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A Short history of the ABC

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In this abridged extract from A Companion to Australian Media (2014) edited by Bridget Foley, Quentin Dempster scans the ABC's history since 1 July 1932 including its struggle for independence and adequate public funding, successful exploitation of mass communication technology and contributions to Australia's creative life and international standing.

The ABC began radio (wireless) broadcasting via then available Postmaster-General’s Department transmitters at 8 pm eastern standard time on 1 July 1932 – five months after the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Depression-ravaged Australia.

After chimes sounded from the Sydney Post Office tower, announcer Conrad Charlton intoned in a refined English/Australian accent: “This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission”. The signal thence generated reached the subjects of King George V in the federation of Australia as far away as Perth and Rockhampton. Australia’s population at the time was 6.5million with an estimated 6 percent able to receive the ABC’s broadcasts.

Independence and funding

The ABC is an entity of the Commonwealth Parliament. The Australian Broadcasting Commission Act became law on 17 May 1932, the Commission acquiring the assets of the Australian Broadcasting Company, a collection of former private radio licences acquired for the purpose.

The then Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons (United Australia Party) had been prevailed upon by radio manufacturers and retailers, influential figures including one R.G. Menzies, then a Victorian State MP and barrister, farmers, educators and musicians, not to abandon the recently defeated James Scullin (Australian Labor Party) government’s draft broadcasting Bill. The imperative driving the initiative was the view that commercial operators would not provide what a public broadcaster could to help secure the take-up of radio receivers: high quality programming in education, information, sport and music.

Like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the ABC was not to take advertising to defray its operating costs, although the then representatives of the ALP had no objection to the paid sponsorship of programs. Largely because of political pressure exerted by private television and radio licensees over the years, neither advertising nor sponsorship has eventuated as a means of funding ABC programming.

Like the BBC, the ABC was funded through a substantial proportion of an annual licence fee collected from the owners of radio receivers, many who paid up in fear of fines if they were caught without one by PMG monitor vans which prowled the suburbs of Australia. This funding mechanism prevailed until 1948 when the Chifley (ALP) government determined that the broadcaster would be funded from annual federal budget appropriations.

Unlike the BBC which was soon equipped with a Royal Charter, the ABC’s role and functions were not prescribed by a Charter as such at that time.

The ABC was not ‘independent’ of government. From the outset the Postmaster-General had the power to compel or forbid the broadcasting of any matter, a power which was used from time to time although ABC management often acted pre-emptively to exclude material or programs considered likely to provoke ministerial intervention.

The ‘independence’ of the public broadcaster from the government of the day has been in contention from the very beginning.

In the United Kingdom the BBC had a monopoly position in broadcasting until the mid-1950s. But the debate about its independence was just as important to its governance arrangements as the ABC’s role in Australia. One of the BBC’s founding managers, Sir John (later Lord) Reith famously clashed with the UK government over editorial independence. The term Reithianism emerged with these clashes and established the tradition of independent public service broadcasting in the UK. Reithianism denotes equal consideration to all viewpoints, probity, universality, a commitment to public service, distinguished from the free-market approach to broadcasting where programming aims to attract the largest audiences or advertising revenues regardless of artistic merit, impartiality, educative or entertainment values. This theme was later reinforced by Sir Ian Jacob, a British military leader during WWII and BBC director-general from 1952 to 1959 who became a staunch advocate for editorial independence, describing public broadcasting as:

‘a compound of a system of control, an attitude of mind, and an aim, which if successfully achieved results in a service which cannot be given by any other means. The system of control is full independence, or the maximum degree of independence that parliament will accord. The attitude of mind is an intelligent one capable of attracting to the service the highest quality of character and intellect. The aim is to give the best and most comprehensive service of broadcasting to the public that is possible. The motive that underlies the whole operation is a vital factor; it must not be vitiated by political or commercial consideration’.

In Australia the struggle for the ABC’s independence often embroiled the board and management in dispute both with government and staff.

In 1946, against the preference of the then general manager, Charles Moses, but at the insistence of news editor Frank Dixon, the ABC was allowed to establish its own independent news service. Previously the ABC had broadcast (at program times agreed to by newspaper proprietors), domestic and international news taken from the papers. From 1946 the ABC became a major influence and leader in Australian news journalism leading to the development of public affairs programming which produced AM and PM on radio and Four Corners and This Day Tonight on television.

