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Bridget Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations: the story of Australian commercial radio.

Bridget Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations: the story of Australian commercial radio, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2009, xiv + 529 pages; ISBN 978 086840 918 4.

As Bridget Griffen-Foley notes in a postscript to her book, Australian commercial radio has received little in the way of serious scholarly attention. It has been dismissed or derided over the decades by 'highbrow' commentators, and generally overlooked by historians. Griffen-Foley's monumental work, Changing Stations, has rectified that situation. Here is a large-scale meticulously researched study of Australian commercial radio that comprehensively fills any previous gap in the scholarly record of Australian media history.

The strengths of Changing Stations are readily apparent. Griffen-Foley has brought a staggering amount of research to bear on her recounting of 'the story of Australian commercial radio'. She draws on a vast compendium of sources, ranging across numerous archives, early broadcasting periodicals, many interviews with radio figures, contemporary press coverage, as well as secondary sources pertaining to radio history.

Yet this account of commercial radio never becomes mired in overwhelming detail. Griffen-Foley skilfully marshals her huge reserves of material, using her sources effectively to tell the story of her subject. Changing Stations is an impressive historical work. The reader is aware of the sheer mass of research underpinning the book, yet the various aspects of Australian commercial radio, past and present, are clearly conveyed.

Griffen-Foley also gets the tone of her study right. She is respectful of the commercial radio industry when that is warranted. For example, there is ample material on the strong community links enjoyed by commercial radio from the 1930s, manifest in radio clubs, community singing, local competitions and disaster relief. But she is also critical of directions later taken by the commercial radio sector, particularly some of the talkback excesses.

This critical perspective is subtly transmitted, at times by quoting commercial radio practitioners themselves. One early talkback exponent is quoted by Griffen-Foley in a reflective mood on his earlier contribution to Australian radio: 'What a terrible thing to do and I am ashamed.'

Griffen-Foley distils her approach to the subject of Australian commercial radio in the following summary: 'Commercial radio is about regulation and ownership, the national and the local, advertising and programming, information and entertainment, producing and listening, the mass and the personal.'

She divides the book into two parts, the first entitled 'The Industry', the second 'The Programs'. The first section, arranged chronologically, concerns regulation, ownership, advertising and technological developments. The author admits in a preface that this material 'may seem a little dry', while arguing that it is essential for the understanding of commercial radio in Australia. The second section has nine chapters, covering aspects of programming including community, music, sport, 'the Golden Age' of radio, news and talkback.

The problem for me with this structuring of the material is that it interferes with the vision of interlocking elements outlined in the author's summary of the work. The separation of regulation and industry from programming and content weakens the sense of interconnection. A more comprehensive means of telling the 'story' of Australian commercial radio would show more fully how advertising drove the Golden Age of radio drama and quiz shows, or how the development of the portable transistor radio was linked to the explosion of rock 'n' roll and youth culture.

The intertwining of technology, industry regulation and programming would more effectively be conveyed by a strictly chronological account. Griffen-Foley, in breaking the material up structurally, has distanced her scholarly study from the popular historical accounts of Australian radio, which generally glorify the 'Golden Age' of the 1940s. However, her approach in the second part of the book means that her chosen themes skip too quickly through the decades, and she is forced, due to the book's structure, to state too many times: 'as we shall see later ...'

Another shortcoming of the book is its lack of a full bibliography (it is located on a website). This is no doubt a publishing decision related to the book's volume and the bulk of notes and appendices. The cheap paper stock and occasionally murky image reproduction do not assist the reader either.

But these are minor criticisms when placed in the perspective of this book's achievement. Changing Stations is a thoroughly researched and superbly told account of commercial radio in Australia. It is a highly significant and valuable resource for all those interested in Australian media history.

John Potts

Department of Media

Macquarie University
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Author:Potts, John
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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