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Secret Report Reveals Why Government Closed ABC Radio Station

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By Alex Butler and Fay Woodhouse

A recently discovered 1970s government report provides an intriguing insight into a short-lived experiment in ABC broadcasting history. Radio 3ZZ in Melbourne, established concurrently with the Sydney youth station 2JJ, pioneered community access and multiculturalism in public broadcasting. But after only two years of operation, on 16 July 1977, the multilingual station was forcibly closed at the direction of the Federal Government, assisted by the Commonwealth police. The closure, according to a group of former 3ZZ staff, was one of the most serious attacks on the ABC’s independence in its history. Now the newly emerged report, kept secret from staff at the time, throws new light on the closure and shows how it was also enabled by an acquiescent management and board (the then ‘Commission’). A significant fallout for ethnic broadcasting was the establishment of SBS.

Launched in May 1975, 3ZZ was a highly successful experiment that created an important model for the infant ethnic community radio movement. Within just two years the station was broadcasting in 26 languages, including English, on a regular weekly basis. Hundreds of community volunteers were involved in making programs as well as participating in committees, supported by twenty paid ABC staff who helped the volunteer broadcasters. Demand for access to broadcast time outstripped the station’s capacity.

Why then, in the face of what it had been warned would be enormous community outrage, did the Fraser Government insist on closing 3ZZ? 

The history of 3ZZ from the point of view of the staff was documented in detail in Joan Dugdale’s 1979 book Radio Power. It remains the definitive work about the 3ZZ experiment. However, the 30-year ban on access to Cabinet documents meant that the inner dynamics of the Fraser Government and some of its most senior bureaucrats remained opaque. Questions also remained about the precise role played by Sir Henry Bland, the highly conservative Chairman of the ABC appointed by Prime Minister Fraser in July 1976, and to a lesser extent that of the General Manager, Talbot Duckmanton.

In March 2021, the death of George Zangalis, the first Chair of 3ZZ’s community-based Planning Assembly, galvanised a group of former 3ZZ staff into action. We decided to each contribute what we could (time and/or money) towards an archival research project to find and make accessible key Cabinet and other documents which had not been available to the public when Radio Power was written. Otherwise, we realised, 3ZZ’s significant role in the history of both broadcasting and multiculturalism would fade into obscurity.

In particular, we wanted to find a confidential 1976 report which we believed had provided the government with a policy rationale for the ABC to take over responsibility for ethnic broadcasting and at the same time to close 3ZZ. 

Tracking down the report was significantly more difficult than we had anticipated. Only by sheer luck and persistence was it found in an incorrectly labelled folder at the National Archives in Canberra.

Now more than 45 years since the closure of 3ZZ, we can publicly reveal for the first time the contents of this report and the answers to some of our remaining questions. It confirms that the closure of 3ZZ was part of a successful strategy by the new conservative Government to bring the ABC back into line after becoming, in its opinion, too radical during the Whitlam years. It also demonstrates how the station became collateral damage in the Coalition Government’s internal struggle to create and implement its own version of multiculturalism. As well, it shows the precariousness of initiatives established through tied funding rather than through base operational funding, especially if there is an acquiescent ABC management and board (or ‘Commission’, as it was then known).

To read the full report, click here.

Former 3ZZ staff who participated in this project are: Richard Brown, Alex Butler, Elias Diacolabrianos, Joan Dugdale, Barbara Keyser, Prue Lovell, Julian Lippi, Ross Smith, Sarah Walls, Fay Woodhouse and Richard Zoeller. 

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