The PMG’s power to direct ABC broadcasts was constrained by 1946 when the Commission was allowed discretion over political and controversial material. This prevailed until the ABC Act was fundamentally changed in 1983 to establish the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The ABC’s board, appointed by government, and the board-appointed senior management remained highly sensitive to political controversy leading to staff use of the term ‘the pre-emptive buckle’ to describe management interventions in some programs. Still dependent on budget appropriations for its funding, the new corporation had for the first time its own borrowing capacity for its capital works and the power to form its own subsidiary companies, symphony orchestras and bands. Significantly, the 1983 Act established the ABC’s statutory independence through Section 78 (6) that, with the exception of ministerial direction for broadcasts in the national interest … ‘the corporation is not subject to direction by or on behalf of the Government of the Commonwealth’. The 1983 Act maintained the prohibition on advertising on domestic services (Section 31) but exempted its international audio and television channels.

The 1983 Act also defined the functions of the ABC under the title ‘Charter of the Corporation’: to provide ‘innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard’; broadcasting programs that contribute to a ‘sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community’.

The ABC’s part in mass communication technology

The ABC narrative is primarily about its own creative exploitation of mass communication technology in the 20th and now 21st centuries.

Radio evolved from telegraphy (Morse code down a fixed wire) and the discovery that electromagnetic (radio) waves can be transmitted from aerials and received via an antennae great distances away. Broadcasting to a mass audience came within two decades of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s proof of radio communication from his first signal in Italy in 1895, across the English Channel in 1899, and across the Atlantic from Cornwall to Newfoundland in 1901. Another inventor, Lee de Forest, refined the audio quality resulting in ‘amplitude-modulated’ or AM radio which, through the allocation of frequencies to operators, established the radio phenomenon worldwide. Radio was soon considered to be the hope of a progressive world with the broadcast of music, plays, education, entertainment and information. In all countries the information to be broadcast was a matter of strict government regulation, tragically degraded in many to propaganda and an instrument of state, dictatorial or totalitarian control.

The ABC developed its AM radio stations in capital cities and major centres alongside a profitable commercial radio sector. The industry moved to even higher quality FM (frequency modulated) stations in earnest from 1975, the ABC establishing classical and youth (rock) music FM stations.

From John Logie Baird’s invention of television in 1925 the Australian television industry finally started in 1956, with Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies’ live official opening of ABC TV’s Channel 2 broadcast in monochrome (black and white) from TV transmission towers in the capital cities. As with radio, all TV transmissions were provided by the Federal Government’s Department of Communications with the ABC’s transmission costs covered in the appropriation, even after the transmission system was leased to the private sector in 2000. Colour television came in 1975 with rapid consumer uptake of colour sets in almost all Australian households.

In positioning itself as a key contributor to sectoral diversity the ABC’s non-commercial character in radio and television helped to establish it as a trusted national institution particularly during WWII, at national and international sporting events and at times of natural disasters.

In 1965 ABC graphic designer Bill Kennard submitted a design for a logo to be used as station identification for television. Taken from a cathode ray oscilloscope, the waveform Lissajous curve logo (for which Kennard was given a $50 fee), has become one of the most recognisable logos in Australia, now covering TV, radio and broadband output, and until recently a range of retail activities including ABC shops and online merchandising.

The ‘digital revolution’ was the next technological challenge with free-to-air ‘multi-channelling’ via the frequency precision in digital transmission from 2001 and digital radio from 2009. The ABC’s old analogue-transmitted Channel 2 (renamed ABC 1) was joined b multi-channels ABC 2 (time-shifted repeat programs), ABC 3 (a children’s channel) and ABC News 24 (continuous news) in 2010. In Australia the analogue broadcast transmission system was scheduled to be switched off from 2013, which saw consumers encouraged and in some cases subsidised to upgrade their old analogue TV sets with digital set-top boxes or through inbuilt ‘digital’ flat screen receivers.

With American computer scientist Vinton Cerf’s invention of the Internet in 1973 and British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the worldwide web in 1989 came a new form of mass and – most significantly via email and text messaging – interactive communication through the limitless capacity of ‘cyberspace’. Broadcasting was morphing into cybercasting. The ABC started its Online services in 1995 and its Broadband portal from 2001. Live video and audio streaming of its radio and television output followed and an active innovation department developed content for mobiles and ‘smart’ phones, and an ABC iView facility or ‘app’ for playing programs at the viewer’s instantaneous convenience. With the rapid Australian consumer uptake of ‘smart’ mobile phones and tablet devices came another high audience-penetrating content platform with the ABC capable of delivering audio and video and, through in-built still and movie cameras, turning such devices into broadcasting tools themselves.

