the late 1970s, I’m not entirely sure either of my parents knew what it was, or, if they did, what it was for or how to get to it. As one AM station after another made the switch to the FM band during the ’90s, I think Mum still didn’t know how to access it, so she just kept switching to other AM stations, until she, too, finally settled on the ABC’s local station, 1233 ABC Newcastle.
They say all daughters turn into their mothers. Clearly some sons do, too, coz once I was done with Triple J—and still determined never to return to commercial radio—I made the switch to my own local ABC station, 702 ABC Sydney. It was the first time I’d voluntarily elected to listen to a station on the AM band in nearly 25 years. The difference in sound quality only really occurred to me while listening in the car; on my kitchen radio, with its tiny tinny speaker, it made no difference at all. Plus, ABC Local Radio is mostly a talk-fest anyway, so FM-quality sound is hardly a prerequisite.
ABC Radio prides itself on top-quality journalism, so they generally try to make it all sound fairly hard-hitting and serious. 702’s breakfast program is no exception. In between interviews with self-serving politicians, business leaders and local councillors, though, they briefly digress to other topics.
Finance reports involve some unknown ‘expert’ rattling off detailed stock exchange numbers, which I’m convinced most listeners don’t actually understand while, during daily sport reports, the only role the host serves is to interject with clearly scripted questions, while the sports reporter could otherwise more than effectively present the entire thing without the faux conversational exchange.
Occasionally, they also present fluffier fare like (often comically scathing) movie reviews, as well as the ubiquitous traffic updates from someone allegedly in a helicopter somewhere over the city, mumbling into a microphone that’s far too close to their mouth.
Then, at 8:30 weekday mornings, the pace is relaxed somewhat, with a program hosted by a woman best known for decades of stand-up comedy. Between babbling about the weather, parenting, children or cooking, all the while drumming up parochial outrages about local councils and schools, she spends most of her time variously losing callers, accidentally cutting callers off or being unable to find the line a caller is waiting on—and, throughout, constantly blaming her tools. “Oh…”, she says, with surprise that somehow sounds genuine, “I don’t know what happened there… obviously our switchboard is playing up today… obviously <caller name> had very bad reception where they were… I don’t know what our system’s doing to me today…”. And on and on it goes.
“Oh FFS, get it right you idiot!”, I found myself grumbling one morning. And, with that, clearly I had to ditch 702 as well. But what on earth was left for me? I’d gone from ABC youth radio (when I actually was youthful), to contemporary commercial radio, to old-school commercial radio, back to ABC youth radio and on to ABC Local Radio… clearly, there was only one choice left: “RN”—aka, Radio National.
RN is the ABC’s nationwide broadcast. All I wanted was a radio station that wasn’t 90% politics, but I also had three specific requirements: I wanted to learn something, so it had to be enlightening, informative and educational. On a road trip across America in 2014, I’d stumbled across NPR, which is basically the US equivalent of RN—and I loved it. That format was exactly what I was now looking for locally. I wanted to hear stuff that I wouldn’t hear anywhere else, about books and theatre and science and the arts. I wanted to hear music that I might not otherwise ever hear. I wanted to listen to interviews with interesting and/or intelligent people who I might otherwise never know about. All very high-brow stuff, you see.
For the most part the switch has been a success. But, perhaps predictably, it’s still not entirely satisfying.
RN’s breakfast program (as well as its midday and early evening programs) seemingly has almost blanket access to our politicians and its host—a very experienced, serious journalist—asks the tough questions, even at 6:30 in the morning. In fact RN Breakfast has so much access to our politicians that it often feels like there’s little else but politics between 6-9am weekdays; it’s virtually all they talk about, every single morning, over and over and over.
And they just love harping on about of-the-moment topics for weeks at a time, before inexplicably deserting them, with nary a single word spoken of them ever again. Another politician, another interview, another transient controversy and more tough questions to the point of it being cringeworthy.
On weekends, RN’s news bulletins cover exactly the same items, every half hour, for two solid days. Then, to rub salt into the wound, they continue to cover much of what was repeatedly covered over the weekend throughout most of Monday morning’s news bulletins too, as if it all only just happened. It’s like they believe that either nothing of any newsworthiness happens on weekends, or else that Monday morning listeners have no idea of anything that’s happened anywhere in the world since Friday afternoon; obviously, in respect of news and world events at least, RN’s demographic only cares (or listens) during corporate business hours.
Otherwise, my search criteria has, I think, been largely fulfilled. RN is unlike any other local station I’ve ever listened to. Never before have I found myself quitting iTunes, avoiding the TV or stopping what I’m doing to listen to something on the radio so frequently, or with such attentiveness. Never before has any local radio station left me feeling so enlightened, informed and educated—remit achieved!
When I switch to ABC Classical in the mornings, I’ll know it’s time to retire. Judging by the speed of the cycle to-date, I’m not sure I’ll have enough Super by then.