Creative Contribution

The ABC’s creative contribution, within the constraints of its legislated role and functions, has helped to embed the broadcaster in the nation’s affections. From memorable radio days of ‘synthetic’ Test cricket broadcasts with scores relayed via telegram from London to local commentators adding ‘thwack’ sound effects, to often contentious news commentary, to radio serials which engrossed listeners, to great orchestral performances with visiting conductors of world renown, it has been the ABC’s distinctive content which has complemented the efforts of the Australian commercial sector.

From the outset the ABC set out to be a creative production house, hiring writers, musicians, announcers, performers and specialists in science, education, history, religion and literature and turning them into broadcasters and program makers. Education programs, run in conjunction with the curricula of state education departments prevailed until the mid-1980s. This specialization helped to establish the ABC’s authority and credibility across the diversity of Australian intellectual and cultural life. With the exception of stalwart specialists who became household names – Robyn Williams in science and Dr Norman Swan in health – specialisation as a strategic goal was downgraded over time by personality-led flow programming said to better engage with contemporary audiences. But with the rapid uptake of podcasting delivering an expanded domestic and now global audience, the value of specialisation was becoming more apparent to ABC broadcasters by 2012.

One of the ABC’s greatest contributions to the cultural life of Australia has been its involvement in the development and promotion of concert music through the nation’s symphony orchestras. From 1932 to 1935 all concerts were broadcast live. Then through disc recording technology the ABC was able to pre-record performances and maintained studio ensembles, dance and jazz bands to exploit the phenomenon. Small ABC orchestras were built to full strength symphony orchestras with the assistance and support of the federal and state governments. After WWII a country with just more than 10 million people had six symphony orchestras – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia – with all the conservatorium and teaching resources required to maintain a through-put of professional musicians. The orchestras worked with some of the world’s greatest conductors: Sargent, Szell, Schneevoight, Beecham. ABC guest conductors over the years included Manzel, Rostropovich, Barenboim, Brendel and Ashkenasy. From 1947 to 1956 Sir Eugene Goosens led the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, building significant public interest and support later enhanced by conductor Stuart Challender from 1987 to 1991. A resident conductor program delivered Henry Krips, Willem van Otterloo, Hiroyuki Iwaki and Edo de Waart to Australia. Regional tours exposed the orchestras, their musicians and their instruments to school students throughout the nation, introducing many to a life-long love of classical music. The orchestras were managed by the ABC under a Concert Music division until their ‘corporatisation’ in the 1990s through an entity called ‘Symphony Australia’, with the ABC continuing its role as a broadcast showcase of their output and a retail outlet for their CDs through ABC shops and centres.

In radio The Country Hour engaged rural listeners, The Argonauts captivated youngsters, Blue Hills by Gwen Meredith reflected and confirmed the Australian conservative but decent character within the national consciousness and identity. The exploration of religion and all forms of spirituality were seen as a Charter objective through scheduled radio and television religion programs and an online portal. For decades the ABC televised live Sunday morning services from Christian churches and finished nightly transmissions on radio and television with Evening Epilogue. Notes on the News, Singers of Renown, The Search for Meaning, Relax with Me, Music to Midnight, Sunday Bon Bons, the Village Glee Club, Late Night Live, The Science Show, Ockham’s Razor, The Health Report, Life Matters, the documentary Death of a Wombat were milestones. Sport, particularly cricket, was from the start in 1932 the ABC’s defining service until the commercialisation of sport from the 1980s left the ABC at the margins, but nevertheless still a player through coverage of minority and women’s sport.

On television, content creation was categorised into ‘genres’ – children’s, documentary, drama, news and current affairs, comedy. Because television drama was considered too expensive, a system of co-productions with commercial production companies and compatible external investors (government film and television funding bodies and lotteries’ funds) was introduced from the mid-1980s. Through a tax concession called the ‘producer’s offset’ (where available), ‘outsourcing’ or external funding and production of television programs was extended to all other genres except news and current affairs by 2010 leading to an ongoing dispute with staff about the ‘de-skilling’ of the ABC.

In drama ABC TV started with live broadcasts using sets constructed at its Gore Hill (Sydney) and Ripponlea (Melbourne) studios to evolve into award-winning series: Power Without Glory, Bellbird, Certain Women, Rush, G.P., Seven Little Australians, Scales of Justice, Brides of Christ, Blue Murder, Leaving of Liverpool, Sea Change, Palace of Dreams, Changi, Grass Roots. In comedy: Mother and Son, The Gillies Report, The Norman Gunston Show, Aunty Jack, Frontline, Australia: You’re Standing In It, The Games, Kath and Kim, We Can be Heroes, the Chaser Decides. In children’s: Adventure Island, Play School, Mr Squiggle, Bananas in Pyjamas. In science: Why is it So?, Quantum, Catalyst. In natural history: Nature of Australia, In the Wild with Harry Butler, Wolves of the Sea. In rock: Six O’Clock Rock, GTK, Countdown, Rage. Studio based entertainment: Club Buggery with Roy and H.G., The Big Gig, the Money or the Gun, Enough Rope. In documentary public affairs: Chequerboard, A Big Country, The Investigators, Australian Story, Monday Conference, Four Corners, This Day Tonight, Nationwide, The 7.30 Report, Lateline, Stateline, Foreign Correspondent, BTN, Q and A, Media Watch.

International Broadcaster

The ABC has been an international broadcaster since 1950. From wartime government control of international radio broadcasting, the ABC took over and developed a short wave radio service it called Radio Australia. Funded by the Department of External Affairs, there followed 25 years of dispute between the ABC and its international paymaster over editorial control. Editorial independence was effectively established from 1975. Through transmitters in Shepparton (Victoria), Carnarvon (Western Australia), Cox (Northern Territory) and Brandon (Queensland), eventually RA grew an audience of an estimated 50 million through Asia and the Pacific, broadcasting in nine languages: English, Vietnamese, Thai, Standard Chinese, Cantonese, Indonesian, Japanese, French and Tok Pisin. Carnarvon was closed in 1996 and its subsidy transferred to a new satellite television service (Australian Television International) which had been established in 1993 through federal start-up funds but with a commercial business plan to develop revenues through sponsorship. ATVI carried a half-hour nightly news produced from Darwin and general and sports programming. The service faltered through inadequate operating funds and was sold to Channel Seven in 1997. From 1996 the then federal government cut RA’s budget in half and sold the Cox transmitter to a Christian broadcaster, leaving the ABC to reconstruct its short wave radio service through re-broadcast arrangements with domestic broadcasters in the region. By 1998, 76 local radio stations in 20 countries in Asia-Pacific took RA programs in various languages. Australia’s satellite television broadcasting returned to the ABC in 2001 through a tender process for a five-year contract with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The new service was called ABC Asia Pacific with an evolving footprint rising from 14 countries and progressively adding Japan, Solomon Islands, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, French Polynesia. The DFAT tender was re-opened in 2005. The contract again went to the ABC but only after a dispute in which the ABC threatened not to bid until the department withdrew a clause giving it the power to remove any program considered not to be in the national interest. From 2006 the service was re-named Australia Network. When the contract was again opened to tender in 2011 the ABC faced a competitive bid from Sky News Australia but the assessment of the bids was abandoned when the then federal government claimed leaks had compromised the process. Competitive tendering for the service was then terminated when the federal Cabinet decided to make Australia Network a permanent feature of the ABC’s role and functions. In 2014 then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop unilaterally terminated her Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s contract which had underwritten the operations of Australia Network. Under cover of this withdrawal from international broadcasting the ABC closed Radio Australia short wave transmissions, relying solely on some FM transmission, re-broadcast arrangements and a website presence.


Two people are pivotal to the ABC’s governance and management: the chairman and the chief executive (managing director). Executive Council (the Governor-General advised by Federal Cabinet) appoints the ABC chairman. The chairman and the ABC board appoint the chief executive. In 80 years of the ABC’s existence, attention has focused on the perceived leadership strengths and or weaknesses of these individuals.


Charles Lloyd Jones 1932-34; William Cleary 1932-45; Sir Richard Boyer KBE 1945-61; Sir James Darling CMG OBE 1961-67; Sir Robert Madgwick 1967-73; Professor Richard Downing 1973-75; Dr Earle Hackett 1975-76; Sir Henry Bland 1976-76; John Norgard 1977-81; Dame Leonie Kramer AC DBE 1982-83; Kenneth B Myer AC DSC 1983-86; Wendy McCarthy AO (acting) 1986-1986; David Hill 1986-87; Robert Somervaille 1987-91; Professor Mark Armstrong 1991-96; Donald McDonald AC 1996-2006; Maurice Newman AC 2007-12; James Spigelman AC QC 2012-2017; Justin Milne 2017-18; Kirstin Ferguson (acting) 2018.

Chief Executives:

(Called general manager from 1932 to 1983, managing directors on statutory five-year contracts from 1983): Harold Williams 1932-33; Walter Conder 1933-35; Sir Charles Moses 1935-65; Sir Talbot Duckmanton 1965-82; Keith Jennings 1982-83; Geoffrey Whitehead 1984-86; David Hill 1987-94; Brian Johns 1995-2000; Jonathan Shier 2000-01; Russell Balding 2002-06; Mark Scott 2006-2016; Michelle Guthrie 2016-2018; David Anderson (acting) 2018.

The longevity in management of Moses and Duckmanton (in total 47 years) was attributed to their leadership, authority and consequent political survival skills. Both were broadcasters in their early careers. With corporatisation from 1983 came greater concern about politicisation both from the former political connections of some of the appointed chief executives and some contentious board appointments by both the Australian Labor Party and Liberal-National Coalition federal governments. In 2012 an amendment to the ABC Act prescribing board appointments through what was called an arm’s length short-listed merit selection process was carried. The amendment also re-instated the staff-elected director position which had prevailed in the ABC Act from 1983 to 2006. The staff-elected director position, this time with a five-year statutory term, was filled through an Australian Electoral Commission ballot in 2013. The ABC’s governance and management objective has been to strive to maintain good relations with the federal Minister responsible for the ABC Act, particularly through the triennial funding negotiations since 1983. The biggest recurrent cost is payroll, taking about 70 percent of the annual appropriation. Operational base funding of all ABC services (not including analogue and digital transmission costs) peaked at $1.05billion in 1985-86, dropping to a low of $675million in 1997-98 before trending upwards to $800million by 2011-12. This represents a reduction in real terms of 24.4% from the peak funding period. The ABC’s staffing rose to a peak of more than 7000 in 1985 and fell through various budget-driven restructures to a low of 4200 by 1999 rising through budget enhancement to 4600 by 2010-11. Around half the staff work in Sydney leading to consistent complaints about the institution’s ‘Sydney centrism’. The ABC structures its services to provide branded ‘bridges’ to audiences: Radio National, Classic FM, News Radio, Local Radio, Digital Radio, Triple J, ABC Online, ABC Open, ABC iView, ABC 1, ABC 2, News 24, ABC 3. Radio Australia, Australia Network and ABC Shop. On radio ‘market’ penetration through all outlets was reported to be 23.6% by 2010. On television the ABC’s five-city metropolitan prime time (6 pm to midnight) share of audience was reported at 16.5 %, with 17.7% in regional markets. ABC Online had a monthly reach of 3.5 million internet users with 56.5 million podcasts (audio) and 15 million vodcasts (video). Australia Network reported an estimated audience of 31 million ‘can see’ homes in 45 countries. ABC Commercial reported a net profit of $7.9million. ABC shops and centres, an expanding retail network since 1983, were to be disrupted through the digital revolution and were closed from 2014, being replaced by online sales of programs and products.


The future strategic role of the ABC in Australia’s media is being re-defined in the years following the federal government’s 2011-12 ‘convergence review’. The review was prompted by technological advancement in mass communications which is said to merge broadcasting, computing and the internet and which ‘smashes’ national boundaries. With optic fibre-to-the-premises rolling out through a National Broadband Network, audiences will be able to watch, listen and engage with content from any global source with almost limitless capacity. Two issues confront the ABC: its role in sustaining a sense of national identity and the adequacy of operational base funding with which to do, with high standards, all the tasks a multi-platform strategy would require of it.

This is an extended and updated version of Quentin Dempster’s contribution to A Companion to the Australian Media (published in 2014 by Australian Scholarly Publishing, edited by Bridget Griffen-Foley) and re-published here with kind permission.

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